In my government strategy course, I present a public sector policy and have my participants step back and ask themselves: What could go wrong with this policy? Could it backfire and exacerbate a problem instead of solving it?
The Cobra Effect is a term used to describe the law of unintended consequences using an anecdote that supposedly happened in India. During British rule, the government in Delhi was concerned about the increasing number of fatalities due to the venomous bite of cobra snakes. The policymakers met and came up with the brilliant idea of giving a bounty for each dead cobra.
Initially, the plan was a great success as word got around, and many people started killing cobras. The culling decreased the deaths from cobra bites, which the government wanted to achieve.
However, as the months passed, the government noticed that cobra attacks started to increase again. After months of investigation, policymakers discovered that some clever entrepreneurs had left their jobs and began breeding cobras and then killing them to get the bounty. Unfortunately, many of these “clever” entrepreneurs did not know how to breed cobras safely, so they were stung and died.
When the government found this out, they canceled the bounty program. Unfortunately, cobra attacks continued to rise. Why? Because when the government withdrew the bounty program, all the entrepreneurs let their cobras go, and as a result, cobra attacks increased even more. In a nutshell, the government’s policy backfired; instead of decreasing cobra attacks, the policy had the exact opposite effect.
A more recent example is the Brigham Young University policy on Covid. In 2020, the university wanted to decrease the number of Covid cases by encouraging people to test and isolate. To motivate students to get tested, the university offered $100 to each person who tested positive. As a result, “clever” students would intentionally infect themselves to get that free money. Rather than decreasing the number of cases, the university inadvertently caused a massive increase in infections.
The Cobra Effect is one of the many examples we discuss in Meirc’s course on Strategy Development in the Government and Public Sectors. To learn more, sign up for our course by following this link https://www.meirc.com/training-courses/government-public-sector/strategy-management-in-the-government-and-public-sectors
Brigham Young University, Covid Policy, Spring 2020
Levitt, S and Dubner, S. (2010) Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Penguin.
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