kirstyevidence

Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Guest post: Louise Shaxson on advising governments… and ugly babies

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I have known Louise Shaxson for many years and have always valued her advice and insight. However, when she wrote to me recently to tell me that she had written a blog about how to talk to new parents about their ugly babies… I was seriously concerned that we might be heading for a fall-out. Turns out I had no need to worry. For a start, the article is actually about giving advice to governments (although I think it is relevant to people giving advice to any organisation). But also, on reflection, I remembered that MY baby is totally ADORABLE. So it’s all good.

Right then, here’s the blog – and I couldn’t resist adding some pics. Hope you like it!

Being nice about an ugly baby… three tips for presenting research to governments

Presenting research results to government can be like talking to a new parent whose baby isn’t, perhaps, the best looking on the planet, (read on to find out why).

Even if a government department has commissioned your research, it can be hard to write a final report that is well received and acted on.  I’ve heard numerous researchers say that their report was politely received and then put on a shelf. Or, that it was badly received because it exposed some home truths.

A long time ago, I submitted the first draft of a report that the client didn’t like. He told me it was too confrontational. But he recognised the importance of the message and spent time explaining how to change its presentation to make the message more helpful.

I was grateful for this guidance and redrafted the report.  Consequently, it was not just well received; it helped instigate a series of changes over the next two years and was widely referenced in policy documents.

It’s not easy—I still don’t always get it right—but here are my three tips for crafting your research report, so that it is more likely to be read and used:

  1. Be gentle – government departments are sensitive to criticism.

All parents are proud of their baby, even if he doesn’t look like HRH Prince George and no parent wants to be told that their baby is ugly in public.  You can still appreciate chubby cheeks, a button nose or a wicked grin.

The media is constantly on the lookout for policy ‘failures’ – both real and perceived.  Even if there’s no intention to publish, things can leak.  If the media picks up your research and the coverage is unflattering, your client will have to defend your findings to senior managers, maybe even to the Minister, and spend a considerable amount of effort devising a communication strategy in response. 

Begin by recognising what they have achieved, so that you can put what they haven’t yet achieved into context.

  1. Observations might work better than recommendations.
tired mum

Don’t comment on how badly the baby’s dressed without recognising how difficult it was for an exhausted mother just to get her and the baby out of the house.

No matter how much subject knowledge you have, you don’t fully understand the department’s internal workings, processes and pressures.  Your client will probably be well aware of major blunders that have been made and won’t thank you for pointing them out yet again.
Framing recommendations as observations and constructive critiques will give your client something to work with.

  1. Explain why, not just what should be done differently.
messy baby

If you are telling a parent that their baby’s dressing could be improved, they may have to sell the idea to other family members – even if they themselves agree with you. Make their life easier by explaining why the suggested new approach will work better.

Your client will have to ‘sell’ your conclusions to his/her colleagues.  No matter how valid your criticisms, it’s difficult for them to tell people they’re doing it wrong.

Try not to say that something should be done differently without explaining why.  It allows your clients to work out for themselves how to incorporate your findings.

Taking a hypothetical situation in the agriculture sector, here are some examples of how to put these tips into practice:

More likely to cause problems More likely to be well received
Recommendation 1: If the agricultural division requires relevant evidence, it needs to clearly define what ‘relevant’ means in the agricultural context before collecting the evidence.

Implication: you haven’t really got a clue what sort of evidence you want.

Observation 1: Improving our understanding of what constitutes ‘relevant evidence’ means clarifying and communicating the strategic goals of the agricultural division and showing how the evidence will help achieve them.

Implication: there are some weaknesses in specific areas, but here are some things you can do about it. Using ‘our understanding’ rather than ‘the division’ is less confrontational

Recommendation 2: Relationships with the livestock division have been poor. More should be done to ensure that the objectives of the two divisions are aligned so the collection of evidence can be more efficient.

Implication: you haven’t sorted out the fundamentals.  ‘Should’ is used in quite a threatening way here.

 

 

Observation 2: Better alignment between the objectives of the agricultural and livestock divisions will help identify where the costs of collecting evidence could be shared and the size of the resulting savings.  The current exercise to refresh the agricultural strategy provides an opportunity to begin this process.

Implication: we understand that your real problem is to keep costs down.  Here is a concrete opportunity to address the issue (the strategy) and a way of doing it (aligning objectives). Everyone knows the relationship is poor, you don’t need to rub it in.

Recommendation 3: The division has a poor understanding of what is contained in the agricultural evidence base.

Recommendation 4: More work needs to be done to set the strategic direction of the agricultural evidence base.

Implication: wow, you really don’t have a clue about what evidence you’ve got or why you need it. 

Observation 3: An up to date understanding of what is contained in the agricultural evidence base will strengthen the type of strategic analysis outlined in this report.

Implication: having current records of what is in the evidence base would have improved the analysis we have done in this report (i.e. not just that it’s poor, but why is it poor?). Recommendation 4 is captured in the rewritten Observation 1.

 

This guest post is written by Louise Shaxson, a Research Fellow from the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme at ODI.

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6 thoughts on “Guest post: Louise Shaxson on advising governments… and ugly babies

  1. I have worked with government institutions and ministries and a number of different contexts. This includes working in non-OECD countries, paid directly by the governments (i.e., not with donor funding). This is pretty much on the money. You do have to think about change management before you go in, and have a framework & approach.

  2. First of all, LOVE your illustrations! They show an immense level of professionalism and aesthetic sense. I know what you mean, though, about tact. I struggle with that all the time; you know, how not to be a total psychotic bitch when complaining to others that their perfume at the library makes me want to end my life with a paper cut right there so I can escape the throbbing, choking sensation that makes me wish I were never born. You can’t complain to the person wearing the scent- you can’t complain to the store that sells it or even its manufacturer because you might hurt someone’s little itsy bitsy feelings! Then they might cry, and accidentally nuke a small foreign country off the coast of Japan. Lately, however, the chronic pain has made me impervious to the feelings of others so I use plain language and then I duck so the aftermath will hit the people in line behind me instead.

  3. everything else is fine and worth taking note of and also usable in a big way however I did not like the expression “ugly baby”. Babies are never ugly

  4. This is great, thanks. I’m now going to review the recommendations section of a report I did recently to check it provides useful observations and explanations rather than patronising ‘shoulds’. If any eager readers would like to provide some peer review, let me know 🙂

  5. Pingback: Refugee Council Archive: Daily News Stories On Refugee and Forced Migration 08/30/2015 | Refugee Archives @ UEL

  6. This is a great piece Louise, thank you. I was particularly struck by your well-made point that consultants/advisers don’t know all the internal pressures and challenges that government managers and officers are dealing with and I have gently reminded more than one TA here in the Pacific of this by saying things like ‘well maybe what you are doing is not something the DG thinks is very important right now’.

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