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Governance Through Social Learning

Gilles Paquet

B - National Perspectives

Chapter 5. A Social Learning Framework for a Wicked Problem: The Case of Energy1

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  • 1 This paper also appeared in Energy Studies Review 1989, 1(1), 55–69.

The way to regulate well in times of great uncertainty is by learning rather than controlling. Not learning the answers to known questions that serve the intent to control but learning what questions about balancing and optimizing now merit asking and then learning how those questions might be answered provisionally — until the present moment emerges into a new context of questions.
– Donald N. Michael (1983)

1Mathematics and dogma often “serve as a substitute for the usually arduous task of coming to grips with the actual phenomena” (Kapp 1960; Georgescu-Roegen 1975). In the world of energy, there has been a flurry of dogma and mathematical models, most often built on mechanical definitions of crises — limited stocks of resources failing to meet unbounded wants. As might be expected, this sort of analysis has triggered simplistic responses.

2In Canada, energy issues have been styled in somewhat schizophrenic terms. A dominant version of the problem has been perpetrated by economists: it is couched in terms of shortages, pricing issues, supply/demand vagaries, and efficiency losses when the market solution does not prevail. A parallel and subsidiary sociopolitical version is also popular: it is couched in terms of needs, rights, rent-sharing, etc.

3Energy policy is both broader in scope and more complex than those two interpretations suggest. It poses what has been called a wicked problem (Rittel and Webber 1973). Wicked problems have two characteristics: the goals are not known or are ambiguous, and the means–ends relationships are highly uncertain and poorly understood. Solutions are not true-or-false but good-or-bad. A meaningful response to the concerns raised by energy policy entails the definition of legitimate and widely accepted rules capable of dealing effectively (in physical, economic, social, and cultural senses) with future energy problems. This in turn requires a fuller understanding of what makes energy so different as a commodity and of why it should require special rules.

4In the spring of 1987, the Energy Options Process (EOP) — initiated by Marcel Masse, the federal minister of energy, mines, and resources — tried to take an imaginative look at energy policy. Under the stewardship of Thomas Kierans, this process culminated in a report tabled in Parliament in the summer of 1988 (Kierans et al. 1988). The report was based on broad consultation with the Canadian population; efforts were made to take into account Canadian values, Canadian institutions, and even dimensions of the Canadian psyche in the analysis. The resulting report made many specific recommendations, but, more important, it put forward seven basic principles that were meant to provide the foundation for a Canadian guidance system in energy matters.

5Many have disagreed with the outcome of this process and with the recommendations that have emerged from it, but few would deny that the process itself held promise of a new style of policy research adapted to wicked problems. Some have labeled this new approach a social learning framework (Friedmann and Abonyi 1976); it stresses learning and a transactive style of planning.

6In this chapter, the foundations of this social learning approach are examined, and the four components of the social learning paradigm are scrutinized, within the energy context, to show how easily one component might come to dominate the policy analysis entirely, but also how well the four components fit into an integrated framework. The extent to which the EOP may be said to have been patterned on the sort of strategy suggested by that integrated framework is discussed, and in conclusion, it is suggested that the social learning approach might be applicable to a whole family of wicked problems haunting policymakers and policy researchers.


Construction of a Meta-rule

7Defining a policy means establishing the basis for selecting certain procedures or adopting certain strategies in the face of various plausible sets of environmental circumstances. These procedures or strategies may be aimed at modifying reality, perceptions, or preferences.

8Defining an energy policy for Canada amounts to defining a meta-rule likely to be useful in dealing with a variety of “futurs possibles” or futuribles. This is akin to the development of guiding principles in the management of projects. For instance, in the case of a major project like the construction of the Trans-Manche Link — the tunnel between France and England — the key guiding principles are contained in a 44-page project manual. Most firms managing large projects have such simple compendia of meta-rules meant to help in the crafting of the required rules of the game as the game unfolds. What is needed in the energy field is something equivalent to a project manual.

9The policy research underpinning the design of such a manual is particularly challenging in cases like energy: the problem is wicked, i.e., ill-structured (Ansoff 1960) and, therefore, standard policy research does not provide much help. Friedmann and Abonyi (1976) have proposed an approach to deal with these wicked problems. It is based on the analysis of four subprocesses (Figure 5 in Chapter 2): the construction of appropriate theories of reality (block A), the formation of social values (block B), the gaming that leads to the design of political strategies (block C), and the carrying out of collective action (block D). These four interconnected subprocesses are components of social learning; any change in one affects the others (Friedmann 1979).

