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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Democracy and Governance

The Case For Incorporating Social Analysis Into Policy Design

In Singapore, there is a sense that decisions based on cold-hard rational deliberations trump the human, interpersonal aspect. As a result, there is a lack of understanding of social and personal changes that could arise from these numbers-based decisions. The recent overnight restriction of use of PMD on the streets of Singapore is a case in point, for the focus seemed to be on the immediate efficacy of the policy with no thought on the impact on those who depend on it for their livelihoods, at least initially.

There is no doubt that those affected by this PMD ban belong to the minority and the majority get to enjoy safer streets. No one can conceivably argue against the ‘larger or common good’. It seems only right that individuals should sacrifice at times for the sake of society – but what does this mean actually? Do we define ‘societal good’ as simply a pure majority – fifty percent plus one?

To this end, this article suggests that we need to broaden our understanding of impacts of policies, of how people as individuals are affected – beyond statistical terms. Teo Yeo Yenn wrote the following in her highly acclaimed This is How Inequality Looks Like; although it is  about inequality, the premise applies to other policies too:

Inequality is often studied as an objective fact, a question of numbers. It is of course that. But the numbers are derivative—they are drawn from patterns of social realities but do not fully describe the realities themselves. Inequality, as a social phenomenon, is experiential. It is a lived reality, felt in everyone’s everyday lives. These lived experiences tell us important things about how inequality is enacted and everyday reproduced. … To see better, we need to expand our narratives. We must uncover more data but also go beyond merely tracking statistical trends

A recent Straits Times Opinion piece on how the ‘best policies are those with empathy’ expressed similar sentiments. It raised the example of Singapore’s successful housing policy and argued that it succeeded in giving Singaporeans a ‘vested interest in Singapore’s success’, the monetary transaction did not engender a sense of belonging to Singapore. Rather, home ownership in effect gave ‘space for families to grow, and opportunities for community and attachment to take root’, thereby supporting ‘emotional [and] human elements – something that cannot be achieved by cold, hard logic.’ It called for the extension of such a philosophy to other situations to create ‘more than a well-run country’; one with a ‘bigger heart and soul.’

How can we broaden our understanding? A way is to incorporate social analysis when designing policies, so as to identify and then incorporate social dimensions into the policy under consideration. Underlying this is the understanding that society is not homogenous; how a policy affects two people might be different, even if they are in the same economic bracket. Moreover, people are ‘embedded in social relations’, resulting in their behaviours being influenced by external circumstances such that they defy ‘explanation at the individual level’.

Social analysis thus seeks to gain a contextual understanding of the environment in which the policy is to be implemented. Careful social analysis can identify the existing socio-cultural, institutional, historical and political issues for a policy audience, and map the different stakeholder perspectives and constraints. This allows the policy to be designed such that areas which societal dynamics play a role can be addressed: the drivers of the problem the policy is dealing with (like mitigating inequality), the needs of the different social groups present, and to ensure inclusive and equitable access. The impacts of policies are thus understood beyond just simply having ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘adversely affected people’. The distributional aspects of potential benefits and risks the policy may cause or contribute areidentified, thereby allowing adverse impacts to be mitigated so that they do not disproportionately fall on the poor or the vulnerable.

Without understanding the circumstantial factors, a numerically driven policy can have limited impact, or even aggravate the existing situation. For example, consider a case study listed by World Bank, where planners working on a road-building infrastructure development expected it to improve access to urban markets, education and healthcare. This was because numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between poverty and access to market towns. The planners did not foresee any direct adverse consequences and indirect ones, like resettlement, was deemed to be minimal. However, when the project was completed, no improvement in welfare was observed. It was only found out later that found out that the poor locals did not have means of transport and hence could not benefit from the road. School attendance did not increase even though schools were more accessible, and only later on did the planners find out that children were still expected to assist in housework and agriculture work. Therefore, in this case, in trying to implement a project top-down without fully understanding the social dynamics of the audience, the impact was limited.

In Singapore, social analysis can manifest in the form of how certain types of aid are received by people, such as in the classic case of whether the poor actually find oats useful.  Or perhaps the social dynamics in a family – who calls the shots? Will policies aimed at helping women be hampered by men at home, as is the case in many other countries? When redeveloping places to enhance facilities, to what extent will the demolishment erode the sense of belonging or sense of cohesion among the intended beneficiaries? Do mainstream forms of publicity efforts reach the intended audience? None of these questions can be properly answered with only the backing of numerical data. By going beyond economic cost-benefit analysis, by understanding the social context – understanding how individuals and groups perceive themselves and each other, how they relate to each other, and what characteristics of these groups may be relevant in a policy context – we can better understand the supporting factors that will allow a policy to have higher levels of impact, thus strengthening our policies. 

Social analysis is not something new or untested. The World Bank has published widely on this concept such in a sourcebook it published in 2009, and it has generally been applied on development projects (see Social analysis in transport projects; Moldova social assistance reform – Beneficiary Assessment). Thus, is possible that such analyses are already done in the government. Indeed, the Cross Island Line’s environmental impact assessment is something along similar lines, whereby the cheaper construction costs of running the Line directly underneath the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR) was measured against the environmental impacts, and compared to the construction and environmental costs of skirting the CCNR. But, if that is the case, then this article calls for the government to share such deliberations when announcing  policies, beyond economic calculations of its expected benefits – like how many people are expected to benefit or how much money one will receive. This transparency would allow citizens to be more confident in their government’s ability to create a thoughtful policy that is less likely to have unintended negative consequences.

Detractors might argue that this will slow the development of policies – indeed, the decision for the Cross Island Line to take a direct route under the CCNR took six years – and might raise costs as more effort is spent on studying the social context. But will any of the delay be a life-and-death matter? Probably not in most circumstances. However, if the government wants to build a caring and cohesive society, a ‘Singapore Together’ society, this is one way for the government to take the lead and demonstrate that it has a heart too and is more than a cold, hard technocratic machine. If resources can be put in to nominate Singapore’s hawker culture as an intangible cultural heritage list, certainly then, resources can be devoted to study the intangibles surrounding a policy. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s pledge to review the practice of withholding original results slips from students due to unpaid school fees is a good start, given that some argue that children should not be penalised for their parents’ inability to pay fees and what is does it to impress upon the student that it is shameful to be poor.

To quote Teo Yeo Yenn again, “[To] focus only on trends and numbers, is to allow for research devoid of humanity insofar as we merely cite phenomenon without naming the injustices as enacted on real persons … The laws of physics do not care for considered action. Molecules, atoms, gravity, force — these are not moral actors. But we are.”

Beyond looking at the macro picture, we should try to understand that people are more than demographic information. We should focus on analysing them as individuals, instead of simply numbers. Demographic data can help, but only if they are contextualised and made relevant to a proposed policy. This will help us develop more holistically-minded policies, and enhance its potential impacts.

Further reading:

Samson, Michael et al. (2015). Methods of measuring the impacts of social policy in political, economic and social dimensions. UNRISD Working Paper, No. 2015-4. Geneva: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)

Stern, E.; Stame, N.; Mayne, J.; Forss, K.; Davies, R.; Befani, B. (2012). Broadening the range of designs and methods for impact evaluations. DFID Working Paper 38. London, UK: DFID

Image Source: The Straits Times