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Public Policy 101: Understanding Policy

It is important for the public to understand how to understand policy, especially when it is in the process of being deliberated and adopted. As a policymaker, I want to share some of the finer points of policy making, especially into today political climate.
My views do not represent the City of Los Angeles or the Department of City Planning.

Every year, a large number of policies are deliberated at all levels of government. Some are passed, some are postponed, some are dead upon arrival.

In a democratic government, almost all of these policies are heard in some form or another by the public. However, there are a lot of nuances to understanding them and because the public are not generally versed in understanding policy, there are ways to get policies passed by influencing public sentiment or despite public sentiment.

To make it easier for you to understand policies, especially those you care about, the following are three important things to look for to avoid supporting a policy on misguided assumptions. They are listed in order of complexity:

1. Intent

Policies come with a statement of intent, usually stated in its project description, its summary, or its text. Often, they are accompanied by a report that further explicates the need, the background, and the proposed solutions of the policy. Some policies come with extensive marketing and public communications as well; this is particularly true in ballot initiatives.

Like any good marketing campaigns and public communications, however, what I just described can be misleading if not completely untrue. You see this often in the media or marketing campaigns, where they latch onto the stated intents or singular parts of the policy and promote them without actually explaining how the policy sets out to achieve its stated goals. The true intent of the policy is usually not found the aforementioned documents but rather in the whole of the text – how does the policy propose to achieve what it set out to do?

What you, the public, need to do is to understand how each component work with one another and how the components correlate with the state goals.

For example, if a policy is proposing to encourage development by removing development standards and restrictions, you need to ask what the exceptions are, or in other words what kind of projects do not get the proposed relief from standards and restrictions, and if there is a corresponding tightening of standards in other parts of the policy. If the exceptions affect the majority of the city (or the particular geographic distinction) or there is tightening of standards, then what you have on your hands is not a policy that promotes development, but rather one that restricts it.

2. Definitions

Definitions can be used to shape public perception. Within a policy, there are typically a number of terms and words that need definition. Most of the time, the definitions are details at the beginning or end of the policy. Sometimes, the definitions are within the text linking to existing laws. These definitions are usually key to understanding what the policy is proposing, especially ones linking to existing laws. What you think a term might mean might actually be defined very differently within the policy.

Sometimes, a term is important but not defined. In those instances, it can become problematic and usually you need to rely on a memorandum or a report by the responsible agency.

Other times, a term is defined elsewhere but redefined specifically within the proposed policy. The differences between the definitions then becomes critical.

For example, California has clear definitions of Affordable Housing and the rent to be associated with different income levels. However, the City of Los Angeles has its own rent definitions. This has implications on the types of affordable housing that is being built in the city.

3. Assumptions

This might be stating the obvious, especially if you already read the text to parse out the intent and the definitions of a policy, but it cannot be overstated.

For many, figuring out the intent and the definitions will probably be enough to convince them to support or oppose a policy. For others, it is the understanding of the assumptions of the policy that is important. This usually requires background understanding of the current conditions.

Similar to any decision you make in your life, a policy is created based certain assumptions. One of the biggest problems I see with people’s support or opposition of policies is the lack of understanding of their assumptions. People can hold assumptions that do not align with a policy’s, which can lead to a misunderstanding or a certain perception of a policy. Marketing campaigns for policies tend to take advantage of these assumptions, perceived or otherwise. What you need to understand is what the proposed policy takes into account and what the proposed policy disregards.

For example, a policy may make assumptions that requiring affordable housing necessitates a certain amount of incentives to developers, otherwise it is not economically feasible. Yet, the public might assume that the government is catering to the interests of the developers without understanding that because of certain existing laws, this is the one of the only ways to impose affordability requirements. So instead of picking a battle with the existing law, the public picks a battle with the proposed policy.


In today’s climate, it becomes ever more important to be engaged with the public process. There’s a wealth of information out there; some are credible, some are not. It becomes important to learn how to cut through the noise. I hope with this quick guide you will find it easier to engaged in the public discourse and with public policies.

Los Angeles – No to Measure S

Dear Friends in the City of Los Angeles,

For those of you who are residents and are able to vote, there is a ballot measure to take an important stand against in next week’s local elections: Measure S. L.A. Times, Governor Brown, Mayor Garcetti, and many others have came out against this measure, (here, herehere, here, here, herehere, and here) which will basically prohibit development in the City for the next two years and make it extremely difficult in the years after (to be explained below).

For those of you that don’t know, the City of Los Angeles like the rest of California, is in the midst of a housing crisis. With a vacancy rate hovering around 2%, the supply of housing is extremely tight and housing costs are skyrocketing. What most people don’t realize is that at around $56,000, the median wage in Los Angeles is actually not that high, yet average home sale prices have now soared above half a million. That is lunacy. Renters are also suffering, with many paying more than 30% of their paycheck on rent – this is unsustainable for many and detrimental to long-term wealth outcomes of households. Just as policies are starting to come online to provide more housing for the City, Measure S is proposing to shut it down.