Energy as Révélateur

10Energy, some have argued, has a special importance in a northern country like Canada because of its cold climate. For others, the federal-provincial quagmire of rent-sharing and conflict resolution mechanisms, and the no-risk proclivities of Canadians and their reluctance to accept costly adjustments in the face of unstable markets have much to do with the priority given to energy on the political agenda (Courchene 1980; Aharoni 1981; Trebilcock 1985).

11Fundamentally, energy is creating a social risk in Canada or at least it is perceived as such. As a result, it acts as a révélateur of Canadian culture. For risk is a cultural concept: existing institutions select problems and risks worth taking, they do the recognizing and the classifying (Douglas and Wildavsky 1982; Douglas 1986). Thus, energy cannot simply be analyzed within a market context (in Friedmann and Abonyi’s (1976) block-A-style) occluding other dimensions buried in values, strategy, and action: all these dimensions must be processed through an all-encompassing issue-machine. However, existing institutions may be unwilling to recognize problems that threaten accepted values or that might deconstruct hegemonic institutions. This explains their structural amnesia (Clark and Munn 1986).

Nexus of Interconnected Problems

12Energy raises many problems:

  • allocative efficiency (pricing, finances, substitutability between energy types/sources/uses and technologies, choices between domestic and foreign consumption, market failures);
  • equity (regionally for consumers and governments, between nationals and foreigners, on the upside and the downside of fluctuating prices, distributional impact on social groups);
  • sociopolitical context (treaty obligations, constitutional and regulation-induced constraints, differential adjustment costs and consequent differential social burdens, security of supply, organizational failures, global competition);
  • environment (broad and restricted contexts, secondary and tertiary use of energy, exergy);
  • industrial strategy (use of natural resources, including energy, as an instrument of economic development and industrial location);
  • public acceptance (sense of fairness, paranoias, learning, framing of decisions).

13The role of a framework is to impose some order on this nexus of problems, to suggest institutional armistices between the world of physical realities and constraints and the world of values, social concerns, political constraints, and priorities. The meta-rules are a guide in this exercise of social architecture. The framework sorts out what dimensions should play a leading role in the definition of meta-rules. But no framework can be chosen on the basis of objective criteria: the policymaker may either craft his own strategy (Mintzberg 1987) or defer to the stakeholders with their interest-based frameworks or to the scientists with their disciplinary dogmas. In any case, the governance of the policy research process is fundamentally dependent on some normative input.

14What may be expected from a meaningful consultation process is a dialectic between the various stakeholders and the social architects (Perlmutter 1965). Under ideal circumstances, such dialectics should affect the emergence of an integrative framework, the one that has the greatest heuristic power, that generates the most social learning.

Useable Ignorance

15When dealing with broad policy issues like energy, one cannot hope to produce anything but incomplete answers. In the words of Alvin Weinberg (1972), in policy research we are confronted with trans-scientific questions that cannot be answered by science, they transcend science. Engineering and much of policy science are plagued with such questions: answers may be impractically expensive, the subject matter too variable for scientific canons to apply, moral and esthetic judgment may be involved (Weinberg 1972). What is required is a new understanding built on “useable ignorance” for “by being aware of our ignorance, we do not encounter disastrous pitfalls in our supposedly secure knowledge or supposedly effective technique... institutions should be designed with the ignorance factor in mind, so that they can respond and adapt in good time” (Collingridge 1982; Ravetz 1986).

16Coping with ignorance requires a more transactive and transparent policy process and, therefore, a change in the way in which policy research is carried out. It has been argued that the transaction costs of running such a system are high. This is true but unavoidable. Moreover, when compared with the costs of inappropriate responses based on inappropriate policies, these transaction costs may not appear unduly high.


17The selection rule for a framework is simple: the one chosen should have the maximum heuristic and learning power. This is the least objectionable way to choose normatively in the policy field. Yet, it is not a criterion that prevails in most academic discussions on energy. Economists have hijacked the energy problem. If energy is an ordinary commodity, one may count on the market, so the argument goes, to allocate it as efficiently as possible, and there is no need for an energy policy. However, to the extent that energy is not an ordinary commodity, that it has external and asymmetric effects on the rest of the socioeconomy of such a magnitude that it has to be regulated for socioeconomic reasons, then frameworks other than strict allocative efficiency schemes have to be used.

18In our socioeconomics, efficiency is not a widely accepted goal: there are other values that society holds in higher esteem, and the political system responds much better to the strongly held viewpoint of powerful interest groups than to the anonymous and diffuse unease of the masses. This is the key to re-election. Any meaningful policy research must, therefore, be rooted in an integrated approach capable of accommodating to a great extent these other dimensions to be politically effective and widely accepted socially.

Efficiency Frameworks

19To economists, energy is a commodity that, despite particular characteristics, may be analyzed through the usual market framework (Gordon 1981). Suppliers and demanders are operating in a matrix of markets for different forms of energy. It is argued that these markets, left to themselves, would allocate energy efficiently between competing uses. As supporting evidence, it is argued that price increases in the 1970s have generated a drop in consumption directly, but also through the switch to energy-economizing technologies. All scenarios indicate that this is to continue into the 1990s (Barney et al. 1981: 98–121; CEPII, 1984: Chapter 6). On the production side, scale economies and fixed costs arguments have been used to argue that some regulation may be necessary. But these arguments have been shown to be not as powerful and as easily generalizable as had been first suggested. Consequently, many have argued that the competitive system is working and that whatever problems there are can often be ascribed to ill-inspired government policy interventions.

20The only legitimate challenges in this context are the identification of market failures, and the only legitimate energy policies are those crafted to attenuate them or compensate for them. These policies have been directed at production rates (directly through public ownership, regulation, or decrees, or indirectly through tax benefits), the control of imports, regulation of prices (either directly or through subsidies), and energy consumption patterns (either directly through rationing or through moral or financial incentives).

21Issues like self-sufficiency, public acceptance, long-run global change, province-building, etc., are characterized as aberrations and styled as impediments to the smooth working of the allocative efficiency machine. Policy analysis in this context recedes to the level of advanced plumbing.

Dominant Value Frameworks

22Here, energy is a very special commodity: an ingredient in the socioeconomic system that contributes significantly to the pursuit of some value-based objectives — equity, environmental imperatives, regional/sectional pursuits, etc. The dominant values, whatever they are, frame the energy problem: energy-related issues are reordered in a manner derived from them.

23No dominant value framework can claim to be a guidance system in studying energy issues, or in sorting out energy policy options unless one can persuasively argue that there is a clearly demonstrable link between energy and the dominant value, but also that such a value is of primary importance for the population, that there is a close link between the dominant value or values and the energy welfare of individuals, and that there are some needs that have to be met. The concept of needs is not easy to use in policy analysis. It always appears tainted by some paternalism because needs are often defined by experts, externally. They are also fluid, clumsy, difficult to ascertain. But it is a central concept in dominant value frameworks, and the practical use of needs appears to be possible (Friedmann 1979; Ignatieff 1985; Braybrooke 1987).

24Such externally defined needs provide a guidance system both for a research program and for the design of policy. They replace the free-wheeling crafting forces of money-backed preferences registered by the market as a list of priorities to be met at a minimum standard before preferences are allowed to have their way. To allow needs to be satisfied, policy instruments and institutions have to be set up, for there is a presumption that the market will not do the job automatically in a satisfactory manner (Willson 1980; Robinson 1982).

25A common data set (from Friedmann and Abonyi’s [1976] block A) can yield quite different political strategies (block C) and programs (block D) if interpreted through different value filters (block B).

26It has been argued that, in a northern climate, within a balkanized polity where many governments have explicit development strategies and in a society that has a strong taste for security, there are energy needs that should be considered as a priority. This is tantamount to calling for meta-rules of a distributional sort when scarcity occurs. Because the energy-producing endowment is spread over the territory in a whimsical manner, and the energy needs (not only for immediate consumption but also for economic development) are located very differently, reallocation and redistribution are necessary.

27The dominant value frameworks call for a broadening of the concept of property rights: from rights to material things (that markets handle well) to rights to “a certain quality of life, certain liberties to develop and enjoy the use of our capacities” (Macpherson 1985). The research program would originate with a clarification of the dominant values that are to act as guiding forces. This can be achieved first through some historical analyses illustrating the way in which Canadians have chosen to socialize risk, how the sense of shared parsimony and mutual obligation within the Canadian community has been instituted (Hardin 1974). Second, one might also identify values revealed to be important to Canadians by some mental experiments that have received wide public support like the conserver society or the sustainable development programs (Science Council of Canada 1977; Clark and Munn 1986; Robinson 1987). These values (environmental protection, increased wisdom in resource use, socioenvironmental diversity/flexibility/responsibility, importance of sociopolitical values as equity, cooperation, participation, etc.) could be the starting point for developing scenarios to be evaluated for acceptability.

