184 – Long Read: What matters and what works. Why feasibility is important in local government.

Posted by Parkinson                                                                                                       380 words


I have a colleague who often uses an analogy that I have always liked but never really understood why. Recently I have discovered that it is called the ‘streetlight effect’ or the ‘drunkards search’.

In the analogy two people are walking down a street to where their car is parked when they realise they have dropped their car keys somewhere in the pitch black darkness. They must find the keys before they can go home. They are looking around blindly in the darkness for the keys when one of them sees a light further down the street. They then go and look for the keys under the light where they can see.

The two people can’t do what they really need to do so they go off and do something that they can do. Even if it will never achieve the outcome they want. He often uses this analogy when talking about matters of council policy. What I have realised is that he is questioning the feasibility of the actions being taken to achieve something important.

I was recently listening to a podcast of the first Cranlana lecture for 2012 on the topic of the ‘Good Society’ given by Professor Dan Russell. In it he talks about the importance of feasibility in public policy. He says that often ambitious public policy fails because of the unavailability of feasible actions to implement it. Professor Russell says that putting feasibility first is the answer to the challenge of how to make hard moral decisions. This seems like good advice.

It is a variation on the streetlight effect, where what needs to be done to achieve what matters is known but impossible. Instead, effort is put into doing something that will never achieve what matters but it enables something to be done. It is pointless activity but it makes people feel better than they would just waiting for daylight.

Professor Russell believes that you must first look at what is feasible before setting priorities for action – we must think about both what really matters and what really works. If we do not do both, he believes it can makes it difficult to convince people that the action taken is really trying to do something about what matters.

So, how is this relevant to local government? Read on …