Are we divorced yet – or just arguing?

Somebody once said (George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde would be pretty good guesses), that America and England are two countries separated by the same language. I have similar sensations on the (thankfully few) occasions I attend annual conferences on this, that or the other. As the Australian National University’s (ANU) Annual Australasian Aid Conference approaches, my trepidations are on the rise.  At this event – Australia’s premier development-oriented conference – a mix of professional scholars and scholarly professionals (unscholarly professionals would not want to attend) sit down over three days to discuss, debate and once or twice disagree.

All participants will, of course, be committed to the study and practice of development, and in some way, however small and insignificant, to ‘making the world a better place’. Everyone will be interested in, and motivated by, the same sorts of things and have recourse to a similar lexicon: agency, structure, leadership, norms, values, power, gender, incentives, coalitions, institutions, partnership, identity (add your own word of choice).

As these events progress, and we participate in sessions with titles such as ‘Marginality and Politics: Who are you calling Deviant?’, or ‘Power, Politics and Deviance of Approaches: Gender in the Pacific’, I will be watching closely whether my sense of our ‘two tribes’ talking past each grows any stronger. As the conference approaches (let alone my own few words on one panel) , I have been reflecting on the differences between our two tribes. Do we inhabit different institutional environments? In what respects do we differ? Five points of contrast occur to me.

First, bureaucrats and practitioners have to argue to a decision (what are we going to do from now on), whereas academics argue to a conclusion (how this situation has got to be like it is and not like something else).  Sometimes conferences end with a ‘so-what’ panel. These are often the most disappointing sessions of all. Rarely are coherent ‘operational’ proposals put forward. Usually, the ‘so what’ conclusion is a call for more research.

Second, bureaucrats (I am not using the term pejoratively) value judgment. Indeed, the further one rises up the hierarchy in the bureaucracy, the greater is the value placed on judgement. One will not gain entry to Australia’s Senior Executive Service or the UK’s Senior Civil Service without good political judgement: what will fly, will the Minister be able successfully to defend this in Parliament and on the stump? How will the hostile press report it? Have we got sufficient (emphasise sufficient) evidence to defend our position? Analysis is one part of judgment – for academics, by contrast, the quality of analysis is everything. The wider political context in which the analysis is to be used is largely irrelevant. There is nothing wrong with this – nothing wrong at all. It just reflects a different discourse (ah…. just using that word proves what a scholarly professional I am).

Third, in bureaucracies, narratives matter. In academia, methodology is pre-eminent. Commentators today say repeatedly that stories matter as they will be remembered long after the statistics have been forgotten. Politicians crave a narrative for what they are doing. It’s all about how it looks and how it resonates. This is – rightly – anathema to academics and researchers: they are searching for truth and wisdom. To find ‘truth’ methodology is critical: anecdotes are just that – anecdotes. What is needed is ‘big n’ research and multiple RCTs. The two tribes just march to a different drum, that’s all. But I still wonder how many anecdotes add up to research…

Fourth, bureaucracy demands brevity, certainty and simplicity. Margaret Thatcher was famous (ok infamous) for requiring every brief (the clue is in the name…..) to be no more than two sides of A4. One and a half spaced, Arial font 11. Academic papers require that much space just to set the scene and provide the synopsis. Promotion in the groves of academe is never won by brevity and simplicity. On the contrary, length and complexity are what drives research.  There is clearly the room for (and the need for) both – but the incentives within each tribe are different.

Finally, bureaucrats have a very limited tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, the very opposite of academics, who thrive in such a contested environment. Decision makers need constant re-assurance that spending public money on the latest initiative will indeed lead to the desired policy outcomes. Despite being aware that social policy outcomes cannot be planned and delivered with any degree of certainty domestically (let alone in that big amorphous space called ‘abroad’), politicians demand certainty. This of course is what drives risk aversion.

These flimsy musings merely emphasise the different institutional environments in which we work and the different incentives acting upon us. An optimist would say that we have known this for ever and the research and policy are today closer than ever. A pessimist would say that researchers pay lip service to policy relevance and are happy to continue their increasingly narrow debates, while practitioners are superficial and led by whatever whim and caprice takes the fancy of the minister of the day. I wonder, at the end of this upcoming conference, whether I will be nudged, depressingly, a little closer to the latter.

5 thoughts on “Are we divorced yet – or just arguing?

  1. Pingback: How to Monitor and Evaluate an Adaptive Programme: 7 Takeaways - From Poverty to Power

  2. This is an excellent – genuinely helpful – set of reflections. I’ll be thinking of these well-articulated differences for a while. 1, 2 and 4 resonate most deeply.
    Did you ever get to your conference or did C19 prevent it?


  3. Pingback: Prioritising Competing M&E Needs and Demands in an Adaptive Programme: 7 Takeaways |

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