28Such a research program would have a long-run bias. Block B variables (social values) would play the leading role: in the final analysis, markets would be allowed to operate only to the extent that they would serve the genesis of some fair outcome, however defined. Yet, intolerably expensive values would have to be discarded because of the constraints they would impose on any feasible scheme.

Gaming Frameworks

29Another family of frameworks focus on the political choice processes of stakeholders, the design of the mechanisms for dialogue or struggle. Even in the simplest case, when it is assumed by all that government should manage the “commons” — however defined — to meet certain needs and that regulated markets should take care of the rest, a key question remains: how should the design for state institutions (to perform these jobs) be arrived at? Such frameworks focus on process, on the definition of the public administration/regulation schemes and the design of feasible regulatory forms (Mitnick 1980).

30In such schemes, energy is identified as “something” that cannot be entrusted fully to the unregulated market because sociopolitical groups have said so: unlike the dominant value frameworks where energy is singled out because of its social importance, here it is singled out because of its political features. A research program based on such frameworks starts with the prevailing rules of the politico-administrative game to understand who the stakeholders are, what form of pluralist political choice mechanism is viable, and what administrative arrangements are likely to get the agreement of the community. These arrangements define a “collective game which exists independently of the individual games played by each of the organizations” (Crozier and Thoenig 1976).

31This administrative game is not contractual, democratic, or simply hierarchical. It is a political/bureaucratic game built on simplified notions of efficiency and effectiveness and on the very sketchy account of basic social values recorded by the political/bureaucratic agents. It is not geared to pursue objectives or purposes, but rather to accommodate all forces into a game of dispute settlement or spoils-sharing. This regulatory game is played at many levels. The gaming research framework focuses on ways to

...understand the games which are played at the bottom of the system. Then it proceeds to discover and reconstruct the more general mode of regulation through which these games are articulated to one another. Finally, it tries to ascertain the basic mode of government and the values that make it possible for the system to exist by legitimizing these rules. [Crozier and Thoenig 1976]

32These frameworks are rooted in block C variables, i.e., the family of interacting public agencies harmonizing variables of blocks A and B: from international and interprovincial accords to regulate transborder flows of energy and ensure security of supply; to rules on the ownership or management of the energy resources; to rent-sharing, symmetric obligation, and equalization rules between the federal and provincial governments and other stakeholders; to energy conservation programs.

33The overall energy game (with its cross-controls and exceptions) acquires a momentum of its own that has little bearing on or connection with what is physically at stake. This is the world of lobbying. Energy is no longer seen as just a resource: it is an entitlement, an idea — both in the sense of a futurible, like the development of oil sands, and in the sense of a lottery prize. The game becomes a game of bluff — very much like some operations on futures markets. A research program focused only on fiscal principles, studies of concepts like level-playing-field, models of rent-sharing, etc., would allow political/administrative gimmickry to take precedence over substantial issues. The discussion would degenerate into plumbing, albeit plumbing of a more complex variety than the sort highlighted by efficiency frameworks.

Collective Action Frameworks

34Although political strategies and stratagems are elaborated from above or from the centre, much is happening at the periphery. Individuals, groups, and clubs experiment with ways to cope with their natural and manufactured environment. The logic of this experimentation is learning, and its outcome is collective action, i.e., purposive action by groups.

35These groups may be large or small, woven by meaningful dialogues or by the challenge of common struggles. They make up the fabric of civil society. This multicentric or reticular social fabric is occluded in the stylizations proposed by administrative or market-centred models: life at the periphery is branded marginal or christened “alternative life style” to be conveniently written off the main record. These conceptual and political blinders have been exposed (Ramos 1981), but few social scientists have paid any attention to the critiques.

36In the energy world, this peripheral reality is extraordinarily rich: ecologists, sustainable development specialists, those interested in community development, survival, convivial relations, grants economy theorists, etc. For those defending the conventional wisdom, these groups represent a “lunatic fringe” to the “real” political economy. The revival of wood stoves, wind power, and solar energy, experiments with less energy-intensive life styles, etc., are phenomena that do not find their way into the mainstream of the process of social learning.

37The differences between political/administrative gaming frameworks and collective action frameworks are important. The output of the former is a policy or plan fanned out from the centre and armed with monitoring devices and enforcement mechanisms. The latter’s output is experimentation through “a network of related processes of local public learning” and the derivation of policy themes by induction. In the political/administrative framework, performance is measured by the degree of conformity of the periphery; the collective action scheme is built on local knowledge, public learning, and the diffusion of innovation (Schon 1971; Geertz 1983).

