Making effective public policy takes more than good ideas and familiarity with the issues. It is not easy, especially when many people have lost trust in government and in each other, but it can be done with attention to time-honored characteristics of good governance.
I mention a few of them. First, in developing public policy, you want to find common ground, to the maximum extent possible, with a range of people. You want to expand areas of cooperation, search for commonalities, and build support. The broader the consensus, the more likelihood of success.
You want your policies to be realistic, designed for the world as it is, and not the world as you would like it to be. You need to be pragmatic, with a strong focus on what works, remembering that the goal is to solve problems and to get things done that benefit people.
Along with this realism, effective public policy is marked by restraint. It is OK to aim high, but you do not want to overreach or make promises that you cannot possibly fulfill.
As policymakers try to move forward, among their earliest choices is to figure out at what level to attack the problem: federal, state, or local — or some combination of them.
Good policy is optimistic and forward-looking. In promoting policy, you want to give people hope, lower the temperature of debate, and look to the future.
You want to set clear goals and explain how your policies will achieve them. This was a problem for former President Donald Trump. He did not clearly convey his policy goals and explain how they would benefit the people, thus he never gained momentum for his proposals.
Policy initiatives should not be narrowly focused. You must reach for broad bipartisan support for public policy. Few proposals are achievable in our complex system without at least some bipartisan support. Expanding infrastructure, fixing roads and bridges, and creating jobs often generate wide support.
If policy leverages investment and promotes public-private partnerships, as we saw with the development of COVID-19 vaccines, it can better advance. Such partnerships can be helpful in areas like biotechnology and artificial intelligence, where both government and private-sector efforts are usually required.
Policy proposals will gain support if you can persuade the people that it will help them. They ask, “Why should I care? What does this mean for me?” Those are legitimate questions that should be addressed when advancing policy. Obviously, public policy should address the problems people confront in their daily lives.
At the same time, it is important to set priorities. There are a lot of people out there demanding a lot of different things, but you cannot hit every target. You must prioritize achievable goals that people care about.
Ultimately, the test of public policy is in the implementation. Policy initiatives must show sustainable results.
Above all, public policy should improve the quality of life and raise the standard of living for the American people. That is always a tall order, but in a democratic society, it is what we should seek.
Lee Hamilton, 89, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.