Boundary organizations: the quest for the right question
University of Ottawa
Full Professor - Geography, Environment and Geomatics
Is there such a thing as common advice for boundary organizations, organizations that link knowledge with decision-making? Let me start by identifying a shared challenge they are facing, despite differences in products and services offered. I have held managing positions at a think-tank (the Institute on Governance, IOG), a government funded NGO (the Council of Canadian Academies, CCA), and several academic research units (Carleton’s Ethics and Policy Issues Centre, its Regulatory Governance Initiative, and the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, ISSP). At the IOG, we offered our knowledge and our time. At the CCA we offered a government-funded process for evidence-gathering that is designed to be trustworthy. At the academic jobs, it was a mixture of the two.
In all three organizational models, it was challenging to identify the exact needs of those who commissioned us. We knew that we were in the business of providing answers, but to what end, precisely? What is the precise meaning of the question and why has it been asked? While it’s not always a mystery, it’s not rare that one seriously wonders what’s going on. This prompted me to pay a lot of attention to the management of the Q&A process. My interest is now heightened because we are, arguably, facing a crisis of expertise. There is increasing and international attention on how to best engage experts, achieve evidence-informed decisions, and manage the science/policy interface.
As a result of my experiences, I have developed a few convictions. For starters, the right question should be developed as an iterative process. Not all questions are answerable and experts have their own views on what the right questions are. The better the alignment between requesters and providers of evidence, the more efficient the process. Following this point, the process takes time and working relationships need to be built. This may sound obvious but keep in mind that it’s tempting to do the opposite, to build a firewall (“boundary”) to demonstrate the independence of the experts. Finally, if possible at all, the working relationships should be developed into trust relationships. Trust is important because revealing an important question is also revealing a weakness. And the request for an answer represents a transfer of power: once you ask a question, your controls over the nature of the answer and its dispersal are often limited.
What are the providers of answers to do? They need to foster true empathy, to think in the terms of the requester’s organization and to be willing to spend the time to really understand the task. They also need to have the courage to get close and to keep on asking until they have a true understanding of the question. And they need the humility not to overstate their expertise and importance.
What are the requesters to do? They need empathy for the abilities and constraints of the providers. They need the courage to disclose the true nature of the request, especially if it reveals a weakness. And they need to have moderation in the form of reasonable expectations. Moderation is also needed in the design of the trust relationship because if it grows too close, then doubts about the impartiality of the providers will arise.
These virtues, empathy, courage, humility, and moderation, are strikingly similar to the key attributes of good character described by Aristotle, Confucius, and other ancient philosophers. You can find much the same virtues formulated right here at home in the Seven Teachings of the Anishinaabe. Perhaps our collective task is much easier than we thought: just implement the old wisdom and you will arrive at better Q&A systems.