Monday, October 24, 2011

Experts and the Public

Social analyst David Chalke in this morning's National Times writes

The political classes of Australia are living in one world and the public in another. In the words of eminent American social researcher Daniel Yankelovich, these worlds have different agendas, vocabularies and concerns and they are barely connecting with each other. The consequence is a significant and serious disconnect between public policy and the Australian people.

That is a strong thesis, but my perception is the void is not as great as the phrase suggests. (Note, the attribution to Yankelovich led me on an interesting search which is detailed at the end).

Chalke writes;

Public policy appears to be focused on the environment, public transport, the NBN and gay marriage, which are of low priority for the public, according to our own research. People are far more concerned about the future of the economy, rising unemployment, the cost of living and traffic congestion.

As a consequence, people have now stopped listening to the political classes and are focusing on their own lives until they can take their revenge at the next election.

The response of the "political class" would probably be that the environment and the NBN are both very much focussed on the future of the economy, both are about what a sustainable future looks like.

Unemployment is slightly rising again, but the ABS trend line below shows that this should be far from a major issue.

Equally the "cost of living" seems to be somewhat spurious, as the long run trend in CPI increases below shows.

Finally a policy discussion on public transport and a public concern of traffic congestion are clearly related to the same topic. (And indeed the NBN can also be related to it).

In fact, a better diagnosis of the malaise is not that politicians and the public have different agendas, it is that politicians have lost the capacity to explain the relationship between the political agenda and what matters to people.

Former Labor insider Karl Bitar has described it;

The problem with politics in general is that the process involved in getting promoted up the political ladder causes most people to lose their values, passion and beliefs. Political advancement favours those who can recruit members, attend campaign events and suck up to the right people rather than those with a passion for policy.

It's this very system [that] drains most people who climb the political ladder of their beliefs.
The policy failures of Labor governments are due, in part, to the lack of strong policy values some among ministers.

By the time many of our politicians and officials reach senior positions of power, they are no longer driven by the core policy values which brought them to be involved in politics in the first place. That's one of the reasons why Labor has this problem of defining its policy purpose in the 21st century.

In other words, if you aren't allowed to debate policy inside the party, you can't be expected to successfully debate it outside.

The corollary is that there will always be the senior sources happy to talk about leadership counts and factional positioning. That's what they know.

It is not just, as attributed to Anthony Albanese the 'need to have told our story better", it is to have a story to tell.

It is so interesting to hear these comments come out of the mouth of Bitar. It is a pity that he doesn't precede them with an acknowledgement that he and his mentors in the NSW Right, and those of the NSW Left who went along with destroying policy discussion within the party, was the architect of the problem.

It is a pity that he doesn't acknowledge that the problem can only be fixed in the ALP by bringing to an end union control of the party.

It appears that the Bitar quotes will appear in a new book by Tony Branston Looking for the Light on the Hill. It will be an interesting read, but I wonder if it will address the "Lord Voldemort" of the ALP - union control.


On the Yankelovich statement.

Chalke attributed the line to Daniel Yankelovich. Under Yankelovich's name in the online article he gave a link to the website of one of Yankelovich's companies, not to the original quote. I found the insight interesting and wanted to know more.

However, attempts to find the original only found a reference to the idea in a New Atlantis column (from 2008) and another reference by David Chalke in an Australian Magazine item from December 2008.

The author of the first piece, Thomas Fitzgerald, states it as;

One such problem was raised by Daniel Yankelovich, a senior eminence in the polling industry and the founder of the opinion research organization bearing his name, when speaking at a 1998 conference on wider participation in policy development for genetic research. He pointed out that such public policy issues often lack resolution because of a failure of engagement with the affected public, and the continuing disconnect between policymakers and the public itself: “Experts and elites live in one world, the public in another. These worlds have different concerns, agendas, vocabularies, and subcultures, and are barely connecting with each other.” His diagnosis can be confirmed throughout standard opinion polling, mostly done not in face-to-face interviews or in focus groups, but by telephone calls.

Chalke in his piece states it as;

“Experts live in one world, the public in another. These worlds have different concerns, agendas and vocabularies, which rarely connect with each other. The result has been a serious and growing disconnect.” So wrote Daniel Yankelovich, the √©minence grise of American social research in the 1990s. What Yankelovich identified then has grown into today’s public scepticism of, and weakening faith in, experts and “the system” in general.

Googling the first phrase of the first sentence of the latter only results in the item itself, Googling the first sentence of the former results in the item and one other reference by Chalke as the lasy slide in a 2004 presentation.

So what did Yakelovich claim? was it in a speech or in writing? His website gives his speeches, including one to the Kellog institute in 1998. In this Yakelovich says;

The second obstacle is the enormity of the communication gap between citizens and government. Government officials and the public do not speak the same language and often do not share the same values. The public is almost always poorly informed, it puts values ahead of facts, and it typically finds itself at an earlier stage of thinking about issues than experts and officials who have been deeply immersed in them. Under these conditions, ordinary methods of public education and discussion do little to narrow the gap between citizens and officials. Special skills are needed for this kind of citizen engagement, skills that are in short supply.

This looks close enough to be the sentiment referred to, and the rendition from Chalke and Fitzgerald possibly comes from someone's notes from the talk. But the context is significantly different. For Yankelovich this was one of three obstacles in a move from "public paticipation" to "citizen engagement" and the other two were bureaucratic criticism that citizen engagement is too cumbersome and expensive, and "leadership resistance" (which really means leaders who think they know better than the masses).

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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