Last weekend I had the honour of being a judge for the third year of the IPAC Case Competition held at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Canadian Government Executive was one of the sponsors.
The competition brought together eleven teams from public administration faculties across Canada. They were given a case study of a fictional, yet realistic, challenge one week before the event and told to prepare a 20-minute presentation before two “federal Cabinet ministers” who have been asked to brief the PM on the issue. They then faced 10 minutes of questions from these ministers.
The event puts a number of challenges before the teams.
First, are they able to unravel the complexities of the stated issue to prepare well-researched and appropriately evidence-based advice?
Second, do they craft a coherent narrative that sets priorities and assesses and responds to risk?
Third, do they demonstrate an awareness of the world that politicians live in? Do they position their presentation so that the issue, and their proposed response, catches the ministers’ attention and elicits a considered response?
Overall, I would say the schools that I co-judged (six of the eleven) were good on the first. Most successfully synthesized what was a complex issue, isolated key dimensions that they considered critical, and focused on them.
And those who got that right were usually able to craft a narrative that had a clear logic flow. Those who did not were weaker.
And so let me focus on the third. Policy analysts in government live in a political world, and their value as public servants is to respond appropriately to that world. Thus, to pick an easy example, no analyst should recommend to a right of centre government that it should nationalize a key industry or national asset no matter what the evidence says. It just will not be considered and therefore is not helpful.
And as a corollary, when briefing politicians, policy analysts need to be responsive to their concerns, however crass they may seem.
In essence, I would say to the competitors that, as policy analysts, your job is not to convince the minister that your proposal is the right one, whatever the evidence convinces you. Your job is to forward rock-solid evidence, told in a clear manner, that sets the stage for them to make a decision.