I am sure MANY of you feel that housing crunch.

Though numbers do vary, around 54% of the City is zoned residential, of which 40% of the City is zoned single-family residential and another 10 to 15% low-density. Measure S is aiming to protect this majority of sprawl-like, low-density neighborhoods.

In the City of Los Angeles, some of the biggest reasons for that are myriad zoning regulations, inadequate land use zoning (the dominance of single-family and low density zoning), outdated Community Plans, and anti-development movements. Most of our Community Plans are more than 10 years old, hence two of the ways to deal with outdated land use is general plan amendments and zone changes. Measure S will eliminate these tools permanently, essentially killing all development in the City, as a majority of the development will require some kind of zoning relief.

Despite what the absurd amount of mailers supporters of the measure have sent out, most of them are blatant lies. I have seen one that says Measure S will provide housing for homeless veterans. Let me ask you this, how are you going to house the homeless when you stop development?

Friends, I urge you to do the right thing. For you and the future, vote NO against Measure S.

Lastly, in today’s political climate, it is more important than ever to be active political participants. Next week’s election will allow you to choose the next Mayor and Council members. This is your CIVIC DUTY! This is a chance to keep Los Angeles an attractive city and make it more affordable for not just us, who live here now, but future immigrants.

A city is only great because of its diversity and diversity comes from affordability and immigration.

(Image via L.A. Times)


Letters on Tues(Thurs)days – Departures

Dear Wilton,

The shift in delivery from Tuesday to Thursday has been unintentional. With the holidays coming up, my schedule has been packed full, both inside and outside of work. In many ways holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, are about reunions and returns, however I wish to take up the topic of departures. It is the opposite side of the same coin; to return and reunite means that you are departing from somewhere, some place you currently are. Therefore, it is not necessarily an unrelated or opposing topic. Finally, I am sure it is a poignant topic for you, as our family returns to Taiwan after 20 years abroad.

It is always hard to imagine leaving a place for good, or even for a few years. You might not know it, but bonds are easily developed and can quickly thicken. Like roots, they hold you in place and they want to hold you in place. Yet, you will find as you approach and finally go into your twenties, departures become more frequent. The bonds you develop are overcome by circumstances. Though it goes without saying that life is filled with departures, it accelerates as you reach adulthood. With the way life is in the present era, I would even venture to say, leaving any place after two years can be counted as a significant departure – increasing the possibility of departures. Yet, so far in my description, it does not even include the people (and pets) who depart from your life.

With each subsequent departure, it becomes easier to deal with. If you were truly optimistic, perhaps you already see it as a new beginning, a new adventure every time. It took me a while to shift to this type of mindset. I must admit, I am still sentimental about the past but it is no longer melancholic; I no longer dwell in my memories as much. Just in the past five years, I have experienced four departures. That frequency certainly blunted the pain associated. The fact that I arrived at better places after each also helped my moving on, though it was not easy. Memories and bonds are not easy to break through and to let go of, but you can always look forward to creating new ones.

I could remember the pain and the distress in your voice when we talked about your own departure from Hong Kong. It is not easy. I remember my own departures when I was your age. Knowing this probably won’t bring comfort, but as our parents once said to me, don’t worry this is only temporary. Of course, the implication is that you will face similar situations again and again in the future. I don’t know about you, but I hated them for transferring me to Hong Kong International School. That is okay. You can be upset and you can be hurt. Let your feelings out and grieve for your loss, but don’t dwell in it. In the end, you must turn them into new adventures and opportunities for yourself. There will always be new departures to embrace.

One day, this journey will finally reach calmer waters, but then again, as with most things life, maybe not.

With Love,

Your Brother

Letters on Tues(Thurs)days – A Travel Plan Without Plan

As the rain encroaches…

Dear Wilton,

As you know I went to Panama last week for four days for a short Thanksgiving vacation. It was a surreal experience and here I am to discuss the trip and my planning (or rather the lack of) as a metaphor.

No matter how much you plan, life always have something else in mind – not that I was big on plans to begin with. Fortune, good or bad, will always lead you somewhere, whether you want to be there or not.

The decision to go can be considered spontaneous, but I have known that I was going to Panama since September. Though, to keep in that spirit of the spontaneous, I neglected to plan anything. This type of spontaneity has been a big part of my travels since college: spontaneous road trips, flights, visits. What made it different this time is that I did not even look at any points of interest until the day before. Even then, all I found where places to go but not how to get there. In some ways, this allow for incredible flexibility and adaptability.

I didn’t worry too much because it is not hard to find out how to get places once you are there.

Turns out, getting around Panama City wasn’t difficult despite my lack of Spanish. As an aside, do learn a third language other than English and Mandarin, it does wonders when you travel.

Fortune was kind to me on this trip. We were waiting for the bus on our first day and I got fed up and decided to find lunch. Yet, we were told that the restaurant didn’t open until noon and just as I turned away with even more disappointment, the bus showed up. If it didn’t show up, I would have missed visiting the Biodiversity Museum on the first day. All the subsequent days would be very different. Instead of being able to go hike in the jungle of the Metropolitan National Park and see sloths and monkeys, I would have been trying to visit the Museum on the second day. These changes probably would have prevent us from going to the Gamboa Rainforest Resort.