An Integrated Framework

38These four families of frameworks are partial maps of the world of interest to policy analysts. If a research exercise is to be a form of social action or social learning, it has to ensure that its research framework casts a very wide net over the whole terrain des opérations. It is the only way in which the research program can produce a sense of direction (Gastil 1972). This comprehensive program must take fully into account allocative efficiency, social values, political stratagems, and collective action in a general integrative scheme if an energy system with a high degree of goodness of fit with its circumstances is to ensue.

39Policy analysts should not embalm or mummify the problem at hand through an orgy of unrealistic assumptions. Policy research in the social learning paradigm is reflection-in-action (Schon 1983), its intent is to invent the right institutional form by eliminating incongruities between institution and circumstances. This is the way the potter crafts his work, the way medical doctors pursue negatively the maintenance of health through elimination of illnesses (Alexander 1964). Policy is very much in the nature of design: in the words of Christopher Alexander (1964: 26–27),

We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed, and a context which we cannot properly describe. The only reason we have for thinking that there must be some kind of fit to be achieved between them is that we can detect incongruities, or negative instances of it.

40Policy research, like design research, is intent on producing a different kind of knowledge — delta knowledge — the sort of knowledge acquired through learning by doing (Gilles and Paquet 1991).

41Henry Mintzberg (1987) has borrowed from potters the apt metaphor “crafting strategy.” “Formulation and implementation merge into a fluid process of learning”: the need to maintain a continuous feedback between analysis and problem-formulation is central in both design and policy work. This sort of social experimentation is not a new outillage mental; it was propounded by John Dewey (1935) under the general labels of “experimental intelligence” and “socially organized intelligence.” Others have referred to this learning process as transduction (Lefebvre 1961). Still others propose such an approach to deal with ill-structured problems (Ansoff 1960; Paquet 1971). But it was a path abandoned by social scientists when they became totally seduced by positivism.


42An initiative like the energy options process (EOP) was not a sui generis phenomenon. It followed an era of centralization of the design of energy policy under the Trudeau government (Doern and Toner 1985) and corresponded to the philosophy of openness and consultation propounded by the Mulroney government after the 1984 election and evidenced by the process that led to the three accords (the Atlantic Accord, the Western Accord and the Agreement on Natural Gas Markets and Prices in 1985). This Tory energy program had clearly indicated a commitment to nonintervention in the market — a central feature of the Western Accord (Toner 1986). Moreover, in 1987, there was a clear sense that consultation could be carried out without major risks — that it was a controllable process — after the “happy policy” of 1985.

43Yet, much in the design of the EOP held the promise of introducing a new style of policy research and national dialogue akin to the social learning approach. The advisory committee and the advisory groups selected for the EOP were not made up entirely of narrow specialists on physical energy questions; environmental groups, interest groups, and critical individuals were offered an opportunity to air their views, and the process of consultation was orchestrated in such a way as to allow a major forum for interaction among all the stakeholders in December 1987 in Montreal. Even the final report could have broken new ground: it was structured on the basis of an explicit energy policy framework that, we were told, had effectively been used to frame the recommendations.

44Yet, the final report leaves any reader who expected a major policy breakthrough with a sense of disappointment. The EOP was a controlled exercise in policy that was unwilling to delve much beyond block A issues, to be attentive to local knowledge, to listen carefully enough to what Canadians said and to draw inferences from it. Indeed the central weakness of the report was a refusal to acknowledge the fundamental contradiction between the commitment to the market and the commitment to sustainable development. For this latter commitment can only translate into an expanded role for the state.

45The final report developed a framework of principles that represents a sanitized version of the discourse of Canadians: it ensured the hegemony of efficiency considerations. Cognitive dissonance loomed large. People not only have preferences but beliefs, and preferences about their beliefs. Consequently, they are often led to choose their beliefs subconsciously (despite evidence suggesting that the contrary view is warranted) by choosing sources of information likely to confirm their “desired” beliefs and shutting out information challenging these beliefs (Akerlof and Dickens 1982). In a way, the EOP has “chosen to believe” that efficiency considerations were the hegemonic ones.

