Water: Why “the Rubik’s Cube of public policy” misses the point

Rubik's Cube

Rubik's Cube, courtesy Wikimedia, subject to GFDL

In an interview with Sacramento’s Capital Report, California resources secretary John Laird got off the water wonks’ quip of a lifetime:

Water is the Rubik’s Cube of public policy.

It will be quoted for all eternity. But really, it’s a lousy metaphor. Here’s the meat of what he said:

The thing that probably works to our advantage to get towards some agreement is, for the first time in a long time, the status quo in the Delta benefits no one. The fish populations are crashing. Judges were turning off the exports. So there’s almost no one that isn’t dissatisfied with what’s going on in the Delta.

And the two dual goals are somewhat elegant in that sense. I’m always fond of saying everybody is firmly committed to one of the two goals.

With a Rubik’s Cube, everyone agrees about what a solution might look like. It’s really hard to get there, but we all agree that the goal is a cube where each face is covered by squares of a single color.

But the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is not like that. The problem is “wicked”, by which we mean that there is no general agreement on the nature of the problem, and our solutions all hinge on the argument over the problem definition. Laird himself is acknowledging that when he admits that the “co-equal goals” aren’t really co-equal – that all the actors really favor one or the other. Co-equal is make-believe. And when you spread out into the delta itself, we’ve really got a lot more ways of defining the problem.

So no, Rubik’s cube not so much.


  1. Mr Laird needs to find a better way to describe his work. “Elegant” is probably not the best characterization of the problem he faces. How does he propose to build more consensual processes, if not through a “co” metaphor?

  2. Having played with and solved a Rubik’s Cube as a child I think Mr. Laird’s analogy is actually not far off the mark. What Mr. Laird fails to realize is that without real transparency in the decision making process he is manipulating a cube with no colors. He will spin and twist forever without coming any closer to a solution as long as this failing is not addressed.

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