Teles on Zegart on Priorities

Steve Teles of Brandeis continues the conversation about priorities started by Amy Zegart and Jonathan Zasloff. (See what clever people I know?)

Here’s Steve:

It’s easy to criticize government for “failing to set priorities.” In some cases this might even be accurate. But it underestimates the difficulties in doing so, especially the political problems associated with it. Making something a priority, and putting substantial resources behind that prioritization, means by definition that other things are made less of a priority, and fewer resources are devoted to it. In essence, real priorities mean real responsibility. If your priorities turn out to be wrong (either because you made a flawed calculation or because sh*t just happened you didn’t count on), prioritization means that it is much harder to evade responsibility.

Spreading your bets means minimizing the chances you’ll get blamed when things go wrong, while also minimizing the chances that you’ll head off real

problems. But these two sides are not equal. In politics, the cost of being wrong and the benefits of being right are not equal. Weight is much higher on avoiding errors–that’s how people lose their jobs. In addition, really severe priority-setting places a high premium on being able to anticipate the future, on the quality of your decision-making process. Spreading your bets may also be justified based on the basis of recognizing the limits of our knowledge.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to do better priority-setting, a la Zegart. But if we want people to do that, we need to think about the incentives that cause them to avoid priority-setting, in particular the limited benefits people get from being right, and the enormous costs we impose on people for being wrong. Until you figure out how to fix this problem, you’ll just end up with the same outcomes.

I think Steve is right, and my guess is that Amy will agree. And the point goes well beyond terrorism. That’s why we’ve got so many Cabinet agencies and so many non-agency heads with “Cabinet rank,”when Washington manged with Jefferson at State, Hamilton at Treasury, Knox at War, and Randolph as Attorney General.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: