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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Comments: Beyond the problem-lobby mindset

World Problems Project

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1. Competition for problem recognition

Many of the problems of society are believed to call for initiative by local, national or international government bodies. Such bodies are held to be the focus for action decisions within society, especially given their central role in any political process. To a lesser degree, an equivalent role is played by non-governmental bodies that are a focus for deciding priorities concerning action on problems and the allocation of resources to them. Foundations are one example.

Advocates of action against particular problems, whether official or private bodies (or even individuals), are expected to present their cases to focal points. Such focal points are naturally restricted in their resources. The restrictions generally cover availability of funds, time available to process any petition, and the expertise which can be devoted to evaluating any proposal. Consequently, advocates of action on problems are expected to compete with one another, both for the attention of the focal points and for any resources which are available through them. The problem is assessed in terms of the effectiveness of the advocates in this process and not in terms of the seriousness of the problems in their own right.

2. Unaccountability and irresponsibility

The focal points are generally in a position to claim that they have appropriately performed their task if they are able to play off the different petitioners so that the most influential petitioners receive preferential treatment and the less influential are content with whatever recognition is given to the problems for which they are pleading. In this resource allocation process the focal points are not necessarily required to respect other criteria than those to which they are subject by the competing petitioners. In fact the focal points need have no substantive concerns other than those to which they choose, or are obliged, to respond from amongst the advocated problems. Those functioning within the focal points may also respond to pressures from those mandating them to ensure that further resources are allocated to the geographical area they represent, irrespective of the substantive justification for that decision. Resources may therefore be allocated for reasons which have little to do with the urgency of problems and may have more to do with responding to a traditional clientele. Decisions may also be taken for unstated reasons, including various forms of bribery or exchanges of favours, or even because of threats, whether implicit or explicit.

3. Sustaining the importance of spurious problems

As a result of this process a problem acquires the status of "important" for two reasons. Firstly because its advocates manoeuvred more effectively with the resources they were able to invest in the lobbying process, and secondly because the preferential treatment their problem receives as a result of a favourable decision is perceived as a guarantee of that importance. Throughout this process, the question of whether a favoured problem merits more attention than others is not of concern to either the focal points or to those competing for their attention. Neither group has any need to demonstrate effective concern for the complex of problems as a whole, other than as pointing to the critical role of the problems selected for attention. Those worthy of attention are those that received attention. It is then in the interests of both the focal points and the successful advocates, once a programme is underway, to reinforce appreciation for the importance of the selected problems through effective use of the media and appropriate public relations exercises (awards, etc.). This ensures appreciation for the discrimination exercised in the decision to act on the problems selected. In effect the approach to problems develops into a closed system increasingly divorced from the full range of problems to which people are sensitive.

4. Manipulating expertise

It may be argued that the most effective advocates are those that are able to present a strong case. However, experts of necessary eminence, or authorities of necessary weight, can be found to support any case. Ultimately it is increasingly a question of the impression created, especially through the media. A weak case can succeed where a good case fails if appropriate lobbying tactics are used, especially when few holds are barred. In this context high quality expertise may be out-manoeuvred by low quality expertise if the latter is appropriately supported. In addition, if concern for a problem is not out-manoeuvred in the short-term, this may be achieved in the longer-term. Thus focal points may commit to a programme in the short-term only to progressively downgrade their commitment in later periods.

5. Courts, courtiers and petitioners

There is little that is new or innovative in this lobbying process. Most aspects of it would be familiar in the courts of emperors and kings through extensive historical periods. Lobbying around the European Commission and the associated bodies can thus be seen as repeating a well-tried pattern, as has been the case around the United Nations and its Specialized Agencies. Replete as it is with arrogance and sycophancy, the question to be asked is how well this pattern is adapted to the complexities of the problematique as opposed to the needs of a focal point to filter petitioners to ensure the continued survival of that focal point.

6. Neglected problems

The difficulty in a lobbying context is that relevance is defined competitively. But some problems do not have advocates, and some problems worthy of attention do not have strong advocates. This is especially true of new and emerging problems. They may be deprived of resources without jeopardy to the focal point in the short-term, but this may prove to be exceptionally unwise in the longer-term. Of course the focal points do not have a genuine concern for the longer-term because their policy cycles are determined by preoccupation with relatively short-term electoral cycles. Those functioning in relation to them are necessarily preoccupied by short-term career opportunities.

7. Mapping the problem context

It would be naive to expect any significant change to this situation, which tends to be viewed quite uncritically as appropriate by those who engage in it. It is however legitimate to envisage how the set of problems might be viewed in the future in relation to the resource allocation process.

What seems to be missing is a database or registry of problems, irrespective of currently fashionable criteria of relevance and irrelevance which can distort the design of information systems into ad hoc exercises of little long term significance. Such a database provides a context in which information on problems and their relationships may be held. Information in this sense also includes claims and arguments in favour and against particular perceptions of problems. This database may be interrogated in a variety of ways by advocates of particular sets of problems. But the lobbying process can then be seen as selecting sub-sets of problems for action. In this sense a case needs also to be made, explicitly or implicitly, for the problems to which resources are not allocated by that process. Of special interest is the manner in which the selected problems are impacted upon by those to which resources are not allocated.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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