OPINION | Navigating politics and policy

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Policy and politics constantly intersect. How does the responsible citizen navigate between the two? Purposefully. 


Minnesota faces a raft of pressing policy issues while we simultaneously prepare to elect our next governor. Policy and politics are not mutually separate. They are, in fact, deeply intertwined. Policy should drive political choices more than politics should compel policy preferences but it doesn’t always work out that way. Here’s a navigational guide for the forthcoming journey.


First, know what you want; know what’s important to you. Second, learn and understand the ground. Good ideas do not exist in neutral space; they compete with legitimate self-interest and lesser ideas. All have their advocates. Third, be fearless.


Policy is simply a plan of action. After identifying problems, we create policy to address them. In the public sphere with community financial resources involved, policy direction requires legal authority and typically takes the form of laws. It directs behavior.


In our democracy, we elect leaders to consider and implement public policy. Electing leaders involves partisan political advocacy, a personality-driven experience. Candidates for public office typically identify with particular philosophies and public policy orientations. Consequently, distinguishing between policy and politics can be tricky.


But, it doesn’t have to be.


Policy success or failure is determined by outcome. Conservatives, for example, will advocate policy achieving a smaller, limited government. That means reducing the state’s role funding schools, roads, public safety services, higher education, public welfare services, veterans’ benefits, public employee retirement obligations, regulatory oversight, the judiciary, and the many complex elements supporting our regulated economy. I could go on because we’ve assigned government the task of acting on our collective community-enhancing desires.


Instead, let’s use education as an example.


If Minnesota, directed by conservative public policy, continues reducing state financial support of public schools, school districts will have to entirely bear education’s costs by themselves. Since school districts are independent political entities with limited taxing authority, the district’s budget will only be what district property tax payers are willing to support. The district will have to educate its students on dramatically diminished budgets and will, quite likely, be unable to comply with state and federal achievement standards.


Minnesota educational quality will fall, albeit unequally. The net result, however, will be an increasingly shoddy, incapable, and inadaptable workforce which will, in turn, dramatically decrease the likelihood of business investment and growth.


Or, Minnesotans could support a change of policy direction. By investing in public education, we could raise educational outcomes, creating the smartest, most capable, nimblest workforce in Minnesota history. Business booms, wages rise, and market choices proliferate, all because we stopped cutting educational funding, reversed our downward slide and began investing in children.


As current or prospective leaders offer their candidacy for office, it’s fair to discuss public policy perspectives with them. Focus on outcomes, appreciate complexity and don’t be misdirected by campaign dazzle designed to minimize policy discussion.


Public polling reveals broad economic anxiety. Minnesota’s economy, like the nation’s economy, is in a recession. Economic activity is, putting it mildly, subdued. Public tax revenues generated through buying and selling are reduced because fewer things are being bought, sold, financed, built or distributed. Absent a sudden economic revival, business growth will be slow for at least the rest of the year.


Moving Minnesota forward, out of recession and into growth, will require candidates for public office to address both broad philosophy and detailed policy prescriptions. Understand that political campaigns are poor platforms for nuance and complexity but don’t stop trying to find the policy ramifications in candidate rhetoric. The simplest questions are frequently powerful.


If a self-described conservative candidate asserts that out-of-control spending must be reined, it’s fair to ask for detail concerning cuts. Follow that with a question about outcomes, such as the negative impact on Minnesota’s competitiveness if school quality declines due to funding reductions.


Policy outcomes must drive our political discourse. Accountability is a collective as well as an individual responsibility. It starts with responsible civic engagement. We all have skin in this game. With an election just over the horizon, public policy questions have never loomed so large. We can do the right thing, create smart public policy and prosper or we can stay on Minnesota’s current course and continue sliding into ignominious mediocrity.


Be bold, Minnesota, and be purposeful. Everything is on the line.