🔔 do you hear what I hear?
👂 developing your policy ear
Quick end-of-year reflection ahead of my annual “regs to riches” policy agenda post —
👂 I think that one of the biggest challenges for policy people is developing their (our!) policy ears.
A crucial part of our work is reliant on our ability to listen to the pain points and frustrations that people are experiencing and map them back onto regulatory realities; re-articulating the problem in an appropriate policy context.
But no one ever really tells you that, because we like to pretend that intellectual work is literal when it’s often figurative. I think that the sources that policy prioritisation seems to have become dependent on are seriously impeding that ability. We are clouded with literal inputs that are overly direct: social media sentiment analysis that proxies mood, expensive word searches, and public opinion polling that asks respondents to react to carefully scripted questions.
Let’s face it: everyday people just do not use the wonky terms that we revel in. Over the past two years, as I have championed the merits of competition reform, I have become convinced that people talk about competition policy ALL the time - they just never use those words.
If you pay a firm to search for “efficiency defence” “merger control” “competition policy” (the terminology that someone at the Competition Bureau is steeped in) instead of also understanding what people are chatting about with the terms “Loblaw” “Weston” “inflation” “greedflation,” (etc) than I think you can really miss the mood (*this is sort of a bad example as Canada is having a competition moment, so just imagine it in a 2021 context).
More bubble bursting: on top of that, most people see government(s) as “the government,” and could care less about the organisational divisions we relate to across orders of government and ministries. They see problems and want a solution, while we wring our hands over “who” should lead the file. Maybe we need to get over ourselves a little bit, and lean in a little more to the all-of-government approach we see proceeding with some success in the US as it relates to competition. That isn’t to suggest that the art of policymaking becomes a total free-for-all, but perhaps more of an invitation model could help us move farther, faster on key items. Policy teams need the freedom to lead while inviting support from relevant ministries and peers. Tilting towards more of a ‘champions’ model would allow us to more closely mimic the policy experimentation that we expect to see in our federated model.
Stop being scared by cross-functionality and scoffing that policy planks need to “stay in their lane,” and get ready to veer out of your lane to pursue necessary connections in an increasingly intersectional policy environment.
Doing the work of developing your policy ear is an unspoken challenge for problem solvers of all kinds. It’s probably even thornier from a small business perspective, where entrepreneurs are saddled with the imperative of taking their personal case studies and abstracting those to a specific policy change, which is no mean feat. An additional force acting out against individual firms articulating their needs is the fear of speaking out that is common in concentrating industries or simply anywhere that a significant power balance exists. This “FOSO” was well-covered in the AELP report, “The Other Red Tape,” and no, there is not a Canadian version of this report because Canada.
Basically: policy work is also an act of translation and storytelling. It’s not just how we listen but also where - it can’t just be the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star. People are seeking and building peer communities on Discord, Mastodon, and venting in sub Reddits. It seems like much of political communication takes place on Twitter, where likes and retweets are poor substitutes for other authentic inputs - it’s a performance platform. So we wind up talking past each other with different words and nothing (or little) gets done.
Comforting yourself that [~something~] isn’t a problem because the associated policy keywords don’t show up in your media scan is like when then-Toronto Mayor Rob Ford chided reporters for “not asking the right question” about his substance abuse. Maybe setting policy priorities is less about asking the “right” questions and more about actually listening to the answers people are voluntarily expressing.