Outcomes in the Service of Process

It has been said that there are two kinds of legitimacies involved in policy making: input and output. Input legitimacy is procedural legitimacy, i.e. do the people feel like they have a real say. Output legitimacy comes with the acceptability of outcomes. There is a fundamental tension between these kinds of legitimacy insofar as the one depends on the involvement of the people and the other depends on the involvement of experts.

There is a tendency to reconcile them by arguing that the people, like the experts have valuable knowledge and information to contribute (e.g. their lived experience). This may motivate us to invest more in input, but even at its best this will be input in the service of output. That is, at the end of the day we are still only motivated to pay attention to input only insofar as output is improved.

This might seem like it isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it does produce a coherent picture of policy making and it does lead to better policies (and isn’t that the point?). To understand why inputs in the service of outputs, even at their best, are always inadequate we need to understand the difference between a harm and a wrong.

Suppose for example that you have a fatal but curable illness. The thing is that the cure must come through a needle and you are deathly afraid of needles. Your doctor, upon learning this, waits until you fall asleep and while you are asleep injects you with the cure. Has he harmed you? He saved your life. Has he wronged you? Unquestionably. Rational or not, you had a right to consent to or refuse that medical treatment and the doctor disregarded that right (making what he did assault).

Output legitimacy, broadly speaking, is concerned with improving welfare and avoiding harm. Input legitimacy, however, is fundamentally concerned with rights (i.e. all those who have a right to be included ought to be included). If we only consult a patient for example insofar as it helps their health we are not respecting their rights.

The only time we can be absolutely sure that rights are being respected is when output serves input, an idea much harder to accept. Output serving input is where the ultimate policy, regardless of its success on any metric genuinely reflects and validates the involvement of those who made it.

In Canada, perhaps the most important example of where this needs to happen is in a genuine nation-nation relationship between the federal government and the hundreds of First Nations, M├ętis, and Inuit. Much well intentioned colonial policy has taken all decision-making power out of the hands of the people themselves in the name of outcomes for those people. Indeed, when funding or any decision-making authority is hesitantly given over, it is with the most possible oversights, which again are geared toward the outcomes. Ironically this has produced terrible results. Output serving input means that the government is quite willing to see a policy fail if it means guaranteeing the genuine ownership over the policy by the people.

Now, ideally, you want both output to serve input and input to serve input, but since the tendency of our era is to lean very heavily to one side I think much more emphasis should be placed on output serving input.