Governing is an art as much as a science
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.