Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dueling policy tips II: tips for scientific and other experts when dealing with policy-makers

(Dueling policy tips part 1 here.)

I'm no big fish politically, but I have experience with scientists and other experts that provide advice to us at our water district and I know lots of local level politicians with similar interactions. The tips for the experts listed below are based on actual events that happened to somebody:

Don't change your mind. I know, the objections are starting, but I just want you to understand the effects first. Want to know what ruins a politician's day? When she has taken a public position based on your expert advice, especially a position that's against her political interest but you told her it was necessary, and then you reverse your opinion. If you want a policy-maker to listen to experts, then you have to be aware of this problem.

Okay, you object validly about needing to change your mind sometimes, but you can help in advance if you announce your uncertainty level. If the politician knows there's a reasonable chance you'll change your mind, then her public positions might reflect that, and at least you've got a defense when you get some angry blowback for changing your mind. Related:  if your policy recommendations are based on bright line criteria that are just barely met, then specify that in case a revised analysis shows those those criteria aren't met. This last one happened on my watch, and I could've helped with public acceptance of expert opinion had I known in advance what was going on.

Other tips on mind-changing:  if you do change your mind, tell the policy-maker. The only thing worse for the policy-maker than finding out the experts now have a different opinion is to learn they've had the different opinion for the last six months and never said anything. Give the unpleasant news early, and if it's possible to do so informally and before it becomes public, and then the policy-maker has a chance to neutralize the fallout. Also, if you're Expert B taking over from Expert A, figure out ASAP if you're changing any opinions. The political problem is the same whether it's a changed expert mind or change of expert minds.

As for expressing your expert opinion, translate analysis into policy language but don't push for one outcome. The expert mistakes here are being too far on either side - if you explain your work like you're at a poster session or seminar, then you're not helping. If you're seen as trying to box in the policy-makers, then they won't trust you or your analysis. You should help the policy-maker understand the policy implications without trying to take over the politician's job. Similarly, pointing out the political implications is helpful so long as it doesn't reach political conclusions. If you're supposed to make a policy recommendation, that's fine, and even if you're not, it's no big deal when the policy-maker can read between the lines and guess your opinion. The big mistake is to withhold information that doesn't support your policy recommendation.

Above paragraph applies to experts in their roles of advising policy-makers, but they have every right to wear other hats. Jim Hansen, Carl Sagan, and Rachel Carson were and are right to tell the public on their own time that their expertise leads them to urgent policy conclusions.

The one other exception about not pushing for an outcome is when you're a hired gun for policy advocates instead of policy-makers. In that situation, ethics demand that you be honest, but your job is to present the best case for your side, not a balanced presentation with equal weight given to opposing positions. The policy-makers will know they need to look elsewhere to supplement the opposing position.

I'm sure there's more advice. I've been curious about Pielke Jr.'s book about honest brokers, but his track record is not good. Buying the book will likely provide the wrong financial incentives, so I haven't read it.


Anonymous said...

"Related: if your policy recommendations are based on bright line criteria that are just barely met, then specify that in case a revised analysis shows those criteria aren't met."
If decisions are made based on measureable criteria, it helps to including a decision tree with your recommendations for clarity. Criteria with yes/no arrows and then actions based on the criteria. This helps with changes in recommendations based on new or updated information. You can then go back to the decision tree and re-asses your actions. without it being interpreted as changing your mind.
-Dirt Girl

Russell Seitz said...

Were and are wannabe Sagans right in hiring PR firms to hammer the nuance out of their rhetoric ?

The latest avatar of the pontifical tradition, Lord Lawson needs a good talking to:

Hank Roberts said...

Also useful to know who's doing the dueling on the other side. Got chromium?