Dr Falkner Goes to Canberra Day 1 “How to talk like a policy maker” (#smp2014 #AdelED @ANUasiapacific)

Professor Hugh White from the ANU gave this session as the first part of a two part session.

People in the policy world think differently from you. It’s not science. Science is about finding the truth and seeking knowledge. THe business of policy is the business of making decisions – the logic towards making a decision is different from the logic of truth. (Shout out to Aristotle and his syllogisms, especially the practical syllogism that leads towards actions.) Everything you say in a policy debate should assist the policy maker in making a decision. If they think that you are asking for their money to subsidise your knowledge development, they’re probably out. 

There are only three parts to a decision: finding objectives, determining means and allocating resources. How can what you know be slotted into this system? Let’s break it down into five questions:

  1. What’s the problem?
  2. Why does it matter and how much?
  3. What are the options and how much do they cost?
  4. Which one is best?
  5. Can we afford it?

But it’s not actually linear, it’s a complicated loop. The process is dynamic because data, costs and objectives shift. Serious policy engagement is a long-term engagement. It’s not giving a brick to a wall, it’s playing tennis. There are also lots and lots of players. A good policy maker will be working through the policy logic – so try and get to them through the media if you can, rather than directly, because politicians still read papers. If your message can attract an editor, then you’re 98% of the way to putting your message together in a way that other participants will listen to it and hear it.

You don’t have to just talk like a policy maker, you have to think like one, which can be very challenging. How do we bring our principles to bear if we’re being forced to adopt a new mode of presentation? Here are some simple guidelines.

  • Simplify without distortion. How simply can you say it? Put the most work into this.
  • Be vivid without provocation. Don’t be rude or outrageous. Be vivd or striking, without being needlessly provocative.
  • Recognise the difference between advocacy (support based on analysis) and polemic (an attack based on dogma).

Three last observations: when you throw your ideas to the policy debate, you lose them, they’re no longer yours. It’s not like publishing. You have to brave enough to not be afraid of criticism. Once the criticism starts, don’t respond to the critics, just their arguments.

The second part of the session (and final part of the day) was “Raising the standard of the climate ‘debate’: what ‘debate’?” presented by Professor Will Steffen. How can you become a successful communicator and academic? How do people from outside the policy world influence policy?

There hasn’t been a debate for several decades. We know the climate is being rapidly destabilised and the reason is increased greenhouse gases, this destabilisation is increasing risk across the board for our wellbeing. However you measure it, 95-100% of scientists in that field agree on this. The problem occurs when science enters the policy arena. This debate is also mostly an issue in the Anglo, English-speaking world, and is more dominant in the resource-rich and new lands (AUS, US, CAN) and much less in the UK. Professor Steffen thinks this is coming from a more divisive political system in these countries, especially when compared to consensus based approaches to solutions across the political system. Climate change is caught up in polemic in Australia at the moment.

Many people are coming to climate change from pre-existing belief systems (which is on the polemic side) whereas European (Scando) debates are far more on the analytic side. A mention was made of the lobby groups that are seeking to hold things up for powerful vested interest groups who have a strong interest in defeating any moves to combating climate change.

How do we move beyond this phoney debate?

There’s not a whole lot scientists can do about this. This isn’t in the science space anymore. There’s a false balance idea in the media that allows science to be pitted against anecdote. However, there are more fundamental points in the media, fairness, balance and professionalism, that dominate the anecdotal quotes so perhaps it’s time to remind the media of this. Let’s look at the world and ask why Australia has a problem – what do their Academies of science say? What do their other institutions say?

There’s an advantage to talking about change as a good thing, looking at what has happened to societies in the past that have failed to recognise threats to their development and wellbeing. Historically, many societies reach a high point and then collapse. It’s rare to see societies transform themselves. Those that do threaten and challenge their fundamental beliefs but this is hard to get into a policy development setting.