46The EOP report was dominated by efficiency considerations to the point of occluding other perspectives or of minimizing unduly the importance of the concerns they raised. The broader integrated policy research framework that one had hoped might be used has not been, and the interactive planning that one might legitimately have expected to emerge from this experiment, has not materialized. Finally, the proposed meta-rules turned out not to provide the sort of guidance system likely to be of use in meeting the challenges of the next “energy crisis.”

Eliciting Inadequate Meta-rules

47The EOP was meant to be an “opportunity for a dialogue,” for a multilogue, “among Canadians about our common energy future” (Kierans et al. 1988: 1). Indeed, “A Canadian Dialogue” was the subtitle of the whole EOP. So, from the very first page of the report, there was an effort to summarize what Canadians said (WCS). This can be synthesized as follows:

  • WCS 1: Energy “cannot be treated just like any other market commodity” (p. 1).
  • WCS 2: “Energy policy must be founded on Canadian values” (p. 2).
  • WCS 3: Energy efficiency is important and markets are “invaluable instruments” to achieve efficiency and “governments should intervene in the allocation process only to correct serious market imperfections or failures” (p. 6).
  • WCS 4: Instruments used to achieve an appropriate degree of equity or fairness in income distribution should be developed but they should be as nondiscriminatory as possible, be based on federal-provincial cooperation, and be such as to keep as much as possible the rules of the game stable (pp. 7–8).
  • WCS 5: Energy policy should be developed on the basis of the general objective of “sustainable development” (pp. 8–9).
  • WCS 6: Development and implementation of new technologies should be factored in (pp. 9–10).

48As the report itself acknowledges (p. 10), such a summary of views cannot do justice to the wealth of information presented to the EOP. Yet, on what basis can one challenge the validity of this sort of perilous exercise? Would it be warranted to do so on the basis of one’s impression of the cathartic December 1987 synthesis meeting? Yet, this is the ground on which my counter-impressions are based: the official summary of “what Canadians said” does not convey as fully as one might have wished the array of concerns heard at the final Montreal meeting.

49Concerns over energy needs, over redistribution rules in times of crisis, and over security of supply were prominent; debates over notions of fairness, over acceptable forms of regulation, and over an acceptable degree of socialization of risks were very much present. Conservation as a supply option (“a unit of energy saved is a unit of energy found”) and the need to mobilize the population to conserve were important messages conveyed in December 1987. The “time myopia of the price mechanism” and “free trade as a blind tyrant” were also central concerns. Little of this can be found in the summary of what Canadians said. Cognitive dissonance has been at work.

50From this partly muted message from Canadians, the EOP attempted to construct “a report on the direction of future energy policy in Canada that would reflect the best of all that had been written and said throughout the Energy Options Process” (p. 10). This is the source of the seven principles or meta-rules (MRs), each one being the central topic of a subsequent chapter in the report. It is worth restating these seven principles:

  • MR 1: “Canada’s energy should be developed and used to its economic potential to provide growth and prosperity for Canadians today and in the future.”
  • MR 2: “Energy security is best sought in ways that increase energy choices and enhance adaptability to change rather than by hoarding or by government forcing uneconomic development. At the same time, Canada should cooperate internationally and maintain domestic emergency measures against possible oil supply disruptions.”
  • MR 3: “Environmental goals should be accorded the same importance as other economic and social goals in the planning, development and use of energy.”
  • MR 4: “To achieve efficient allocation of energy resources, market mechanisms should be relied upon wherever possible and enhanced where necessary.”
  • MR 5: “The fiscal system, as it applied to energy, should raise and spend revenues in ways that are nondiscriminatory, neutral, stable and predictable, and that promote harmony among governments.”
  • MR 6: “Enhancing the economic efficiency with which energy is used should be an essential component of energy policy, both to make the best use of energy and to reduce environmental impact.”
  • MR 7: “Commitment to research and development and management of technology is critical to enhancing Canada’s energy choices and environmental quality into the 21st century.”

51One cannot fail to detect a narrowing of perspective when the meta-rules are compared with “what Canadians said.” In the meta-rules list,

  • The efficiency framework is raised to a higher level of prominence.
  • Concern for relevant dominant values is almost exclusively limited to the recognition of environmental values on a par with other economic and values; yet the extent to which such other values would appear to raise fundamental questions for the proposed market solution is occluded.
  • The political gaming and public administration aspects of energy policy are handled without much depth: government intervention in general is played down; moreover, a technical rationality model of policy (from the centre down) appears to prevail if and when state activities are allowed.
  • Concerns about local knowledge, learning, collective action, and implementation are virtually obliterated; the dialogue stops short of the implementation phase.

