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Weekly notes – week 2: what do decision-makers need?

Why do experts' clear recommendations go unheeded despite the need for societal reform?


Timo Hämäläinen

Senior Lead, Competitiveness through data


The need to commission and write reports is based on the assumption that we have a good understanding of how decisions are made and the ability to apply existing expertise and decision-making models. In today’s world, however, this is often not the case.

Societal decision-making in Finland is bloated from too much analysis. Year after year, the Parliament, the Government and its ministries, government agencies and municipalities commission countless reports that have very little impact on societal decision-making. In many cases, these reports are written by external, non-governmental fact-finders, experts and consultants who bring their personal expertise and frame of reference to solving social problems. The weak impact of reports has been widely questioned. Why are the clear recommendations of experts not being implemented in political decision-making despite society’s desperate need for reforms?

The reason may lie in the narrow scope of the recommendations and the lack of truly creative new proposals. The starting point of an analytical approach is having a good understanding of how decisions are made (the goals, context and what action to take) and of the opportunities for applying existing expertise and decision-making models. In today’s world, however, this is often not the case. The highly advanced specialisation and the recent rapid transformation within the economy and society have led to more uncertainty in decision-making and increased the complexity of societal problems. The majority of social problems are, by their very nature, wicked, and surrounded by great ambiguity. Solving such problems requires combining different views, types of data and expertise, and interests in a creative manner.

According to Innovation – the missing dimension, written by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors Richard Lester and Michael Piore, an analytical approach is poorly suited to solving complex and highly uncertain problems. In their opinion, what are required are long-term interpretative processes that bring together experts from various fields. An interpretative process starts with creating a common language, trust and understanding. Then, new creative solutions are co-developed on the basis of this more versatile, collective understanding. According to Lester and Piore, the interpretative dimension enables fruitful co-operation and promotes radical innovations in conditions of great ambiguity. They recommend using this approach in decision-making in order, for example, to safeguard the competitiveness of the United States in the face of stiff global competition.

What are the ways to promote the use of collective interpretive processes so as to bring together the expertise and knowledge of people and organisations from different backgrounds in Finland?

Decision-makers need to learn to differentiate problems on which a traditional analytical approach can be used from problems that require the interpretive approach described above. To support these processes, a shared and safe environment is necessary for long-term and open dialogue to flourish without being compromised by the pressures of competition or the interests of certain stakeholders. Public administration may play an important role in offering a neutral and safe discussion environment, but third sector actors and companies can also play their part in inviting the participants, suggesting new topics and keeping the conversation going.

Shared processes related to foresight, strategy and regulations, field trips abroad and projects involving practical trials can serve as the basis and catalyst for collective activities. The opportunity to work under one roof and the boundary objects (concrete matters and practical problems) that help focus the search for a solution also support wider collective activities. The key is to initiate a continuous and goal-oriented dialogue and keep it flowing.

This requires the public administration to take on a new type of role as the “host of a cocktail party”. It involves selecting the “guests” and motivating them, building a climate of trust, determining the goal of the co-operation, offering a safe discussion environment and, if necessary, presenting new ideas and guests so as to keep the process moving forward.

In order to succeed in this role, the public administration needs a new bag of tricks. The analytical approach has deep roots and psychological appeal. When it is used, there is no need to admit that the ambiguity is so overwhelming that the decision-maker does not actually know in which direction to look for the solution. In addition, the use of external experts and off-the-shelf models guarantees that at least some legitimate recommendations will be obtained by a certain deadline. According to Lester and Piore, interpretive processes also set certain requirements for the participants and, more widely, for the educational system. A special emphasis is on the significance of the humanities and dialogue within educational institutions for the development of the interpretive capabilities of learners. In the opinion of Lester and Piore, an increase in standardised tests in particular would lead in the wrong direction, because their emphasis is on clear questions that are easy to give the correct answers to rather than on reflective essays on a wide range of topics.

In a world that is growing more complex and uncertain, it is impossible to cope without analysis and analytical data. However, when solving tough social problems, an analytical approach should not be the starting point for the decision-making process. By resorting to analysis too early, the decision-maker unnecessarily limits the options available by choosing certain frames of reference and models of analysis for any further work. This easily excludes from the process other legitimate frames of reference and models, as well as stakeholders who do not stand behind the choices made. This does not bode well for the practical implementation of conclusions. The time is right for analysis and analytical data when sufficient understanding of a complex problem has been established through a collective interpretive process in order to identify the best possible frames of reference, models and expertise. 

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