I Have 99 Problems But A Policy Ain't One (Part 1)

Over the past 10 years in debates, many of my juniors and students have often asked me how to determine whether the motion requires a policy, and if so how elaborate the policy needs to be. Today I wish to shed some light on my own approach towards tackling policy debates that I have developed through 10 years of trial and error.

The inherent problem: Generally policies are enacted with clear and distinct objectives in mind, this generally means that there is an underlying problem/problems inherent to the motion for which the policy is the solution to.

Alternative solutions: There is great disagreement among experienced debaters over whether opposition needs to provide a counter-model and counter-policy in such debates. Some debaters believe that Opposition merely needs to prove that Government’s policy causes more harm than good, whereas others believe that Opposition needs to provide an alternative solution to the problem instead of just defending status quo.

Is it a good idea for Opposition to defend status quo?
As always, the honest but unsatisfactory answer is that it depends. Generally, good policy motions tend to have compelling real world problems prevalent in our society. This means that the Status Quo tends to be highly imperfect, which is what makes the motion a good debate topic to begin with. Essentially, if the status quo wasn’t problematic in some way, it would be hard for a debate motion to provide meaningful discussions. However, just because problems exist currently, doesn’t mean that any changes that government proposes will necessarily improve the situation.

How does one defend the status quo (current situation)?

  1. Explain why the problem is not urgent or that there there may be greater concerns given limited resources in physical/political/social capital. Also, government's policy may be ineffective and/or lead to backlash or side-effects which may be counter-productive. (I will explain further in Part 2 of this article series.) 

  2. Explain why there is trend analysis of the situation improving without the need for further government intervention. (also known as the organic change argument)

Crucially, the biggest mistake debaters make when defending the status quo is that they spend LESS time and effort describing and analyzing what the current situation looks like as compared to if they were running a counter-policy.

Always remember that in such situations that the Status Quo:

  1. Is your relevant frame of comparison in the debate should you choose not to run a counter-policy.

  2. Will come under sustained attack by your opponents as being inadequate to solve the inherent problem.

  3. Will most likely be misrepresented by your opponents later in the debate, if they haven’t already done so. Even if your opponents are lying outright, the judge in many cases cannot step in to correct them and you will be penalized for failing to respond.

Therefore, it is important to defend the status quo as thoroughly as you would a counter-policy.                               

3 things to take note:

  1. The proposed policy is the solution to some sort of problem. Identify the inherent problem/problems in the debate; spend up to 1/3 of your prep time on this. Imagine you are an actual policy maker dealing with what is likely a complex and multifaceted problem with multiple stakeholders. Use standard brainstorming techniques you would use if you were preparing for an essay/a consultancy project/a business plan. DO NOT rush yourself into forming arguments before you brainstorm.
    As the old adage goes, if you FAIL to PLAN, you are PLANNING to FAIL. Governments do not randomly construct and implement policies without first identifying the relevant problems and stakeholders, neither should you. The initial planning period will make give the rest of your prep time a sense of direction and make it more efficient.

    Even for debates in the BP format where my team is in Opening Government, if I have no idea what the motion requires of me, there have been many times where I spend the ENTIRETY of my 15 minutes prep doing nothing but brainstorming. It is better to have nothing written down on your paper but a clear idea of what the debate is about than to randomly scribble down the first argument that comes to mind. Most debaters who have some degree of experience will be able to give a reasonable speech without much written down if they have a sufficient understanding of what they have to prove.

  2. What is your policy mechanism?
    The proposed mechanism doesn’t have to be super-elaborate. Many policies implemented by governments may require hundreds of pages to document, you only have 5-8 minutes in your speech, depending on the debate format. As usual, it is best to follow the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) rule, and be as concise as possible, as long as it is quite clear what exactly you are proposing.

For example, in the motion THW require social media companies to give parents access to their children’s accounts. It is clear that the motion requires the government to pass some sort of law.

a) How would this law work?

b) What are social media companies expected to do?

c) How would this law be enforced?

Our policy would be as such:

We would require all social media companies to do an identity check upon sign-up, requiring users to provide proof of their age. If the user is below a certain age, 16/18, they will be asked to provide contact details of their parents, whose identities will also be verified so that they can be provided with access to their children’s accounts. Failure to comply with said law would result in heavy fines for the company.

You may choose to provide a more intricate policy by specifying what type of access parents will be provided. Will it be read-only access? Perhaps they should be given moderator privileges to vet all content their children post before it is put up online? Perhaps there should be different age limits at which parents have varying degrees of access. For example, after the age of 14, parents should no longer have access to their private messages.

The specifics of your policy will depend on what you are ready to defend and what your policy hopes to achieve.

3. Policy debates are about comparisons against the alternative. This is very often the status quo which your opponent may defend, but you should beware of potential counter-policies, especially the ones which your opponent will claim is non-mutually exclusive to yours.

One of the most common responses Opp has to a policy is to claim that certain elements of that policy is non-mutually exclusive. As such Affirmative has to detail the unique elements of their policy and what their policy can uniquely achieve that cannot be replicated in the status quo or with any other counter-policy. In the above example, providing parents access to their children’s social media accounts is the only way parents can effectively monitor their children’s activities on those platforms, it is also the only way to allow parents to make appropriate interventions when they are made aware of potential problems.

P.S We will announce the winner of our give-away at the end of the month! For the months of July and August, Reuben and I will be giving away one hour of our time to provide you with personalized video-conference coaching. To qualify for this give-away, simply leave a comment below with the hashtag #julycoaching.

I Have 99 Problems But A Policy Ain't One (Part 2)

UADC 2017: The Good, The Bad, and The Pizza