Sunday, 30 January 2011

Does Prime Minister Rutte require an OR/MS counsellor?

Would the world look a little better if politicians made more use of Operations Research? I think it would. Apart from improving the voting system a little, democracy is mathematically impossible after all, Operations Research will also add value to political decisions. Many of the complex problems a politician has to deal with are the ones we as Operations Researchers like for breakfast!

Fortunately politicians are aware that we are around and know a little of what we can offer. Let me give you an example. In the Netherlands every year on the 3rd Tuesday of September (Prinsjesdag) the Dutch Treasury presents the budget plan for the coming year. Part of the plan is the budget that deals with road construction and maintenance. The height of the budget typically is a political decision (“you need more tarmac to fight traffic jams” is the current political paradigm in the Netherlands. We know they are wrong about that). As with any politically determined budget, it doesn’t cover all that is required to satisfy the ambition levels. So the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment has to figure out a way to deploy the budget in a way that best satisfies the priorities set in their policy. To support them is this puzzle we at ORTEC constructed a model several years ago that helps them make the trade off. With the model, better insights were available leading to better plans (meeting the budget more closely) with focus on satisfying the ambitions levels from the policy at hand.

But Operations Research can offer more than just a capital budgeting model to help manage the public expenditure. Think of major investments like flood protection systems or aircraft like the Joint Strike Fighter. These decisions are very complex and have a high degree of uncertainty with respect to the costs and benefits involved. For example, the estimated cost per flight for the JSF has risen with 90% since 2002. Ever tried to defend a decision based on that kind of uncertainty? Politicians have to. Use of Operations Research can help here, to show the impact of uncertainty and structure the decision process.

It’s not only investment decisions that are complex; the same applies to the organisation of healthcare, deciding on the location of hospitals and the kind of care to offer there. The growing (and sometimes locally shrinking) population and aging are difficult trends to deal with. How to assure public safety with a possible shortage of policemen? How would you make the society more sustainable, organise country and social security, health insurance and pensions? This list of questions could go on forever. Each of them will benefit from the use Operations Research. With Operations Research these questions are dealt with using facts, not feelings or (political) beliefs. Insight will be gained on the major factors that influence the decisions, improving the overall quality, avoiding big mistakes (like CCS under a densely populated residential area) making the world a little better. So dear Mark, let’s get in touch.

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