Professor looks at meaning of ‘best practice’ for public policy


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Photo by Karl Hoempler |

Richard Tomlinson, chair of the Urban Planning Department at the University of Melbourne in Australia, discussed the meaning of ‘best practices’ in public policy yesterday at Civic Square on 43 Livingston Ave.


Professor Richard Tomlinson discussed how the “best practice” approach to public policy raises issues yesterday at his lecture “The Prescriptive Character of Best Practice Knowledge Products: A Slum Upgrading Case Study.”

For University graduate students and faculty from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Tomlinson focused on the problems public policy consultants face concerning their use of knowledge to formulate agendas.

Tomlinson, who chairs the Urban Planning Department at the University of Melbourne in Australia, discussed what policymakers often mean when talking about best practices, and how the concept is more subjective than it appears.

“When politicians say they’re doing best practices, the issues are what evidence they use to support this and what counts as evidence,” he said.

South Africa’s economic development after apartheid showed a real world application of these questions, he said.

Tomlinson said he drafted plans on how to modernize the country’s water and sanitation delivery systems as an economic development consultant and had to deal with the World Bank to finance the projects.

The World Bank ignored the ambitions of native South Africans who wanted to approach economic development by imposing a one-size-fits-all economic model on South Africa, and appointed only four South Africans to its 20-member planning committee, Tomlinson said.

“We gave them a report on what we wanted, but they gave us their own report, and said that this is what is going to be the output of this discussion,” he said. “It turned out to be a rave for privatization of service delivery. The South African Municipal Workers Union threatened a national strike.”

What disappointed Tomlinson the most about the World Bank’s approach was how it came up with its recommendations, detailing what South Africa’s economic development should look like in the first place.

“They had a standard financial model, in which you plug in data,” Tomlinson said. “I told them the problem with this is that the model requires data that South Africa does not have. So they decided that we were a little bit like Indonesia, so they plugged in Indonesian data and used it as ours.”

Tomlinson said he then asked an official working for the United States Agency for International Development on how they could assume to know the magic formula for economic development.

“She told me that all we know is what doesn’t work, and we are just desperately avoid repeating what did not work the last time,” he said.

Tomlinson discussed how development agencies use specific buzzwords to promote their policies, such as “evidence-based best practices” and “based on policies that work.” He said such an approach understandably has wide appeal, but can also sometimes be problematic.

“There was once an NGO, meaning a non-governmental organization, that was fighting HIV and AIDS, and practically whose existence depended on donors from the United Kingdom, and they wanted a report from the organization on how their programs were ‘evidence-based,’” he said.

He said because of the need to gather evidence to support their program, the NGO ended up delivering less aid than it could have.

In addition, Tomlinson talked about how the problems with best practices are rarely discussed.

For example, he said he once taught a graduate course at Columbia University where he instructed students to research critiques of the over-reliance on “evidence-based best practices.” Students found that such criticisms were very scarce.

“There are NGO’s that critique the ‘best practices’ approach, but you really have to dig in to find it,” he said.

Tomlinson also said knowledge itself can often be subjective. He explained that most people think facts are absolute and not negotiable, when in reality, facts can be negotiated.

“For example, one of the first things the U.S. and U.S.S.R. did when they negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty was negotiate what the facts were,” he said.

Tomlinson then discussed how the digital information age has made public policymakers more insular.

“Someone from a non-governmental organization once told me that we had one computer for ourselves and once for Googling,” he said. “There is even an NGO dedicated to spreading knowledge to other NGOs.”

The Internet has filtered out the knowledge that public policymakers use in coming up with their policies. He said the Internet has become the de facto authority when it comes to information about public policy.

“Nowadays, if it is not on the web, it might as well not exist,” he said.

He also said how the web is making the available information for public policymakers more monolithic.

“What we think is liberating may ironically be leading to the point where there is only one view,” he said. “For example, when you look up favela upgrading, slum upgrading, barrio upgrading and squatter upgrading, all the information you look up on Google and on various NGO websites come from one M.I.T. manual.”

Allan Zaretsky, a first-year graduate student of City and Regional Planning at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said he learned how technology often limits and distorts the information that public policy planning professionals and students have.

“Search engines such as Google steer us toward sources that reinforce each other when there is a whole other world of information and way of communicating it that you cannot get on Google,” he said. “That’s something we have to keep in mind as planners.”

Gina Bienski, an Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy second-year Ph.D. student, believes she benefitted from the lecture.

“I found it encouraging that people are asking questions like how do we gain knowledge and whose knowledge [counts as knowledge],” Bienski said.


By Wilson Conde

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