When I was in graduate school, I took a class on game theory. In our first lecture, the professor said that game theory gave him a powerful “lens” with which to view the world. When you put on the lens, you see a public policy challenge from a new perspective, which can be very powerful. This lens analogy stuck with me for many years to come, as I increasingly understood the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to policy problems.
There are three parts to this analogy that can be extended to the world of policy. The first is about the importance of using analytical frameworks, or “lenses,” to understand and diagnose problems. The real world is an inherently complex place. A policy or developmental challenge can be daunting at first glance because you might wonder: where do I even begin? Having an analytical lens helps simplify the policy problem by highlighting some important aspects that you might not have easily seen otherwise.
It may also provide policymakers with a completely new way of seeing the challenge. For instance, at the outset, civil service reform might seem like a daunting topic, but you can easily use game-theoretic models of moral hazard to analyze particular aspects of the civil service related to the performance of employees. You could, alternatively, use an analytical framework offering an optimal level of discretion to look at a completely different aspect of their performance. An analytical lens will facilitate a structured manner of approaching a policy challenge that is ideally backed by strong theory and evidence.
The second part pertains to the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in solving public policy challenges. You can see how having several lenses in your analytical armoury can be crucial to acquire a holistic understanding of the problem. For example, different disciplines (e.g., economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, moral philosophy, etc.) might have different things to highlight vis-à-vis the same policy challenge. If we rely only on our narrow area of expertise, we run the risk of having a myopic view of the challenge at hand.
To give an example, if you are a specialist in game theory, you might be tempted to see every policy challenge exclusively through that lens and not see the bigger picture. On the other hand, if you take an interdisciplinary approach, you are likely to understand the challenge better and, consequently, come up with viable solutions.
Another implication is that developing a holistic understanding of a complex policy problem requires narrow expertise as well as the integration of various findings from specialists—knit together with a coherent and broader narrative of the policy challenge. Narrow expertise without a broad coherent narrative would likely lead to a myopic view of the problem. A broader policy narrative without narrow expertise would likely lead to a misleading narrative.
The third is about recognising the strengths and limitations of each lens that we use. Naturally, some analytical approaches would be better suited to explaining particular types of policy problems than others. A simplified example could be that economics and political science are more likely to highlight the importance of incentives. If a policy challenge has multiple actors with misaligned incentives, then it might be worth considering an economic or political science lens to view it.
Similarly, moral philosophy might highlight a completely different element related to the ethical side of the policy debate. For instance, economics would have a lot more to say about distortions created by different forms of taxation than it would about their ethical implications. Hence, it is as important to know when to use what type of lens as it is to have many of them in your analytical armoury.
The lens analogy highlights the importance of a nuanced and holistic approach to policy challenges. To recap, the three extensions of the lens analogy which can be important for policymakers are: (i) analytical frameworks or “lenses” are very useful for analyzing problems as they help highlight key aspects of a complex policy challenge; (ii) having multiple lenses in your analytical armoury can help you see a policy challenge in a holistic manner and, consequently, help you see the big picture; and (iii) knowing the strengths and limitations of each lens is vital because it allows you to pick an appropriate lens for the problem while being conscious of caveats for each interpretation.
The appropriate use of analytical frameworks can hence be vital in improving decision-making in the policy world.