Four techniques of public policy

Suppose you have a situation where individual choices are suboptimal, both for that individual and for the group as a whole.  Exactly why the individual makes suboptimal choices isn’t immediately relevant for the moment.  It seems to me, that there are four broad approaches to “solving” this problem: a) an engineering approach; b) a government mandate; c) economic incentives; and d) a psychological approach.  The four approaches are not mutual exclusive and can even overlap, but they each bring a different mindset to the problem.  All four approaches can be taken to an absurd extreme.

To explain each of the four, an (admittedly pretty graphic) example may be useful.  Men seem, in general, to have a habit of spillage at public urinals – pee goes on the floor instead of the urinal.  This induces both private costs (increased health risks and the ‘ick’ factor of negotiating another guy’s floor-pee) and public costs (increase cleaning costs).

  • An engineering approach would be to design a better urinal to minimise spash-back.  An extreme engineering approach would not only do this, but also include sensors to detect when urine falls outside the catchment area and then activate an automatic (i.e. robotic) cleaning system.
  • A government mandate would make it illegal to spill your pee on the floor.  How extreme this is would depend on the enforcement mechanism.  A light-handed approach would pass the law and then do nothing to enforce it, similar to jay-walking.  A heavy-handed approach would hire a cop to occasionally watch men pee and arrest them if they spill, similar to most countries’ drug policy.  An extreme approach would have a government agent hold your penis to make sure that you don’t spill, similar to the Australian government’s enforcement of mandatory superannuation.
  • An economic incentive would impose a fine on men for spilling and/or give them a bonus payment for not spilling.  How extreme this measure is would depend on the size of the fine or the bonus.  Because this also has a need for enforcement (government-implemented or government-guaranteed), this can be thought of as a market-oriented government approach.
  • A psychological approach would seek to reframe the issue to influence the way that men make their choices.  For the urinal, it could be to make use of the fact that if you paint a fly in the urinal at the spot that minimises splash-back, the visual cue will cause men to aim at it and overall spillage will fall.  My mother did something similar when I was a kid.  She had five teenage boys living under her roof and not even making us clean the toilet seemed to stop the mess, so she put a ping-pong ball in the toilet (because it’s so light, it won’t flush down) and told us to aim at it.

So what’s my point?  Just this:  most people tend to focus on just one of the four approaches and think that it is the best way to solve every problem, when the truth is that different problems call for different responses and that the best strategy will usually employ several approaches.  In the case of spilling urine, the best strategy is probably a combination of an engineering and psychology, but in others a different combination may be optimal.  Don’t always think that your favourate approach is the best or only one.

1 Response to “Four techniques of public policy”


  • Well you cant trust government. People will push back against coercion. People dont always act economicall rationally and can be psychologically arbitrary.

    Leaves one technique …

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