52The overriding concern for efficiency, and the consequent reliance on markets as the main instrument to ensure efficiency, are the foundation of these meta-rules. This raises serious questions. It is difficult to see how these meta-rules could be of use as a project manual in times of crisis: nowhere does one get a sense that they could guide an effective dynamic monitoring or provide anything but rather inert leadership in times of crisis.

Four Components Out of Kilter

53Why have block A (theory of reality) issues come to dominate the scene so completely? Fundamentally, because of the fact that the EOP did not emerge from a policy vacuum. It was constrained by the Tory policy framework. As a result, the EOP has refused to accept WCS I as a meaningful statement; whatever the rhetoric, the EOP regards energy as a market commodity like any other. Consequently, markets are seen as well adjusted to handling it, and the burden of proof is shifted entirely onto those who claim that the market is unlikely to do an adequate job overall.

54Dominant values are almost completely overshadowed by the many references to choice. The word “choice” is used, throughout the report (Kierans et al. 1988), both as a dominant value — let people choose — and as a synonym for “market” (p. 43), for markets are seen as the best way, if not the only way, to operationalize choice. Moreover, “market” and “economy” become almost interchangeable notions and “non-market economy” appears somewhat suspect: MRs 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 end up hinting at the market institution as the solution. This is not only the case for “normal times”: little emphasis is put on emergency preparedness and vigilance, environmental concerns, research needs. These are mentioned, but they are handled by marginal exhortations in the whole script. These exhortations are made in connection with elusive times of crisis, improbable eventualities when market mechanisms might lead to excessive exports, cases where markets might be blind to environmental points-of-no-return or to research needs.

55What emerges is a sense that social values and collective action are bound to be handled adequately by the market and that there is simply a need for minimal and nondisturbing government intervention of a traditional market-failure variety. Such action is, in any case, seen as a lower priority adequately dealt with by a refurbished National Energy Board.

56The little time spent on spelling out exactly what a refurbished National Energy Board might be asked to do is symptomatic of the philosophy underpinning the EOP report. There is little in the report that would appear to indicate what new role the board might undertake, no hint that such a role might entail a radically different type of regulatory operation. There is no indication of any awareness in the report that regulation has taken a new turn over the last decades and that a refurbished energy board might have to become a negotiating tribunal not simply an administrative ruler (Paquet 1978b). There is also little sensitivity to the central role of norms and values in this new sort of gaming: no awareness that the negotiating will have to be conducted over more than efficiency concerns, that it will have to be done over values and not only environmental values.

57Finally, there is no effort to root any of this process in basic local knowledge and civil society; no need is felt for anything but the market as an institutional contraption to gather information and coordinate activities at the periphery. The market model flattens this rich underlying social reality. There is no need to encourage local experimentation as the market mops up all the information worth having in this commodity world. Indeed, the most depressing aspect of the EOP report is that, after having posited in the very first pages the necessity of building an energy policy on Canadian values and a Canadian dialogue (p. 2), the outcome might be said to have evacuated concern for values and dialogue.

58Much of the reductionism of the EOP is ascribable to an emphasis on energy output. A focus on production processes (exploration, transformation), which have multiphase and multidimensional impacts, would have led to a shift away from the fixation on choice to a larger concern for design intervention. Moreover, there seems to be little awareness in the report, as it espouses economic deregulation, of the interplay between economic and social regulatory dynamics: as economic deregulation proceeds, there is a strong push for some social regulation to ensure that the social costs of the market coordinating mechanism are prevented from growing unduly (Doern 1989).

Implementation Vacuum

59The poor coverage of blocks B, C, and D issues — or rather the virtual suppression of these dimensions in the EOP report — sanctions the hegemony of the market as the response to the energy issue. This explains the lack of emphasis on implementation: there is no need to worry about implementation as there is no policy to be implemented. Quasi-laissez-faire has become the norm and it absolves the policy research scheme from any responsibility in attending to the implementation agenda, because the automatic pilot will take care of most of the problems, and the rest of the agenda, to which government must attend, is so dramatically reduced that no extensive discussion is necessary.

60This is an energy policy by immaculate conception and one that requests little in the form of fanning from the centre. The reciprocal is also true: because the market mechanism adequately takes into account the wishes, desires, wants, and values of citizens, there is no need to experiment, to design mechanisms to promote learning from local experiments, or to organize public learning.

