Ideas in Action

August 21, 2015 | Posted by: Nick Field

Our favourite unintended policy consequences

Did you hear about the recent wave of email love letters to trees?

Trees with email addresses?

The City of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so residents could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favourite trees. This is an excerpt of a letter someone wrote to a green-leaf elm, one of thousands of messages in an ongoing correspondence between the people of Melbourne and the city’s trees.

“My dearest Ulmus, as I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.”

Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The unintended but positive consequence was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees, which have received thousands of messages; everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.

This unexpected (and we think positive!) benefit captured our interest at Cube Group, and had us thinking of some of the less-positive consequences of bright ideas from around the world:

The Cobra Effect

This term stems from an anecdote dating back to British colonial rule in India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi, so offered a bounty for every dead specimen. While initially a success, enterprising locals soon switched to breeding cobras for income! When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased, with the apparent solution worsening the situation.

Airbus A380

In an effort to improve passengers’ experience, Airbus’ new A380 flew more quietly than any previously-manufactured airliner. Unfortunately, Airbus didn’t realise until after they shipped the aircraft that the quieter cabin resulted in more unpleasant sound for passengers, in the form of bathroom noise, talking and other audible sounds (think coughing, sneezing, or crying). The result was a worse experience for both passengers and pilots, prompting Airbus to recall part of the fleet to reintroduce more sound into the cabin.

Image courtesy of Daily Mail

Day care late fees

Some Queensland day care providers recently trialled a small late fee in response to parents’ late collection of children, thus extending their day without fair compensation. As it turns out, the centres that had trialled fees saw late collections increase markedly: parents apparently felt less guilty about showing up late since they were now paying fees. Worse, when they stopped the fee a few weeks later, the late rate at those centres remained as high, since the social stigma of being one of those late parents had worn off.

Banning DDT

In the early 1970s, the Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council pressed the US government to stop providing foreign aid to any country using the insecticide DDT. While the insecticide had been effective in killing mosquitoes, it also caused cancer and harmed wildlife. The government relented, and many third world countries stopped using DDT. However, banning this insecticide almost certainly led to more deaths, with the incidence of malaria increasing dramatically in countries that had stopped using DDT.

Road rationing

Bogota in Colombia is notorious for its insane traffic. Legislators decided to introduce a road space rationing law based on the last few digits or digit on the car’s license plates. For example: cars with a 1, 2, or 3 on the license plate were permitted to drive Mondays to Wednesdays and cars with license plates ending in 4, 5, or 6 were permitted to drive Thursdays to Sundays. The law’s intention was to halve the number of cars on the road. What ended up happening was that households bought more cars; one to drive Monday to Wednesday, and another to drive Thursday to Sunday. This resulted in keeping the congested traffic at status quo and possibly exacerbating it, and adding all the negative effects associated with households owning double the cars.

Our Utopia

And finally an example that unfortunately hasn’t happened, but amused us anyway! One of the favourite TV series in Cube Group’s office is ABC’s Utopia – for obvious reasons. In the first series one of the main characters from the Nation Building Authority visited the local primary school as part of an education program on government infrastructure planning. A student vox-pop reveals they’d like a space shuttle. The Prime Minister’s liaison sees the notes and the next week Australia has its first official Space Program announced!

It should be noted that unintended doesn’t always mean unforeseen, and doesn’t mean that the consequences make the initial decision a poor one (when considered in total). However, many of the examples above are both unintended and unforeseen, and definitely net poor decisions.

“The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system. The political system is simple, it often operates with limited information (rational ignorance), short time horizons, low feedback, and poor and misaligned incentives. Society in contrast is a complex, evolving, high-feedback, incentive-driven system. When a simple system tries to regulate a complex system you often get unintended consequences.” (Alex Tabarrok)

To mitigate against these disasters, public value organisations bring as much information into design and decision-making as they can with the time at hand. They pick apart concepts and policies as if they were opposed to them, and act on the research and the experience of other jurisdictions. Crucially, they consult early and often with those tasked with implementation and operations.

Cube Group’s Policy, Strategy and Governance team can quickly bring research, information and insight into design processes and our Communication and Engagement team can help bring in stakeholder perspectives.

Have you written to one of our elms? And what are your thoughts on Utopia’s space shuttle program? Leave your comments below (and we will be sure to forward them on to the appropriate tree).

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