What do we really know?

NOTE: The following represents the analysis-based opinion of the author and do not reflect those of his employer or any other affiliations.

By Kenneth Hunter, Guest Blogger

One trait that virtually every serious public administrator/bureaucrat I’ve ever met shares, both practitioners and academics, is overpreparedness.

No matter the assignment, task, idea or duty, our habitual instincts, often reinforced by training, instill a mindset to to anticipate anything and everything, even if it is hardly related to the focus of what we are supposed to be working on.

A few weeks ago, I was asked to write up an analysis of an internal program. This morning, I turned in a report nearly 40 pages in length, constituting more than 30 hours of research, interviews and study. More than likely, everyone who will read it will only be interested in one or two paragraphs from the one-page executive summary.

What “they” take from our work, of course, is what really matters. Most of us do not have direct involvement in the policies, branches, agencies or aspects of society we attempt to influence. If we happen to be part of the bureaucracy, it does not hurt that our influence is limited since, really, what do we honestly “know” about the struggles, challenges and opportunities that other encounter on a daily basis.

This recent post I found from a sales and marketing site makes the point in a manner rather noncohesive with our discipline. After all, we are not really “salesmen”…

…except that everyone, when trying to advocate their ideas, has to eventually “sell it” in order to gain acceptance.

When we try to convince, influence or encourage supervisors or the public to take one of our suggestions, it honestly does not matter what we say or present. The research, findings, conclusions and recommendations we place before them, along with the mountains of data and research within our own memory banks (ready for rapid delivery at the shortest moment of silence in a conversation) is meaningless when we are trying to actually make something happen.

What matters is the interpretation and relevance of our ideas in the world, as seen by the listener. This is a world and “community” of their choosing. We cannot determine its boundaries or limits (we might be able to influence them). We cannot force others to consider our assessments when they do not reflect their interests, values or concerns.

Humans are, for the most part, self-focused. From a positive perspective, that leads most of them to be self-reliant and disinterested in purposely disturbing society (since it does not benefit them). If we seek to influence their decisions, particularly on those matters that the societies known as jurisdictions must deliberate on and administer via government, the public must interpret our ideas in a manner that enables them to connect with their personal, individual interests.

Two options are available to us to make this happen. The first is to overprepare the way we know how, and accept the choice made by the public to ignore or embrace our ideas. The other is to prepare as we normally do, then work just as hard to shape the message so it proves, or convinces the citizen that we know, and respect, who they really are.

ASPA Member Kenneth Hunter is an MPA graduate of The University of Georgia with more than a decade of experience in local government finance. Kenneth is the Budget & Evaluation Manager for the City of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and serves on the Executive Committee of the Association for Budgeting & Financial Management and is a Board Member and Webmaster for the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association. You can follow Ken online via Facebook & Tumblr.


One thought on “What do we really know?

  1. Thank you for this posting. I wholeheartedly agree with you. As humans, we are inherently emotional beings; despite our best intentions to approach things from a purely rational perspective.
    In the realm of public health, my sector, these points are even more applicable. We are constantly trying to persuade and influence good health behaviors through regulatory actions, education, information, and engagement.


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