Not “Why don’t they listen to us?” but rather: “What should we listen for from them. . .”

We want policymakers and politicians to treat our research and analysis seriously, but we rarely turn the cart around and ask: What more should we be listening for from them beyond the substance of what they are saying? It’s not just what they say but how they say it.

How would we identify those who talk as if they’d listen to what we have to say? How do we identify policy types where no amount of our research and analysis would ever be sought? In short, what are we missing that’s right in front of us as they articulate what they’re saying?

For me, two sets of positive statements stand out indicating the kind of receptivity to research and analysis we would like to hear from policy types:

“with respect to,” “under what conditions,” “this is a case of”. For example, it’s risks and uncertainties with respect to these failure scenarios and not those that we should be worried about. It’s under those conditions and not these that we take action. What we are talking about is something different, its being a case of . . .

“Here’s our track record…,” “Here are our measures of success…or failure”. Did what actually happened match what was originally proposed? Or, how does what actually happened compare to the success record of others in like situations? Or, what would have happened even had not the policy been implemented?

These statements (and variants) reduce to versions of “yes, but” or “yes, and,” and in so doing indicate the willingness and the ability of the speakers to identify differences that matter for policy and management.

What, though, about the negative statements to be listened for? Am I the only one who trembles when some senior government officials says of a particularly tricky state of affairs, “We need to clear the table and make a fresh start“? Dangerous dumbing down is occurring when you hear this and the like from policy types:

–“It’s a win-win, so who can be against it?” (when everyone within hearing distance knows winners rarely if ever compensate losers), “We just need the political will” (when obviously we’ve had too much political will in committing to any and everything), “If implemented as planned” (when the entire point is you cannot assume any such thing); and

–“It’ll pay for itself” (when costs, let alone benefits, can’t be measured, aren’t evenly distributed nor even collectively borne), “We must do this at all costs” (when what the policy types are really doing is refusing to tell you the likely ones), and “Failure is not an option” (when failure is always a very real possibility in complex situations).

And yes, we did better in the Marshall Plan, the Moon Landing, or other Standalone. But there are no guarantees that “just because” we did that once, we’re able to do it for an entirely different type of problem, like eliminating racial discrimination or income inequality. Instead, what we want to hear from policy types is, “Here’s what to do even now. . .

It’s no one else’s responsibility but ours to sharpen our skills in listening-out-for when it comes to policy talk. The duty is to listen out for those willing and able to dial in details for the very different answers to: What do we know? What should we do? What can we hope?

(Special thanks to Paul Schulman in thinking through and wording some points.)

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