Analysis: The Difficult Intersection of Tragedy and Public Policy

Anyone trying to influence public policy will move where the public’s attention takes them, into the edges of the spotlight around events that might make their arguments for them.

A large crowd congregates during a community gathering in honor of Haruka Weiser on the University of Texas campus on April 7, 2016.

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Policy vultures — the people and organizations ready to pounce on news that attracts public attention to their causes — are fast.

Whatever their interests — college campus safety, protecting children in dangerous home situations, drugs or people coming illegally across the international border — they descend quickly upon news that suits their ends, and it doesn’t matter (much) to them whether you’re offended or not. Public policy is manufactured from horrible anecdotes, like traffic lights installed after fatal accidents at bad intersections.

When Haruka Weiser was killed this month, walking on the University of Texas at Austin campus from a dance rehearsal to her dorm, the the process began afresh. A college freshman is dead on a campus run by the state itself. The homeless foster child accused of killing her was missing from a program administered by the same government. In another, unrelated incident, 4-year-old Leiliana Wright was beaten to death in March, two months after state investigators and caseworkers were alerted to the dangers she faced. 

Students, parents, foster families, government workers and officials, advocates and the general public all turned their gazes, many of them asking the state to react.

One group called for attention to its pre-existing demands to police the homeless population around UT. Several groups laced into the state’s foster care program, noting that the alleged killer was not only homeless but also a product of the state’s broken child protection programs. Another used the murder as a talking point in its campaign to allow more permissive gun rules on campus.

Anyone trying to influence public policy will move where the public’s attention takes them, into the edges of the spotlight around events that might make their policy points for them. Public shootings, messy arrests, indictments of politicians, murders, instances of child and elder abuse, voters blocked from voting — the influencers notice whatever gets our notice and jump in to make their points.

Ignoring those incidents is no real option. Emails from Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, reported last week by The Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters, show Abbott’s quick and sustained efforts to respond to the troubles in Child Protective Services. This week, Abbott put a former Texas Ranger in charge of the Department of Family and Protective Services, opting for law enforcement expertise over experience in the agency’s areas of concern. House Speaker Joe Straus weighed in, too, saying CPS will be a top priority when the Legislature returns in January and noting that “this is not a new challenge or a simple one.”

That’s an understatement. The problems are not fixed, by any means — a federal judge sent in two “special masters” to oversee the state’s efforts to set those programs right. The powers that be have turned their attention and time to the problem, just like you would hope and expect them to do.

Credit the policy vultures, even the ones with the biggest finesse deficits. The recurring tragedies at Child Protective Services are proof that politicians often need to be needled constantly to do their work.

We have perfected the practice of “government by squeaky wheel.” Sometimes, the spurring is from political movements like the Tea Party, sometimes from lawsuits that force the state to do its job in the prisons. Other times, that spurring focuses on  the care of disabled citizens, or how resources are divided among the state’s public schools. Then there is the public outcry after a disaster caused by humans or by nature.

It often seems like a particular event is enough to set things right. It almost never is.

Nothing gets done in the world except when people are paying attention, when they are riled enough to rise from their living rooms to demand adjustments and repairs. You can’t blame the politicians and the advocates for jumping when the opportunity arises.

Our collective attention spans are very short. It’s easy enough to make policy or law when public interest is sustained. For several years running, immigration and border security have topped poll results for most important problems facing Texas, and that’s why it is hard to find a candidate for almost anything who hasn’t mentioned those issues in speeches and mailers.

Welfare issues like foster care and the protection of children are more episodic. Public interest ebbs and flows. The vultures might seem over-eager, opportunistic, impolite and unwelcome. But they’ve usually been waiting a long time for attention.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.