How to write convincing policy advice
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In her recent book, How Government Experts Self-Sabotage: The Language of the Rebuffed, Christiane finds that sometimes, government experts can be reluctant to disclose what they know to accommodate political circumstances.
“I think one thing that looms large in the minds of public servants is freedom of information. Things are written down then things could get dicey or a bit tricky,” she says.
On top of that, the requirement to be objective can have a moderating effect on the language policy experts use when they give advice.
“The legislative requirement to be objective and responsive is at odds. Being objective and responsive are almost diametrically opposed in a way.”
“Obviously, being objective is preferable to just making things up on the spot. Objectivity gives you a starting point where everyone can pretty much agree, ‘yes, this is fact’, but the language of objectivity also exerts a constraining effect on how things are articulated.”
SAY IT SIMPLY
During her research, Christiane observed that policy experts would clearly articulate their advice when they delivered it verbally. However, whenever it came down to writing, something changed.
“There’s a great phrase in German where you’d say, ‘the language becomes swollen’. It’s just excessively wordy sentences,” she says.
“Another thing that happens is briefings can be quite long, but really the only important thing is right at the end. I’d often come across, say, drafts for media releases, and by the end of nearly five years as a speechwriter, I would know to go to the end and just immediately take the last sentence and put it at the top.”
“Even if you’re a beautiful writer, you need to structure your argument and your minister who has no time whatsoever, should be able to know in the first three sentences what this thing is about.”
According to Christiane, making advice accessible to those who aren’t experts in a certain field and having a clear argument, is also particularly important.
“Think about your audience. Not everybody understands this thing that you love. And being able to say it simply doesn’t mean you’re dumbing it down. You are being quite impressive in writing about complex things in accessible ways.
“Rhetoric is really important, but the public service thinks rhetoric is basically aligned with propaganda or advocacy, so we won’t go near that. Rhetoric is important in mounting a logical argument.”
TAKE TIME TO CONSULT AND BE BRAVE
To achieve this, Christiane recommends that public servants should spend 70 per cent of their time when curating a specific piece of advice on thinking, planning and talking to others.
“Often public servants are very reactive, so there’s no time to think. You just start writing, but then you do end up with these things that you haven’t thought through where your writing is the thing that’s helping you think it through, and that’s why you come up with the answer right at the end,” she says.
Once you’ve built your argument, it is important to be brave and speak openly, without being combative.
“You don’t have to be confrontational about it. You’ll be completely ignored then. But take the time to understand how other people understand things, complexity, and put yourself in their shoes. Think about your audience. I think that’s something that very few people do.”
DON’T BE AFRAID OF CONTESTABILITY
Often ministers take advice from multiple sources, not just their public service experts. Sometimes, this input can be contrary to the advice provided by internal advisors.
Christiane encourages public servants to be aware of contestability, and not be afraid of admitting when information is disputable.
“Saying that the jury is out or that this is an uncertain situation is better than pretending it doesn’t exist,” she says.
“Providing several interpretations is good and it helps you to become more convincing. Showing your awareness of contestability is the best way around it, rather than just providing one expert view.”
WORK IN DIFFERENT PLACES
Giving broader views on complicated issues becomes easier the more experience you have, and those are best made by working in different places, according to Christiane.
She recommends that public servants move around and take up roles in ministerial offices to better understand how advice is received. This can help public servants better tailor their writing to the minister’s needs.
“Working in ministerial offices is always hugely valuable to see how advice is actually read, what process it undergoes and how it comes to be ignored or rejected.”
IT NEEDS CULTURAL CHANGE
Christiane said to help enable public servants to be better able, better prepared, and more willing to be frank and fearless public sector organisations needed to implement broader, contextual interventions.
“I think it is something that needs to be done agency and service wide and I know that through the APS Reform taskforce and the APS Academy, they are looking at those sorts of things.But I think what’s also needed is to start from the graduate cohorts onwards to help people develop their judgement.”