Five Questions For Fact Building

More and more, public administrators must address polarizing issues daily.

At the same time, combatants question the traditional tools of analysis and fact finding. In a recent post (just the facts m’aam) I shared how an agency faced with some difficult decisions was pressed on its use of science.

Conflict surfaces when decisions are values choices not factual decisions.

The test for values decisions is simple.  Values questions center on what should be.  For example, one public debate involves end of life issues.  Many opinions exist on what should be the policies for elder care and terminal illness.  This is a values debate.

A technical or scientific inquiry centers on what is.   One end of life discussion based on facts might be, “What is the best course of pain medication given specific criteria?”  The criteria used (a should be choice) involves values.

Once an Administrator knows an issue involves a values choice, five questions can help untangle the facts.  Working with the stakeholders early in the process to answer these questions can also deescalate polarization.

1. What system are you making a choice about?

For end of life issues, a system may be families, hospitals, hospice, medical researchers, social workers, and many more. Define the relationships of the system and how a decision about one element or another may create a cascade of other issues.

2. What decisions need to be made?

Issues are often obscured by the solutions being proposed. When this happens you may not even be asking the right question.  For example, if someone is not breathing, the solution might be to administer Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR).  This is sensible if someone is found in a swimming pool.

However, at the of end of life, calling for CPR as a solution obscures questions about the desires of the patient, potential for injury, and dignity.    Once those values decisions are made, technical questions about what is the best method to use can be answered.

3. What are the bookends (boundaries – time, spatial & values)?

  • Is this decision expected to last for a few weeks or for years?
  • Will it only be in one location?
  • Have decision makers outlined any values that are simply not negotiable?

In the end of life example, decisions might relate to a time frame (defined life expectancy, age group, etc.) or location of care (hospital, home, etc.)..  A non-negotiable issue might be something like values related to physician aid-in-dying.

4.  What are the options and tradeoffs?

Trade off’s and options are framed by values.  In end of life discussions, control of pain (a value) may involve trade-offs related to allowing patients to remain lucid enough to engage with loved ones (a value).  Once the value is determined, selecting a pain medication might include criteria for patient lucidity.

5. What questions do you need answered to decide?

Answering the questions above informs what technical or scientific findings are needed.  Stakeholders can then identify the questions they need answered from a shared understanding of the decision to be made.

Posing yet more questions may seem counter intuitive to getting to the facts, yet values choices are not arrived at via reasoning.

Multiple studies indicate factual arguments before empathetic understanding escalates conflict.

Escalation is a psychological process causing proponents to use more and more extreme arguments to try to “beat” their opponents. Communications with the other side are cut off and the parties begin to associate only with their own side. The lack of communication then causes more misunderstanding and distrust of the other side.

While confrontation is inevitable, the destructiveness that comes with it is not.

Working with stakeholders to answer the five questions allows an Administrator to:

  • create more options;
  • define common ground;
  • clearly outline the decisions to be made.

This, plus creating a different relationship among the parties, sets the stage for conducting less assailable scientific and technical studies.

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