A Fictitional But Telling Take on Policy Relevance

I finally read and really enjoyed Todd Moss’s first novel, The Golden Hour. It’s a thriller starring Judd Ryker, a political scientist who gets pulled into service at the State Department to help apply a theory he developed on how to nip coups and civil wars in the bud. Before he’s offered that government job, Ryker comes to Washington to brief a small group at State on his ideas. At that point, Ryker has written about his theory but not really tested it. Here’s how the briefing ends:

“What is driving the results on coups? How can you explain what’s so special about timing? I understand the idea of a Golden Hour, but why does it exist?”

“We don’t really know. We can theorize that it probably has something to do with the dynamics of consolidating power after seizure. The coup makers must line up the rest of the security forces and maybe buy off parliament and other local political leaders before those loyal to the deposed president are able to react and countermove. It’s a race for influence. But these are just hypotheses.”

“What about external intervention? Does it matter if an external force gets involved diplomatically?” asked one staffer.

“Or militarily?” interjected another.

“We don’t have classifications for intervention, so it’s not in there,” replied Judd. “The numbers can’t tell us. So we don’t know. I guess we would—”

Parker interrupted abruptly. “But in your expert opinion, Ryker, does it matter? Would it make a difference? Does the United States need to find ways to intervene more rapidly in emerging crises in the developing world? Can we prevent more wars and coups by reacting more quickly?”

Judd looked around the room at all the eyes locked on him. My numbers don’t answer that question. Isn’t that what you guys are here for?

But instead he stood up straight, turned to look Landon Parker directly in the eyes, and said simply, “Yes.”

I think that passage says more about the true nature of the “policy relevance” dance than most of the blog posts I’ve read on that subject. It’s fiction, of course, but it’s written by someone who knows well both sides of that exchange, and it rang true to me.

As we learn later in the novel, the people Ryker was briefing already had a plan, and Ryker’s theory of a Golden Hour—a short window when emerging crises might still be averted—aligned nicely with their existing agenda. This is true, in part, because Ryker’s theory supports the view that U.S. policy makers can and should play an active role in defusing those crises. If Ryker’s theory had implied that U.S. involvement would only make things worse, he would never have been invited to give that briefing.

Scholars who spend time talking to policy makers joke about how much those audiences don’t like to hear “I don’t know” as an answer to questions about why something is happening. That’s real, but I think those audiences might get even more frustrated at hearing “There’s nothing you can do about it” or “Your efforts will only make things worse” in response to questions about what they should do. I suspect that many of those people pursued or accepted government jobs to try to effect change in the world—to “make a difference”—and they don’t want to sit idly while their short windows of opportunity pop open and slam shut.

Then there is Ryker’s decision to submit to his audience’s agenda. Ryker doesn’t know the answer to Parker’s question, and he knows he doesn’t know. Yet, in the moment, he chooses to feign confidence and say “yes” anyway.

The novel hints that this performance owes something to Ryker’s desire to please a mentor who has encouraged him to go into public service. That feels plausible to me, but I would also suspect a deeper and more generic motive: a desire to be wanted by powerful people, to “matter.” If my own experience is any guide, I’d say that we are flattered by attention, and we are eager to stand out. Having government officials ask for your advice feeds both of those cravings.

In short, selection effects abound. The subset of scholars who choose to pursue policy relevance is not a random sample of all academics, and the subset of that subset whose work resonates with policy audiences is not a not a random sample, either. Both partners in this dance have emotional agendas that draw them to each other and then shape their behavior in ways that don’t always align with their ostensible professional ideals: to advance national interests, and to be true to the evidence.

I won’t spoil the novel by telling you how things turn out in Ryker’s case. Instead, I’ll just invite those of you who ever find yourselves on one side or the other of these exchanges—or hope to land there—to consider why you’re doing what you’re doing, and to consider the alternatives before acting.

%d bloggers like this: