There's more to influence than offering practical solutions

Don Arthur writes for the group blog Club Troppo, His work has also been published in the Australian Review of Public Affairs, the Centre for Independent Studies’ Policy magazine, and by the Evatt Foundation. An earlier version of this post appeared at Club Troppo.

As advocates we're often told to focus on solutions rather than problems. But the trouble with this advice is that it assumes everyone agrees what the problems are. Often they don't. If policymakers reject your problem, they'll probably reject your solution too.

When Cassandra Goldie took over as CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, the Labor government was talking about the problem of social inclusion. But as Goldie told the Australian Financial Review, it was a term that seemed to mean anything. "I thought we had to name what we are talking about," said Goldie, "So we decided to talk about poverty again."

Naming and framing the problem has been an effective strategy for free market think tanks. Think tanks researchers like Charles Murray have helped shift attention away from the problem of poverty and towards the problem of 'welfare dependency.' The shift in the way the problem is understood transforms policy alternatives such as adequate income support payments from solutions into causes of the problem.

In his book What Should Think Tanks Do?, Andrew Selee (a think tank vice president) a identifies three stages in the policy cycle where researchers and policy organisations can exert influence. They can help frame problems, provide policy alternatives, and shape decision making. Selee argues that think tanks tend to be most influential in framing problems and promoting policies while interest groups tend to be more influential during the decision making stage. American political scientist Andrew Rich argues that research is more likely to affect how policymakers think about an issue in the early stages of the policy cycle. According to Rich, once an issue comes up for decision, policymakers have already made up their minds and are most likely to use research as ammunition to support an existing position.

During the 1980s, activists at free market think tanks realised that if policymakers embraced poverty as a problem that needed attention, they were also likely to embrace policies such as redistribution of income and an expansion of social services. Their response was to change the problem.

Charles Murray is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential think tank scholars in the United States. His accent to influence began in the early 1980s with Losing Ground, a book that rejected the conventional understanding that poverty was the problem and welfare was the solution. According to Murray, welfare dependency was the problem, entrenched poverty was one of its symptoms, and the solution was to abolish government welfare programs.

Losing Ground is packed with data and graphs, but most of the book is an analysis of the problem of welfare dependency. It discusses the history of anti-poverty policy and offers a theoretical explanation of why these programs and policies failed. The sketchiest part of the book is the part about what government should do. Murray presented his solution as a ‘thought experiment’. It began with the idea of "scrapping the entire federal welfare and income-support structure for working-aged persons, including AFDC, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, Worker’s Compensation, subsidized housing, disability insurance, and the rest". After thinking his way through the experiment, Murray adds back Unemployment Insurance and concedes a role for locally run welfare programs.

None of this was a solution to any problem Washington policymakers wanted to think about. According to Thomas Medvetz, the author of Think Tanks in America:

... the Reagan administration had shown no interest in comprehensive welfare reform as a policy priority. As Murray himself puts it, “The people in the Reagan administration were actually quite scared of Losing Ground. Because, you know, the Reagan administration’s line was that the problems were welfare queens who were cheating and you had to stop the cheating. They didn’t want to have a radical rethinking of the whole welfare structure. There simply was, in the Reagan administration, zero policy to back it up with.”

The influential part of Murray's book is his discussion of the problem not its solution. He provided scholarly support for conservative claims that welfare programs created a culture of dependency that encouraged out of wedlock childbearing, crime, drug abuse and work avoidance. With support from the Manhattan Institute and aided by Murray's accessible and engaging writing, the book attracted widespread media attention. And despite the fact that academics raised serious questions about Murray's analysis, the book became influential within the policy community. According to Manhattan Institute President Lawrence Mone:

The book was the subject of countless editorials, columns and articles. Slowly, but surely, over the course of the next ten years, it totally flipped the conventional wisdom on welfare. And that flip led ultimately to the Welfare Reform bill of 1996. President Clinton himself acknowledged this, when he said, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, and I quote: "[Charles Murray] did the country a service... his analysis is essentially right."

Clinton's welfare reform bill was designed to "end welfare as we know it" and attracted strong criticism from liberals like Peter Edelman, and even Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who is sometimes called a 'neoconservative'. The bill was a huge victory for conservatives.

There are lessons here for Australian advocates. Focusing exclusively on solutions can mean that others are able to frame the problems in a way that suits their purpose. Problems like poverty risk being displaced by problems like 'jobless families', 'intergenerational dependency' and 'dysfunctional communities.' These ways of understanding disadvantage tend to attract solutions that focus on changing social norms and individual behaviour.

The history of welfare reform in the US shows that think tanks don't have to focus on practical policy solutions to have an influence. And they don't have to cater to the most pressing concerns of the current administration. Sometimes influence is about changing the problem rather than proposing solutions.


Posted by John Kelly