Daily Archives: November 9, 2017

Speaking truth to power: a sometimes heroic but often counterproductive strategy

Our MPP class started talking about which Tom Cruise character policy analysts should be.

It started off as a point about who not to emulate: Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. I used this character (inaccurately) to represent the archetype of someone ‘speaking truth to power’ (yes, I know TC actually said ‘I want the truth’ and JN said ‘you can’t handle the truth’).

The story of ‘speaking truth to power’ comes up frequently in discussions of the potentially heroic nature of researchers committed to (a) producing the best scientific evidence, (b) maximising the role of scientific evidence in policy, and (b) telling off policymakers if they don’t use evidence to inform their decisions. They can’t handle the truth.

Yet, as I argue in a forthcoming paper with Richard Kwiatkowski (near-complete version), ‘without establishing legitimacy and building trust’ it can prove to be counterproductive. Relevant sections include:

This involves showing simple respect and seeking ways to secure their trust, rather than feeling egotistically pleased about ‘speaking truth to power’ without discernible progress. Effective engagement requires preparation, diplomacy, and good judgement as much as good evidence.

and

One solution [to obstacles associated with organizational psychology, discussed by Larrick] is ‘task conflict’ rather than ‘relationship conflict’, to encourage information sharing without major repercussions. It requires the trust and ‘psychological safety’ that comes with ‘team development’ … If successful, one can ‘speak truth to power’ … or be confident that your presentation of evidence, which challenges the status quo, is received positively.  Under such circumstances, a ‘battle of ideas’ can genuinely take place and new thinking can be possible. If these circumstances are not present, speaking truth to power may be disastrous.

The policy analyst would be better as the Tom Cruise character in Live, Die, Repeat. He exhibits a lot of relevant behaviour:

  • Engaging in trial and error to foster practical learning
  • Building up trust with, and learning from, key allies with more knowledge and skills
  • Forming part of, and putting faith in, a team of which he is a necessary but insufficient part

In The New Policy Sciences, Chris Weible and I put it this way:

focus on engagement for the long term to develop the resources necessary to maximize the impact of policy analysis and understand the context in which the information is used. Among the advantages of long-term engagement are learning the ‘rules of the game’ in organizations, forming networks built on trust and a track record of reliability, learning how to ‘soften’ policy solutions according to the beliefs of key policymakers and influencers, and spotting ‘windows of opportunity’ to bring together attention to a problem, a feasible solution, and the motive and opportunity of policymakers to select it …In short, the substance of your analysis only has meaning in relation to the context in which it is used. Further, generating trust in the messenger and knowing your audience may be more important to success than presenting the evidence.

I know TC was the hero, but he couldn’t have succeeded without training by Emily Blunt and help from that guy who used to be in Eastenders. To get that help, he had to stop being an arse when addressing thingy from Big Love.

In real world policymaking, individual scientists should not see themselves as heroes to be respected instantly and simply for their knowledge. They will only effective in several venues – from the lab to public and political arenas – if they are humble enough to learn from others and respect the knowledge and skills of other people. ‘Speaking truth to power’ is catchy and exciting but it doesn’t capture the sense of pragmatism we often need to be effective.

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Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Psychology Based Policy Studies, public policy