In case you didn’t know, I live in Washington, D.C., and work in the policy space, specifically the so-called “public interest.”
The nature of my work is communications, which takes on many forms. At the end of the day, however, it’s all messaging, and it’s all political. Typically, I’m tasked with analyzing/describing/translating issue-specific concerns, but I also try to hold in my mind the larger issues that thwart favorable outcomes.
The public interest is difficult to define, particularly in terms of the government’s responsibility to recognize/protect it. The basic idea is this: people should not be exploited by industry or find their liberties impinged on just because there exists the potential for financial gain. The public interest could be everything from making sure that the toothpaste we import from China isn’t toxic to defending free speech to maintaining automobile safety standards.
You don’t have to be a flaming lefty to understand that some things are plainly in the public interest. Yet our side is continually forced to make this case to policymakers, industry, funders and even the very public whose “interests” we’ve chosen to advance and protect.
I’ve distilled the myriad difficulties we encounter every day down to a single conceptual problem. I am officially outsourcing the solution to anyone who feels like taking a crack at it. There is no “right” or “wrong” (nor is there right or left) — this is merely a thought exercise that happens to have real-world implications.
PROBLEM 1: The government doesn’t want to do hard work. There’s a million reasons to serve the public interest: controlling costs; retaining a competitive advantage globally; driving innovation; creating opportunities; promoting market competition; furthering democracy and civic participation. But the issues are complex, intertwined and evolving. The bureaucracy is impossibly slow and resistant to change. Even where government recognizes that a job needs to be done, there’s no incentive for them to do it well. Profit is a far better motivator, and the private sector has all the motivation it needs to make things happen. At least that’s the theory.
PROBLEM 2: The markets simply will not embark on work — however necessary it might be — unless there’s a path to profit. And some things that desperately need doing are not ripe with earnings potential. Even where private industry can be cajoled (typically through tax breaks, kickbacks and horse trades), it often fails to serve the needs of the public. The pursuit of cost-cutting efficiencies inevitably trends towards monopoly and consolidation. Although free market champions consistently tout consumer choice as a naturally-occurring benefit, it’s largely a myth. So is their belief in the energizing effects of competition. Industry hates competition and will do everything in its power to eliminate it. This, of course, takes the form of influencing policy, usually with money. And the more money floods the system, the less the policymakers are inclined to work (see problem #1).