This semester I’m teaching a course on policy analysis to some of the MPP students at the University of Maryland. The course has three goals: to tie together the varied strands of economics, political science, statistics, and management the students have picked up in their other courses into a whole called “policy analysis;” to introduce some new material such as decision analysis and the use of Bayes’s Rule to decide about and interpret information-gathering activities in support of decision-making; and to give the students practice in converting their new knowledge into advice to decision-makers, mostly in memorandum form.
I’m now in the process of commenting on a bunch of memos, and found myself making the same comments over and over. So I wrote a note to the entire class. Since the issues the note addresses are general to the project of teaching policy analysis rather than specific to this group of (mostly excellent) students, here’s the note:
These exercises are intended to be simulacra of real-world work assignments: in particular, memos from staff analysts to decision-makers who are generally above them in the organizational pecking order. That makes them very different from exams.
Your goal in an exam is to show that you know the material, and can use the relevant technical vocabulary properly to give precise answers. Your goal in a memo is to help the recipient figure out what to do.
You can’t assume that the decision-maker shares your professional and educational background; indeed, that will seldom be true. He or she won’t thank you for using a bunch of unfamiliar technical terms. Sometimes, there’s no way to put the technical idea in ordinary language without great clumsiness; in that case you will want to introduce the techical term, defining it the first time you use it with some phrase such as “this is what economists call willingness-to-pay.” But frequently you can convey the necessary idea within a normal, non-technical vocabulary; when that is the case, you should almost always do so.
If the decision-maker wants a lesson in policy analysis or economics or statistics, he or she will be sure to let you know. Putting on a great show of how many fancy words you know for fancy concepts will usually offend your reader, who may feel threatened or put down. In the classroom, I have a license to be an obnoxious know-it-all, but as the stunt drivers say, I’m a trained professional; don’t try this at home (or work). Go thou, and do otherwise.
By the same token, be careful about the language you use. Not everyone is emotionally capable of taking advice from a subordinate, and fewer still are willing to take instruction from one. Read your memo over as if you were its recipient (or have a friend do it for you) and be sure it doesn’t sound as if you are putting on airs or trying to dictate the decision rather than trying to inform it.
Yes, Plato’s dream of the rule of the wise is, to some extent, a possibility. But, as the character of Socrates shows, the wise rule by persuading, not by giving orders.