Spotlight Scholar Alasdair Roberts: Can Government Do Anything Right?
Public policy expert puts rapidly shifting global parameters in perspective.
Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while the squares are constantly changing color. That’s what it’s like to wrestle with issues of policy making and governance, according to Alasdair Roberts, UMass Amherst professor of political science and the inaugural director of the university’s new School of Public Policy.
It’s also what piqued Roberts’s interest in the study of government as far back as middle school. “I’ve always enjoyed looking at these problems because they’re so important but also so complex,” he says.
“A lot of experts today are talking as if the world is coming to an end. There have always been moments in our history where it feels like things are falling apart.”
Roberts’s fascination with problem solving and aptitude for clear-headed analysis has earned him a reputation as a voice of reason in a changing world. He’s not afraid to ask thorny questions, as he does in his latest book, Can Government Do Anything Right? (Polity, 2018). His answer? Yes, though it may not always look that way.
“A lot of experts today are talking as if the world is coming to an end,” he explains. “But there have always been moments in our history where it feels like things are falling apart. When people say it’s never been as bad as it is today, they’re almost always wrong.”
Instead, Roberts sees our current disillusionment as a period of transition and adjustment, albeit a painful one that may require patience and some strategic reinvention to ride out successfully. "Old policies no longer fit new realities," he says. “So we have to go back to fundamentals, asking what government should do and how it should do it.”
Roberts has written several books on the subject of government and American politics.Periods like this are far from unique, he points out. What’s important is to stay focused on the big picture. “There’s a temptation, especially in the current administration, to focus on the scandal of the day,” says Roberts, “and the news media feeds that. Yes, we have to pay attention to ethical lapses, but the important questions are about big ideas.”