Policy Series: A Typical Quick Solution – ‘Let’s Change It’ Syndrome (III)

In retrospect, the most common methods for dealing with policy failures have been first to blame each other – politicians, parties, factions, and civil society activists in addition to geopolitics and global economy and second to change policies without asking the hard questions. These questions would be why is there a need to change; what part of the policy is working or not working; why did it fail; what would be the short, medium, and long term impacts of a policy change; what are the optimal, win-win options; and what would be the most agreeable implementation for all stakeholders. I call this blaming and uncritical policy change a ‘let’s change it’ syndrome that increases mistrust among all actors, including the policy makers, and promotes into ‘vicious cycle’ of cheating and competition to change the bargaining dynamics.

So, why do policymakers in Mongolia prefer the ‘let’s change it’ attitude? It seems to be structural. The current political settings are so much dependent on the four-year electoral cycle – since all key policymakers and enforcers – president, parliament members, prime minister, cabinet members, governors, and local assembly members – are changed every four years. Their time horizons are short and competition for being re-elected are costly. That means they need to blame their opponents as soon as possible in order to gain the power and authority to maintain their own patron-client networks. Instead of calculating the long-term benefits of stable policies, they prefer to change the rules of the game (i.e., the laws and regulations) to create a favorable operating environment while blaming their opponents for any policy failures. As a result, we witness sudden policy changes immediately after changes in the political landscape. Like other parliamentary democracies, the political landscape of Mongolia is changed not only after presidential, parliamentary and local elections, but also by the cabinet changes (e.g., non-confidence voting results). Because the policymaking institutions and process are heavily dominated by these political actors with short-time horizons, the policymaking in Mongolia becomes unstable, unpredictable, non-inclusive (divisive) and non-transparent.   In an ideal country, where policies are stable, predictable, inclusive, and transparent, policy changes are incremental, continual build on the achievements of previous policies, and increase the certainty for all stakeholders. But, in Mongolia, it is the opposite – politicians want to change it without substantial studies and discussions while their blame game usually ends up in conspiracy theories.

Mining policy faces the exact same challenges. Also, important to note, natural resources aggregate competitions among politicians, parties, and factions for a few reasons. First, natural resources, especially gold and coal, offer opportunities for a quick accumulation of wealth without much investment and technology; therefore, the majority want to exploit this ‘window of opportunity’ that combines a weak regulatory framework and demands of the Chinese market. Second, competition among foreign and domestic investors generate ‘rents’ for politicians, parties, and factions in return for political support (e.g., bidding, investment agreement, licenses, and tax loopholes). Third, major long-term investment deals will provide multiple benefits for politicians, parties, and factions (ranging from personal, factional, and to political prestige). Therefore, the mining sector not only becomes the target of political competition, but also suffers from effects of the ‘let’s change it’ syndrome when policymakers change laws and re-structure the policy-implementing and enforcing units

The first way the mining sector suffers is that politicians are strong inclinations to change laws and rules. The principal mining policy (i.e., the Minerals Law) has had two major revisions since 1997 and is waiting for the next major one.   At the same time, this law has been amended and revised multiple times, especially from 2009 annually. Some changes are understandable because of the passages of new laws like the Uranium Law and Law with the Long Name in 2009. But policymakers are still unable to produce substantial studies and reports on implementations of their previous legislation and potential implications of the proposed changes for the public. A few examples of failed mining policies also illustrate that policymakers are not so concerned with the quality of policies or the policymaking process; therefore, laws and rules are vulnerable to changes of the political landscape and power differentials of politicians, parties, and factions.

The other suffering of the mining policy results from the reshuffling and restructuring of the governmental units – ministries and agencies in charge of the coordination, implementation, and enforcement of mining policies. Despite the simple existence of ideal laws to insulate the government bureaucracy and bureaucrats from political, economic, and societal pressures, politicians, parties, and factions compete for having control over ministries and agencies. In other words, they neglect the existing laws and regulations pertaining to the government and public service. Politicians, parties, and factions first restructure and reshuffle ministries and agencies to accommodate their private, fractionalized interests and second appoint party-affiliated individuals to senior, mid-level and junior positions of the ministry, agency, and provincial (аймаг, сум) bureaucracy. As a result, party-affiliated officials aim to benefit within the four-year, or even shorter, election cycle. Consequently, these frequent structural and personnel changes complicate the policy coordination, implementation, and enforcement functions of those ministries and agencies. Thus contributes to mining policy failures – without giving a chance for any policy to be implemented. The key mining ministry and agency (i.e., the Mineral Resource Authority) and other relevant ministries and agencies in charge of the environmental protection, finance, taxation, inspection, and law-enforcement are all affected by the changes of the political landscape.

About mendee

Jargalsaikhan Mendee is a Deputy Director of the Institute for Defense Studies of Mongolia. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of British Columbia, and MAs in International Relations from the US Naval Postgraduate School and in Asia-Pacific Policy Studies from the Institute of Asian Research of the University of British Columbia.
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