Pilot programs prevent problems

By Wang Jen-hsien 王任賢  / 

Tue, Feb 25, 2014 - Page 8

The new household registration system has had a shaky start with all the problems that have plagued it since its launch on Feb. 5, just after the Lunar New Year break. Hsieh Ai-ling (謝愛齡), director of the Ministry of the Interior’s Department of Household Registration, has had to step down over the mess.

This reveals how the government often fails to carry out thorough assessments before implementing public policies. Rather, the authorities tend to adjust things as they go along, treating Taiwanese as laboratory rats. This is a seriously negligent approach. The authorities should draw a lesson from the bitter experience of this latest incident and establish systematic procedures so that people do not have to suffer similar inconveniences in the future. If the government can do that, the public will not have been lab rats for nothing.

The purpose of formulating any policy is to solve problems and the standard operating procedure for solving problems can be summed up by the initials PDCA, meaning “plan–do–check–act” or “plan–do–check–adjust.” The procedure for launching a policy can be called complete only if it is done according to this formula. The reason the household registration system has had so many glitches and provoked so much public resentment is that the Ministry of the Interior failed to ensure that the PDCA procedure had been completed.

The first thing to do when a policy hits a snag is to look into what risk factors gave rise to the problem, because only when you find the risk factor responsible can you eliminate it and arrive at a solution that stops the problem from happening again. This is the plan — the initial stage of policy formation and the P in PDCA.

Having a plan does not mean that you have a policy, because when a policy is thought up on the spur of the moment or drawn up behind closed doors, nobody knows whether it is practical or whether it will really solve whatever problem or problems it is supposed to fix. For this reason, the policy should first be tried out in selected locations or departments. Such trials or pilot programs constitute the D or do part.

This part requires human involvement and those people must be representative. The household registration system was tested before it went online, but only on machines or with a handful of people, rather than in a city, town or rural township. If you present the results of such dubious tests as confirmation that a policy will succeed, you are obviously liable to end up failing miserably.

After running a pilot project for a while, you have to assess whether the policy is practical and whether it can really solve the problem. That is the C or check.

Only by improving on the initial version of the policy, based on the experience gained during the trial or pilot stage, can the policy be made more closely suited to what people want and need and more capable of solving the original problem. That is the final A or act stage.

Before any policy is implemented, the PDCA formula must be thoroughly and properly applied. Only then can the officials responsible for the policy give it the go-ahead. It is also essential for central government ministries to include departments specifically responsible for pilot schemes. Research and evaluation departments could be the ones responsible for this. When the time comes to plan out and implement policies whose outlines have been drawn up within a ministry, but have not yet seen the light of day, they can be brought online only after they have been thoroughly assessed. This is as true of the household registration system as it is of that other problem-ridden innovation, the “eTag” electronic toll collection system.

There is no absolute relationship between the relative urgency of a plan and whether it should go through the PDCA procedure. One of the best policies in Taiwan is the HIV/AIDS harm reduction program for drug users that the health ministry launched a few years ago. It took just a year to draw up the plan, after which pilot schemes were launched in selected cities and counties. Assessments showed that the program brought about significantly larger reductions in new drug-related HIV/AIDS cases in the pilot areas — Taipei, Taoyuan County and the then-Tainan County — than in areas without the schemes. Based on these results, it was decided after a year of trials to implement the program nationally. As a result, new HIV/AIDS cases plunged to about half the previous level in just two years.

However, hastily thought-up policies — even major policies — are the rule in Taiwan, while precious few are implemented according to the proper procedure. The riskiest major policies that Taiwan has adopted are the National Health Insurance scheme and the Taiwan High-Speed Rail. Neither of these major national policies was subjected to strict pilot evaluations at the initial stage of implementation.

Perhaps it is because so many Taiwanese burn incense for good fortune that these two policies have turned out to be major successes, but that is just luck and you cannot count on luck every time. In the future, public policies must go through strict pilot-scheme assessments before they are implemented.

All government ministries need departments dedicated to implementing and assessing policy pilot programs. These departments would be responsible for all the policies that ministries plan on bringing into play. If this lesson is learned, Taiwanese who have been lab rats for government experiments like the eTag and household registration systems will not have done so in vain.

Wang Jen-hsien is president of the Taiwan Counter Contagious Diseases Society.

Translated by Julian Clegg