Gov­ern­ing is an art as much as a science

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Politi­cians are gen­er­ally warm to the idea of gov­ern­ing as a science, a purely ra­tio­nal, data-driven de­ci­sion­mak­ing process that leaves no room for am­bi­gu­ity or hu­man in­flu­ence. In­deed, poli­cies will be eas­ier to ex­plain and less prone to cor­rup­tion if they are all rules and num­bers.

The il­lu­sion of clear-cut pol­icy-mak­ing mech­a­nisms has been around as long as pol­i­tics. The an­cient Chi­nese rul­ing class con­jured up the idea of the Man­date of Heaven as the ba­sis of their un­ques­tion­able gov­ern­ing prin­ci­ples. While mod­ern lead­ers are less in­clined to cite oth­er­worldly pow­ers in the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion or ex­pla­na­tion of their rul­ing phi­los­o­phy, they too like to pro­ject an im­age of uni­for­mity in the face of an ev­er­chang­ing world.

The law has been a com­mon source of such uni­for­mity for many politi­cians. Pres­i­dent Ma Ying-jeou is fa­mous for re­spond­ing to ev­ery prob­lem by em­pha­siz­ing how he has fol­lowed the let­ter of the law (“All will be dealt with ac­cord­ing to the law, thank you for your in­put” has been a well-known pet phrase of the pres­i­dent).

On the other hand, a new gen­er­a­tion of politi­cians, such as Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, is in­creas­ingly drawn to the ex­plo­sion of in­for­ma­tion in the In­ter­net era as a ba­sis. In this sense, “big data” be­comes a buzz term, a new tool for the age-old ideal of rule-based gov­ern­ing. By an­a­lyz­ing the ever-in­creas­ing amount of per­sonal data cit­i­zens com­pile about them­selves through their ex­po­sure to the In­ter­net and smart de­vices, the idea goes, the gov­ern­ment will be bet­ter equipped to make fit­ting de­ci­sions. Fur­ther­more, the fo­cus on open sta­tis­tics helps min­i­mize hu­man er­ror and cor­rup­tion.

The in­con­ve­nient truth is that un­quan­tifi­able and un­cod­i­fi­able hu­man fac­tors will al­ways be part of the real world, and pol­i­tics, as a method to deal with such hu­man fac­tors, will al­ways be messy. Politi­cians un­able or un­will­ing to un­der­stand the im­por­tance of “get­ting their hands dirty” will to do so to their peril.

For ex­am­ple, the de­ci­sion of whether and when to close of­fices and schools dur­ing typhoon sea­son seems to be clear-cut for the data-driven method. One ap­par­ently has only to study the wind speed and rain­fall forecast data pro­vided by Tai­wan’s Cen­tral Weather Bureau to make the ap­pro­pri­ate call. In­deed, in neigh­bor­ing cities such as Hong Kong and Ma­cau, the de­ci­sion to close of­fices and schools largely by­passes their ad­min­is­tra­tions.

Yet while typhoons are a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non, science is not the only fac­tor in the process of call­ing a typhoon day off. When Typhoon Du­juan made land­fall in Tai­wan on Sept. 28, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple were get­ting ready to head north, re­turn­ing to work on the last day of a three-day MidAu­tumn Fes­ti­val hol­i­day. Even with­out the traf­fic dis­rup­tions caused by the typhoon, around 2 mil­lion ve­hi­cles were ex­pected to use the free­way while tens of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers had booked train and high speed rail tick­ets for their re­turn trips.

The can­cel­la­tion of mass trans­porta­tion due to the typhoon caused great dis­tress for hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple. Des­per­ate pas­sen­gers jammed trains and bus ter­mi­nals try­ing to get the last tick­ets be­fore the sus­pen­sion started on the af­ter­noon of Sept. 28. Mo­torists braved strong gusts and heavy rains on na­tional free­ways.

At 8 p.m., lo­cal gov­ern­ments of the north­ern cities of Keelung, New Taipei City and Taipei City an­nounced the half­day sus­pen­sion of of­fices and schools for the next day. Fac­ing strong crit­i­cism from the public, the gov­ern­ments later ex­panded the sus­pen­sion to the whole day. Lo­cal chiefs were left look­ing for ex­pla­na­tions for their de­ci­sion on a sunny Sept. 29. They were crit­i­cized for an­nounc­ing a con­fus­ing half-day sus­pen­sion and for yield­ing to pop­ulist pres­sure and ex­tend­ing the sus­pen­sion to the whole day even though the storm was ex­pected to clear Tai­wan by then.

The sus­pen­sion should have been is­sued for the north­ern cities for Sept. 29, but the an­nounce­ments should have been made on the morn­ing of Sept. 28, be­fore peo­ple be­gan to head back to work. By 8 p.m., when the of­fi­cial an­nounce­ments were made, most peo­ple who de­cided to re­turn had re­turned and had al­ready faced the big­gest risks of go­ing out on the streets when Typhoon Du­juan had made land­fall.

To make such an early call for of­fice and school clo­sures would be against the norm and with­out a me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal de­fense, but in this par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion that would have been the right de­ci­sion and could have saved mil­lions the trou­ble and dan­ger of go­ing on the roads when the storm was at its strong­est. Gov­ern­ing is an art as much as a science. We need to get be­yond the com­fort of norms and data to get things done.

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