Tripwires in social policy

One of the greatest insights that I gleaned from Decisive was this idea of ‘tripwires’.

First, let me say that this is not anything like the automatic budget cuts that triggered the sequester, nor, certainly, the border security ‘benchmarks’ that received so much attention during this summer’s congressional debate on immigration reform.

Not like those at all.

Instead, tripwires are sort of like signals that we need to make a decision about something. They don’t tell you what the decision should be, necessarily, but they can be used to jar you out of continuing on autopilot, without recognizing when a new course of action–or at least the consideration of the same–is warranted.

And that has me thinking about what smart use of tripwires might look like in the social policy arena.

How could we use social indicators to identify when a problem demands our attention?

Would tripwires have helped us to mobilize more quickly around rising obesity? Should we have tripwires set now to draw our attention to the dramatic increases in Americans receiving federal disability? Would clearer economic tripwires have helped us to notice–in a real, actionable way, not just analysts connecting dots–warning signs in the housing and credit markets?

Would having tripwires set encourage innovation and allow greater focus, with the relative certainty that, when something gets to the level that it demands our attention, we’ll know?

In Decisive, the authors explain tripwires this way: “[they] allow us the certainty of committing to a course of action, even a risky one, while minimizing the costs of overconfidence” (p. 231).

We are committing to revisiting critical questions, even when we might otherwise overlook them.

Again, we’re not pretending to know now what the answer should be then, but we are reminding ourselves, possibly in statute, that we need to intentionally ask the right questions, when we get there.

Sort of like when I put huge sticky notes in my calendar to remind me of certain needed actions, such that I can’t write anything on that day until I do something about whatever issue the note prompts, so that I can take it off.

Sort of.

The idea, cognitively, is that we can be coached to recognize patterns of threat or opportunity. Indeed, history is replete with examples of some people noticing the signs, but we have not established mechanisms to capture this wisdom in our social policy decision making.

Or, even more importantly, to do anything with it.

Where do you see a need for tripwires? How could we build them into policy? What concerns would you have about instituting this kind of structure? What could we gain?

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