61The EOP has not sketched a process of dynamic interaction between the stakeholders (and between planners and plannees) likely to continue the dialogue it was meant to initiate, and it has not suggested a mechanism for such a dialogue. Neither do the recommendations propose a process of dynamic monitoring allowing strong feedback from the periphery. Yet, without a strong feedback mechanism, there is little possibility of learning or of ever dealing reasonably with wicked problems: social experimentation is stunted and, if and when it does occur, there is little chance of fanning its results over the system. There is no socially organized intelligence to guide the process of norm holding and implementation (Paquet 1971).

A Provisional Evaluation

62A standard way of looking at policymaking has identified four areas of concern: goal setting, control, innovation, and intelligence (Wilensky 1967). The traditional approach to policymaking has largely emphasized the first two components because the problems being dealt with were rather well-structured: goals could be defined and means–ends relationships ascertained. In dealing with ill-structured or wicked problems, an alternative approach is called for — one that puts the emphasis on the last two components: intelligence as the basis for an innovative learning process.

63Those promoting the EOP knew that they were tackling a wicked problem and that such problems cannot be effectively addressed using a traditional approach. One might reasonably expect that an alternative approach would have been used:

Since the problem formulation itself is open, the evaluative function involves designing an information system to provide the medium for effective feed-back between analysis and problem formulation. The interplay between norm-setting, goal-setting, course-holding, control on functioning, and organizational and institutional innovations becomes fundamentally dependent on organizational intelligence. [Paquet 1971: 54]

64The EOP has produced an incomplete statement on energy issues. It has done much to launch a process of policymaking by defining guiding principles — and for this EOP must be praised — but those principles have been too narrowly defined to provide adequate guidance for navigation in turbulent times. Moreover, little has been done to ensure that the sort of dialogue that EOP has originated will continue. As a result, it is unlikely that this report will have much impact. Cut from an implementation phase likely to bring with it new learning, it will dry up very much like any tree cut off from its roots.

65EOP has failed. It has not set up the organizational intelligence likely to generate a genuine learning process. It may have held hopes that it would do so, but it has not delivered the goods. A wicked problem has been approached as if it were a well-structured problem: simple norms have been declared goals and a simple control mechanism — the market — (sometime aided by the National Energy Board) has been declared sufficient to guide the policy in the right direction. This choice of research strategy may be regarded as hardly surprising by some cynics: it was predictable given the thrust of the Tory energy policy. But because of great early expectations that EOP might adopt an alternative approach and set up the basis for a continuous dialogue with Canadians, disappointment has been all the greater in the end.

66Some have suggested that, through the dual channels of ongoing consultation among federal and provincial energy ministers and a follow-up on the EOP report by the Standing Committee of the House of Commons on Energy, Mines and Resources, the EOP might get its second wind. This is unduly optimistic. The EOP report is unlikely to fuel a sustained and fruitful debate in either forum for the very reasons we mention above.


67It is not sufficient for the wise owl to tell the grasshopper that to avoid the severe pains of winter, he simply has to turn himself into a cricket and hibernate. The client might legitimately ask how one goes about performing that metamorphosis (Bennis et al. 1961). Thus, one might ask about the likely contours of a research program and of an energy policy designed along the lines suggested above. On the other hand, as social learning can only come with practice and action, it is not possible to spell out completely ex ante a design for policy-in-the-making.

68Therefore, we cannot sketch what problem formulation might have been generated by a learning process that has not been set in motion nor what policy outcome might have ensued. The history of most policies over time is a sort of ongoing dialogue between planners and plannees. The great limitation of a policy framework that does not build on this and provide a forum for such exchanges is that it is bound to become dated very quickly and that the best features of this arrested plan are likely to be lost in the process of evolution.

69Some of the great successes in policymaking have come out of a liberation from the fixation on goals and controls and from a gamble on process and a well-managed forum. Geoffrey Vickers (1965) has taken the lead in the analysis of policymaking in this way, but there have also been interesting initiatives in Canada (Law Reform Commission). However, this view is not yet widely held.

70Problems are often wicked, and the design of a learning system is the only way to break the artificial barrier between problem formulation and the process of implementation. In the alternative approach, both components merge smoothly into each other and an evolutionary way of handling issues becomes the norm. The same process has been shown to work in private decision-making (Schon 1983). It may not be as tidy as dogma or mathematics would edict, but it has the definite advantage of dealing with actual phenomena.

Notes de fin

1 This paper also appeared in Energy Studies Review 1989, 1(1), 55–69.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1999

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