The futures we want depend on implementation

The futures we want depend on implementation

Zak Yudhishthu, Staff Writer

In the world of politics and policymaking, I’ve seen quite a few good things go forward lately. Last summer, the federal government passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), establishing the largest-ever federal investments in clean energy. In the past months, a Democratic-controlled Minnesota legislature aimed a massive budget surplus towards a plethora of public causes. St. Paul is currently looking to advance both zoning reforms and a reparations-like fund for homeowners in the historically Black Rondo neighborhood.

All good news, to be sure. After the initial excitement of passing great policies, however, comes the work of implementation. While less flashy and more difficult to follow, implementation of policy is equally essential to the political creation of a better world, and we must continue to pay attention to these thorny questions.

Let’s start with the massive climate provisions in the current federal administration’s three major spending bills. Between the IRA, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the CHIPS Act, hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits and subsidies will go towards green energy technologies and infrastructure.

We can be sure this spending will generate substantial investment and profits for domestic industry. Whether it will deliver sufficient decarbonization is less certain. Researchers at Princeton have estimated that 80% of the IRA’s potential emissions reductions will be lost if we continue building transmission lines (which distribute electricity after it’s generated) at our current snail’s pace. Faster construction of transmission lines will require reforms to make them easier to build, paired with better structuring of government organizations to help plan these large-scale build outs.

The green transition is littered with these kinds of technical-but-necessary questions. Addressing them effectively will mean the difference between a sustainable future, or one of long delays and brilliant inventions that never take hold in the real world. Climate journalist Robinson Meyer wrote that we may soon discover that addressing climate change requires more than just political will; as we run headfirst into a thicket of complicated barriers and trade-offs.

If we take a look at the world of local zoning policy — which on the surface, has little in common with decarbonization of the national energy grid — similar questions of implementation arise. 

St. Paul is currently discussing the possibility of changing the zoning code city-wide. The majority of our residential neighborhoods currently only allow for detached, single-family houses, a historically exclusionary policy that biases housing development towards its most expensive forms and increases low-density sprawl. Proposed changes would begin to ameliorate this policy by allowing housing that is dense but matches in scale with the neighborhood, such as duplexes, triplexes and townhomes. 

But keep in mind the results of very similar zoning changes approved by Minneapolis in 2019, which legalized triplexes across the city. The policy was passed to much fanfare, garnering a slew of coverage from major national think tanks and newspapers.

As for the results of this specific change, Minneapolis has little to show. Although the city’s changes allowed triplexes to be built everywhere, there has been little actual production of triplexes or other similar housing types. In part, this is a predictably moderate result of a moderate policy change. However, it’s also reflective of implementation failures: in 2021, an effort to build a backyard dwelling unit for homeless veterans was blocked because it would cover a higher percentage of the lot than city regulations allowed for. And just this year, (nearly four years after the initial zoning change), a Minneapolis developer working on a triplex for low-income renters saw their plans rejected by city planners due to obscure regulations on building floor area, and was forced to shrink their proposal and remove some of the housing’s amenities. 

It turns out local regulations around housing developments are strange and complex, meaning that translating housing aspirations into housing development requires much continued attention.

Such considerations apply even to our relatively miniscule world of policymaking at Macalester. Take our federal work-study program for example, which I dug into for The Mac Weekly a couple of years ago. Work-study is basically a big pot of money that the federal government allocates to colleges across the country, with the intention of helping students pay for college while accruing meaningful employment experiences.

At times, Macalester’s work study program does just that. Other times however, it results in students pretending to work for 10 hours a week so they can pay for their college, or in students laboring in the school cafeteria for well below the position’s market wage (paradoxically, underemployment and exploitation co-occur). This is a mix of bad implementation from the federal government, which provides work-study money only with strings attached, and from Macalester, which opts to pay all work-study workers the same and leave first-year cafeteria workers poorly compensated. 

As the work study case shows, if we don’t give policy implementation the attention it deserves, we will nevertheless settle into some kind of equilibrium outcome — but one that fails to achieve our goals. What began as headline policy achievements — funding clean energy, allowing more housing to be built, subsidizing educational student jobs — can quickly lose both their luster and their effectiveness.

Even worse, poor implementation of specific projects puts greater political efforts at risk. See the Twin Cities’ Green Line light rail extension, which is nine years behind schedule and 10 digits ($1.5 billion) over budget. Such failures don’t exactly inspire confidence in future investments in our public transit system. 

Truly making implementation work will take time, requiring a broader restructuring of our governing systems. As Americans have lost faith in government over past decades, our many tiers of government have seen their capacity to implement policy erode. Fixing this downward spiral won’t happen in the blink of an eye.

As Jerusalem Demsas wrote for The Atlantic, it’s not a shortage of resources or skill holding us back from effective government; our nation is wealthy and well-educated, leaving us with no excuse for such failures of implementation. Our mistake lies in our under-prioritization of the thorny, everyday questions that arise later in the policymaking process. Building the futures that we want will require us to do much better.