Republican Judo

Using the Tools of the Left to Accomplish the Goals of the Right

I’m a lifelong Republican because experience and evidence have repeatedly demonstrated that:

  • Well-informed individuals operating in markets outperform well-intentioned bureaucrats implementing grand multi-year strategies;
  • Where markets can’t function, devolving power and authority to the lowest possible level produces better outcomes with fewer unintended consequences; and
  • When national or international action is required, it should follow and not lead based on solid experience at lower levels of government.

Knowing that, it may come as a surprise that I think the Sustainable Development Goals (aka the SDGs, aka the Global Goals, aka the 2030 Goals), offer a conservative approach to solving tough problems and that the Trump Administration should make a significant investment in data supporting the SDGs. The SDGs provide a set of quantifiable, time-bound goals for increasing innovation and economic growth, reducing hunger and poverty, improving environmental quality and sustainability, and increasing equality of opportunity for all people.

Republicans and Democrats all want these things. We profoundly differ, though, on methods and who should pay for it. As Republicans, we just don’t see spending more money or empowering more bureaucrats in Washington, New York, Brussels, or Geneva as the best way to solve our collective problems. In contrast to big legislation or international treaties, the SDGs offer a tool for eliminating waste, devolving power back to individuals and the states, and for creating an “ROI calculator” for assessing the effectiveness of any new public policy.

In contrast to big legislation or international treaties, the SDGs offer a tool for eliminating waste, devolving power back to individuals and the states, and for creating an ‘ROI calculator’ for assessing the effectiveness of any new public policy.

Conservative lawmakers and senior political appointees can and should use the SDGs to develop conservative approaches in tackling our big collective problems not through excessive legislation or regulation, but by giving power back to state and local authorities and letting markets and individuals develop solutions that work for them. Here are three examples of how Republican lawmakers and executive branch leaders can use the SDGs to make America great again:

  • Tackling big environmental problems doesn’t always require national legislation or international treaties. No sane person or organization sets out to harm the environment, and when properly informed, people can and will make better choices on their own. But for individuals and markets to function, they need good data. Markets fail or underperform when faced with big data gaps or disparities. The SDGs can help close those data gaps.
  • The best infrastructure for dealing with hunger and poverty exists at the local level, in non-profits, churches, and state and local agencies with operations in the poorest communities. Right now, though, they often depend on money that has to pass through many siphoning hands. These organizations often have very little ability to compare their work and results with others so they can learn and improve. The SDGs can give donors and implementers the tools to compare, learn, and improve to ensure money flows to where it does the most good.
  • If or when we do need national legislation or regulation, it should be developed based on actual experience on the ground, ideally in those “laboratories of democracy”–the individual states–and efficacy-tested based on transparent data. The SDGs provide a performance reporting system for precisely that kind of efficacy testing.

In fact, the SDGs offer a rubric that conservatives at all levels can use to put their ideas into action. And rather than investing in expensive legislation or regulation at the national level, the federal government should invest in the creation of data that cities, states, companies, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and concerned individuals can tap into and use to make better decisions. This common voluntary reporting framework would create the kind of transparent marketplace of ideas and commerce that would allow individuals to take their own actions without the heavy hand of government dictating specific actions, which often results in rent-seeking behavior and unintended consequences.

If we combined the U.S. National Statistics for the SDGs with the work already underway to comply with the DATA Act of 2014, lawmakers could grasp the holy grail of policy making: a Return on Investment (ROI) calculator. The U.S. National Statistics report performance. The DATA Act tracks the money. If they were linked together you could divide one by the other and get ROI. Take Goal 8 (Decent Work & Economic Growth) and Goal 9 (Industry, Innovation, & Infrastructure). With the Trump Administration poised to propose $1 trillion in infrastructure spending and a promise to revitalize economic and job growth, this SDG-powered ROI calculator would let policy makers direct money to the most successful programs. In classic Washington fashion, though, these two initiatives are not linked together today[1]. Linking them should be a top priority. Closing the data gap—the non-reporting or under-reporting of SDG data—should also be a priority. Right now the United States reports on only half of the SDGs, and we’re one of the leaders.

For conservatives looking to shrink the overall size of government, SDG data offers an especially powerful tool. Having watched politicians talk about “eliminating waste” in federal spending for nearly 30 years, I can tell you what’s been tried and what does not work: salami slicing the budget. Lacking targeted information on the efficacy of specific programs and the political will to cut them, policy makers have overused one blunt tool: across the board, salami slice budget cuts. This has created the worst of all worlds: an overburdened, under-motivated, bureaucracy with lots of unfunded or under-funded and often contradictory mandates. SDG data would let policy makers find and eliminate entire programs that don’t work, cutting wasteful spending and increasing the ability of agencies to actually deliver programs that work.

Advocates on the left have looked to the SDGs as a way of progressing social and environmental issues. Advocates on the right who would like to see a smaller, more efficient government can and should use the SDGs as a fact-based, evidence-driven way to devolve power back to individuals and state and local governments and to test the effectiveness of existing and proposed legislation and regulation. To do that, though, advocates on both sides should:

  • Map the SDGs to executive departments and to Congressional Budget line items. Figure out which executives in that critical “middle-upper” layer of political appointees, the assistant and deputy assistant secretaries, will have SDG-related work in their portfolios. Identify which budget line items fund that work and which committees and sub-committees appropriate funds and oversee authorizations. Follow the same approach for state and local governments.
  • Show how the SDGs can help the Trump Administration and the new Congress fulfill specific campaign promises. Knowing how the SDGs map to the Executive Branch and the Budget, identify specific cases and stories for how the SDGs will help the Administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle deliver on promises they made during the campaign. Start with Goals 8 and 9 on job growth and infrastructure.
  • Develop a business case for an investment in SDG-related data. Having solid data will allow the Administration and congressional leaders to prove they delivered on their promises. It will take an investment in data, but that investment will be dramatically lower than the investment in misguided legislation or regulation. Linking the work already done on the DATA Act with the work on the U.S. National Statistics for the SDGs would deliver value for pennies on the dollars already invested in these programs.
  • Educate legislators, policy-makers, and decision-makers. The incoming class of federal, state, and local legislators know very little about the SDGs. The same goes for the assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries at the various departments along with their most senior career counterparts. Advocates should work with organizations like the Partnership for Public Service and the National Academy of Public Administration as well as with the House and Senate party caucuses to insert information on the SDGs into their respective orientation programs for new members of Congress and political appointees.

Ultimately, though, the SDGs face an uphill battle in the United States. Having talked to many state and local leaders, none of them consider their communities as “developing” and would fight any attempt to label them as such. Moreover, the very fact that they didn’t have a say in developing the SDGs makes it hard to get justifiably proud Americans to adopt them, much less compare themselves to others. The Obama Administration viscerally recognized all of this when they started referring to the SDGs as the Global Goals and/or the 2030 Goals.

If that branding challenge can be overcome, though, the SDGs offer a very good—though not perfect—lens through which to organize a conservative approach to tackling some of our toughest challenges. An investment in SDG data will create the enabling environment for conservative, market-driven approaches, unleashing the state and local laboratories of democracy to experiment and learn from each other, and ensuring that if we do end up signing federal legislation or international treaties, they follow proven practices rather than lead us down expensive rabbit holes.

The PYXERA Global Engagement Forum is committed to inspiring collaborative action through the exchange of diverse perspectives and ideas. The author’s views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of PYXERA Global.

[1] DATA Act implementation is currently run by Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) while a different office at OMB along with the State Department, the General Services Administration, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy have run the U.S. National Statistics for the SDGs.

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