I was reading this article on Vox by Ezra Klein and I was absolutely floored by this line:
If you’re not familiar with the Underpants Gnomes, they were invented by the creators of South Park, and appeared in the episode Gnomes; which is helpfully summarised on the Wikipedia page.
In the episode the Underpants Gnomes have a plan to make profit which consists of three phases, set out in the screenshot below:
If you can't see the image above it says:
Phase 1: Collect underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit
Klein’s usage in his Vox article was the first time I had seen reference to an Underpants Gnomes theory of something, but, apparently its use in analysis of policy and political economy goes back quite a way. Forbes has a nice article that explains its applications to political economy.
Basically, the Underpants Gnomes have a view of the world that links the collection of underpants to profit via some mechanism that they can’t explain, and likely doesn’t exist. When I saw Klein use it, I was struck by how powerful and widely applicable the idea can be.
For example, in Indonesian infrastructure you see this kind of thinking.
Phase 1: Make a speech about how Indonesia needs USD 450 billion of infrastructure investment between 2015-2019.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Indonesia gets all the infrastructure investment it needs
We have been in Phase 1 for the last three years, and haven’t yet seen any evidence that infrastructure investment is accelerating at the rate needed.
Another example could be from PPP.
Phase 1: Create PPP policy framework
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Indonesia has dozens of PPP projects
We have been in various stages of Phase 1 for a decade now, give or take…
I certainly don’t want to give the impression that Phase 2 in either of the above plans is easy! Most of my career has been spent trying to figure out exactly what they involve (after a decade, I do have some partial theories…).
The general point is that a plan needs to do more than identify a problem, and a desired outcome. To really effect change, you have to follow the thinking process all the way through.
I don’t know about you, but I plan to add this idea to my policy analysis toolkit! Now I just have to think about how I translate it into Indonesian for the first time I pull it out in a meeting with my government counterparts…