From education to healthcare to economics, we love people with visions, and aim to translate their visions to policies. The various federal, state, and city administrations look for authoritative experts. Universities, think tanks, and pundits provide those experts, and they gladly opine on each topic, advocating the killer policy that will solve the problem once and for all.
There’s only one issue with that approach: no top-down policy ever worked. If it had, wouldn’t we have solved education, healthcare, and economic growth problems by now? At best, what we call inspiring visions or successful policies are revisionist interpretations of experiments that have “degenerated” into favorable results at a sufficiently large scale to have been renamed a policy. The revisionist nature comes from the fact that we define the policies by selecting the winners with the benefit of hindsight, and conveniently forget all the failed experiments that were part of the original lineup.
Every successful policy emanates from a bottom-up experiment that has gained momentum by mobilizing a set of key players with a vested interest in making the experiment successful. If this is true, the name of the game is to frame the field of experimentation, engage a large number of the right self-interested players to participate in a large number of experiments, and provide the infrastructure that allows the successful ones to emerge as a result of the co-creation process. The true vision lies in structuring the right process of collective engagement, not in guessing right at any particular outcome. The policy is what this collective process of engagement will produce once a large number of experiments have been tried and the protagonists have settled on what works for them.
I don’t know whether the ratio of students to teachers matters more to education than quality of teachers, children’s safety at home, or nutrition, but I trust that the right school administrators, teachers, students, and parents can work out the best solution in the unique context of their community more effectively than any expert. Once some communities have figured it out, I also trust that the right models will be picked up by their neighbors, establishing a de facto migration path across towns and cities that a smart Department of Education will eventually call “a policy.”
I also do not know whether the US will make the most progress in healthcare by clamping down on unnecessary tests, opening borders to imported medication, capitating reimbursements, or encouraging hospitals to become insurers, but I trust that local doctors, hospitals, employers, and patients will work something out with state insurers and regulators if provided the right process of engagement. Most underplayed of all is probably the opportunity to engage businesses, consumers, and the population at large in creating economic success at the local level.
I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat, for neither side appeals to me with attempts to lure me into agreeing with their policies, which would automatically pit me against the other half of the country. Democracy is not about choosing visions and policies. It is engaging all citizens in an effective, structured process of co-creation. By that yardstick, we have a long way to go.