Rigorous researchers and risk averse decision-makers must overcome their differences and work closer together if we are to achieve better public policy outcomes, Suzi Kerr writes.
Good policy decision-making requires logic, evidence, judgement, learning from experience and effective democratic processes. The research and policy communities can jointly support this, but it’s not always easy. The different personality types in each, and their distinct roles in the democratic process, can combine to create a rich, creative and robust (or even anti-fragile) collaboration, or can lead to missed opportunities or harmful social consequences from poor decisions.
Researchers can help de-politicise fundamentally technical decisions; provide new policy ideas; generate evidence on existing policies to facilitate policy evolution; help avoid policies that would be harmful; and provide evidence and intuition about what might happen with new policies. Why then do the research and policy communities sometimes seem like aliens to each other?
Stereotypically, but as always with a basis in reality, we researchers are socially awkward nerds who prefer to work alone or in small groups. Strongly individualistic, sceptical and critical, we obsess about our reputation among our peers, and value specialisation, innovation and intellectual rigour. These characteristics make good researchers, providers of ideas and challengers of conventional wisdom and policy orthodoxy, but awkward collaborators for policy analysts.
Policy analysts, in contrast, generally work in teams and focus on relationships, communication and process. Policy analysts often develop general skills and move across issues to further their careers. Their institutions are focused on short-term problem solving and on serving politicians’ needs.
To policymakers, researchers can seem impractical, theoretical and out of touch. Researchers can be frustrating to work with when they are unresponsive to urgent needs and miss deadlines.
From the researchers’ point of view, policymakers can seem risk averse, lacking in knowledge and expertise, focused on process not outcomes and poor at listening. Researchers get frustrated at the short-term focus and political sensitivities that often drive policymakers and by the rapid turnover of analysts working on issues.
If policy analysts don’t work with researchers, knowledge will not flow and policy outcomes will be poorer. Governments can help here by supporting some policy analysts to stay in one institution working on one issue for a long time. The analysts can then develop deep issue knowledge and strong relationships with researchers. Researchers can build these individual relationships and also take advantage of their independence from politics to run high-quality dialogue processes on both emerging and long-standing issues.
Dialogues bring together policymakers, researchers, civil society and business under the radar. They focus on building common understanding, mutual trust and respect and creating an atmosphere where ideas can be freely discussed and rigorously challenged, and innovative solutions and compromises can be found. To be effective, dialogues require the careful choice of individuals, excellent technical input, the consistent participation of individuals over extended time periods, insulation from political pressures, and skilful facilitation.
As well as personality differences, policy and research communities have potentially conflicting approaches in three key areas: the questions chosen to research, the timing of the research and decisions, and the type of actions aspired to.
Taking the first of these three – the questions chosen to research – researchers focus on creating new knowledge, on very specific situations or generalisable theoretical insights. They choose questions where they feel research can make progress. This often means that they do not address the big issues that policymakers are struggling with – rendering the research ‘unhelpful’ from their perspective. Policymakers seek decision-relevant research, often in response to complex problems without purely technical solutions – what researchers would view as un-researchable questions and low-quality research.
If researchers can deeply engage in policy discussions they can understand the true complexity of the issues, help identify useful, researchable questions and communicate their intangible knowledge.
Integrated modelling is an increasingly frequent response to complex problems and certain types of researchers and policymakers like to engage in it. This has value, but overuse is risky. After all, we cannot predict the future and policy-making is not engineering. Instead, we can use the models to help us think through possible scenarios and identify unlikely or unexpected outcomes. Using models in this way requires an intuitive understanding of how the model works and how it relates to the more complex reality. Simple models and sustained relationships between modellers and stakeholders, including policy analysts, are critical for the effective use of models. All interesting policy challenges involve political judgements about the likely effects of policies and trade-offs among social objectives. These judgements should not be hidden within seemingly objective models.
Second, the timing of research and decisions. Researchers may be cautious about the application of their results to policy decisions because, if they are smart and intellectually honest, they are aware of how little they know and the limitations of their research. They seek rigour, which takes time to achieve.
Policymakers need to make decisions and need input within political timeframes, but the best research has unpredictable timing; creativity and insight cannot be scheduled. At a more practical level, work with data almost inevitably brings surprises that cause delays. Mutual forbearance and farsighted identification of future research needs can help reconcile these conflicting timeframes.
Third, the policy actions aspired to. Policy analysts can be highly risk averse because of their career structures and pressures from their political masters. Politicians are concerned about the perception of their actions and sometimes face pressure for visible action. This can lead to politically attractive but ineffective policy, not making seemingly sensible decisions, and extreme sensitivity about the public release of research outcomes. These are poor outcomes.
At the same time, however, policymakers and politicians are acutely aware that the decisions they make will have real effects; many researchers are not. New ideas may produce unanticipated and damaging consequences. Elegant theoretical solutions may not work so well in messy reality. Details matter. Sustained, effective dialogue can help to combine the different types of knowledge that inform decision-making in a complex world.
When we Venusians and Martians recognise and combine our different strengths (and limitations), our interactions are mutually enriching and lead to stronger and ever-evolving policies even in the face of challenges that none of us can solve alone.