Another example of this was on the last day. I arranged for a taxi to take us to Panama Viejo, the old Spanish settlement in Panama, and then to the airport. The taxi was supposed to wait for an hour at the monument, yet when we got there, the driver insisted on our leaving within half an hour. There was no doubt that I was frustrated, especially considering how expensive the taxi was going to be. However, just as we were leaving, rain started pouring down from the sky. It literally would not have matter even if I succeeded in bargaining for my extra half hour.

If I had planned an exact schedule with precise modes of transportation and detailed sequences of points of interest, none of this would have been possible. It rained three out of the four days we were there. The weather alone would have throw off any sort of plans.

Plans can be reassuring. People make plans then back them up with more plans. It can be important to structure life. It brings about comfort and a sense of safety. Yet, what we need to realize is that no matter how many plans you make and back-ups you have, fortune will throw a wrench into it. In many ways, I find it more satisfying to do as our ancestors did – take what may come.

What we need to do is always be flexible and keep an open mind. Undoubtedly, I got frustrated with the bus and the taxi, but ultimately I could have been more cheerful about it as they did turn out for the better.

If anything at all, I am re-learning lessons about letting go. The less you weigh you give to things out of your control, the more enjoyable life becomes. Good fortune becomes pleasant surprises that light up your days.

With Love,

Your Brother

Letters on Tuesdays – Thanksgiving

Mom and Dad, circa 1988?

Dear Wilton,

In light of the recent world events, it is a good time to reflect on something more positive as Thanksgiving is here. Perhaps, to you, it is just a prelude to a long winter holiday. I remember those days when I was your age. Thanksgiving, as an American tradition, held no meaning for our family.

However, since coming to the States and having spent several Thanksgivings with my dear friends and their families who hosted me, I learned that it is indeed a good thing to have a day set aside to reflect on the positive.

Every year, every day, every second something can easily go wrong. Sometimes it can go so wrong your life depends on the next move you make. So, it is because of this exact unpredictability and fragility that we should celebrate gratitude.

I will keep it simple today. Let us remember to thank those who came into our lives. Let us reflect on the beauty of the natural world and all the positive things that happened to us this year.

On another note. See you soon!

With Love,

Your Brother

Letters on Tuesdays – Seeing the World

Dear Wilton,

We have been very privileged. Remember to thank mom and dad. Our parents never really stopped us from exploring the world around us, though sometimes it definitely made them uncomfortable. They were not passive either. Indeed, you can recall the numerous times that they took us on vacations to different countries in an effort to broaden our worldview and our horizons.

Travelling and seeing the world take on different meanings as you grow older. As a kid, I was fascinated by the physical differences of all the places we went. Every place looked different and felt different. Some, like Singapore, was hot and humid. Others, like Thailand, was more rural and resort-like. Still others, like Japan, was highly technologically advanced. I was focused, always, on the present moment and present location. Slowly, however, I began to become more interested in the fabric that makes each place unique: history, environment, people, culture, etc.

Perhaps the change was driven by my own interests in history and biology, further developed by my pursuit of an anthropology minor in college and then later, a masters degree in social sciences. There is not a single right way to travel and see the world but, to me, I believe the more holistic a view of a place, the more you learn and enjoy.

Dad used to travel differently, though he falls into his old habits. Every place we went to, he would have a full itinerary. He hustled our family to every possible point of interest in as efficient an amount of time possible. What he didn’t realize is, for us, it made travelling a task instead of something to enjoy. It also made it difficult for your sisters and I to develop strong memories of a place. Most of my memories of our family vacations are faded, recalled only in old photographs. My favorite family travel memories from those days are of the times when your sisters and I got to play around and relax, like playing on the beach in Phuket or crying after Space Mountain in Tokyo.

We definitely changed that. You might recalled the easy way we experienced Yellowstone as a family in 2014, when we really took our time to explore and to learn about the park and its surrounding areas and towns. We biked along a creek and had ice-cream, literally all the time. There were still times when dad was on edge about how little we seemed to be doing, but this style of leisure definitely suited mom, your sisters, and me better.

We are too hard on him. Everyone approaches travel differently. Who knows, maybe you actually prefer dad’s method. To him, travel is like stamp-collecting (one of his hobbies as a kid, if you didn’t know). Dad wants to see as many points of interest as possible and collecting as many sights as he can. That is an admirable endeavor. This type of travel is definitely become more prevalent, with the rise of technology like Yelp, Foursquare, and Instagram. In some ways, checking-in has become the equivalent of dad’s see-everything-as-efficiently-as-possible. Travel becomes itemized into achievements, which can be amazing as it brings you the focus and goal to see the world. Again, different methods.

You know this by now: there is a lot of the world to see. In the end, you have to decide how to see it and that in turns determines the meanings of your travels.

With Love,

Your Brother