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Comprehensive vs. Incremental Responses: The Debate Intensifies with the Pandemic—Part II

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
February 11, 2022

In this second part of my column, in addition to the temporal dimension of public problems, we will refer to the need to move towards more comprehensive policies.

  • The temporal dimension: Social phenomena are dynamic. Over time they can vary from one state to another, increasing their levels of complexity. Problems that are not resolved or mitigated can grow worse, becoming chronic and affecting more people and places in a deeper and more lasting way. These are non-conjectural issues that involve causes, processes, consequences and long-term solutions. The temporality of public problems has important implications in terms of public policy. As we are seeing, the pandemic is far from over. Unfortunately, we are realizing that waves of infections are a common pattern in virus pandemics and that, thanks to globalization, SARS-CoV-2 will continue to mutate and spread as fast and as far as possible. Our understanding of how long the condition of the new coronavirus will last is not yet clear, nor are the conditions and complications still lingering from the initial COVID-19 outbreak.

The need for a comprehensive vision

Previous conditions suggest that it is imperative that we move towards a more comprehensive, holistic vision to gain an understanding of the current problems and determine the best way to approach them. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, the challenges of our time cannot be understood in isolation, which means that they are interconnected, requiring radical change in our ways of thinking, perceiving and acting. Addressing today’s problems requires the mobilization of social energies from a broader perspective, opening up response perspectives in a spatial, temporal and conceptual sense.

The complexity of our world requires an approach that allows us to capture the interdependencies and interactions that can only be appreciated from a systemic view. We refer specifically to the need for policy design to recognize the interrelated nature of public problems, which, in any case, means proceeding more holistically.

In many ways, the pressure to mitigate the effects of various problems has justified incremental action. From democratic experimentalism, gradual approaches have been supported under the argument that they generate more legitimate, innovative and effective solutions. It is also pointed out that immediate, gradual and decentralized responses are better than having to wait to build the necessary political support to develop a comprehensive strategy.

However, problems are increasing where gradual or incremental responses are not only ineffective, but also counterproductive. For example, in relation to climate change, Cary Coglianese and Jocelyn D’Ambrosio of the University of Pennsylvania point out that, instead of representing an advance in the design of policies, or taking steps towards a more comprehensive solution, local, state and regional policies can potentially increase the risks associated with the emission of greenhouse gases. They consider that, in some cases, the policies could generate problems, at least as serious as those that they were originally intended to solve.

Think globally, act locally but also globally”       

As part of the constant debate about how a government should act, whether that be with incremental improvement or radical change, in light of the new generation of public problems, the principle “think globally, act locally” is called into question. Instead, “think globally, act globally” is proposed, in order to meet the need to move towards a less incremental and more holistic paradigm.

“Think globally, act locally” is a good option in the face of many problems, especially when interpreted not only in a spatial sense, but also conceptually when adopting a systemic perspective: consider the complex and interconnected “whole,” and then do what you can to help in a particular area. However, “think globally, act locally” is not good advice when dealing with certain problems, especially if local action has a trivial effect or produces adverse spillovers elsewhere.

Nation-State: Indispensable frame of reference

Given that there is no solution to certain local problems lacking answers on a global scale, the challenge, then, is to produce coordinated public action, at least at the national level, which, in a certain sense, implies: “think globally, act globally.” Due to the fact that many externalities go beyond the sphere of municipalities and regions, the previous principle means that the nation-state is the indispensable frame of reference for the formulation and implementation of policies.

As Perri, Leat, and Stoker warn, perhaps holism or comprehensive action can only be achieved on rare occasions. However, the movement of government processes in this direction cannot be postponed. Now more than ever, recovery on a macro level is essential, inventing and designing structural and integrative solutions based on general interests and collective objectives.

We have reached a point where we need policies conceived from a more holistic perspective, rather than incremental actions. The lack of policies forged with this vision condemns to failure many of the efforts that governments and their organizations undertake every day in numerous scenarios. Many of their actions do not produce the desired effect, precisely because there is no comprehensive vision providing them with meaning or coherence.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico. He co-founder and Vice President since 2014, of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS). He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT. He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb5

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