Part 4: Building Power-with from the Inside

As I mentioned in Part 2 my theory of change at government agencies is that usually it requires people inside and outside agencies working collaboratively or at least pushing in the same direction. A key contribution from people inside is working to democratize their power.

The first book I checked out of the library after quitting my job (and had time to read again) was Max Weber’s The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. I wanted to go back to the theory on the functioning of bureaucracy and its role. Weber postulates that bureaucratic administration gets its power from technical knowledge and they increase their power by acquiring additional knowledge specific to the functioning of their office (what I called complexity).  

I hope, especially after the last 10 months of the COVID pandemic, we can agree on the value of experts in government. The complexity is real and it requires technical knowledge to implement programs and services and maintain infrastructure that works for the public. But the greater the complexity, the greater the potential for an unaccountable or inaccessible government. To counter this concentration of power, governments need to make technical information more widely available and to value experiential as well as technical knowledge in decision-making. 

Open data is one way that bureaucracies are sharing some of their technical power with people outside. It is a transparency tool that allows people to do their own analysis. But, I do have to point out that data rarely tells the entire story of the complexity. Data alone isn’t information and can be misinterpreted (by insiders or outsiders). So in addition to open data, we need data literacy tools that can help people engage in policy decision-making on the same terms.

My hypothesis is that a collaboration between internal data experts and outside stakeholders is most likely to produce tools that help the public engage in (or even challenge) the technical basis of policy decisions. (Please share any examples you know of.) It can be hard to translate the complexity and the messiness of data for multiple audiences. For one project (more about accountability than decision-making) my team created a dashboard that used a layered approach so people could keep drilling down if they wanted more detail. We also created a data blog so we could tell the stories behind the data, explain past mistakes, and provide examples of the ambiguity in data analysis.        

One of the reasons why I love working in transportation is that I have no problem talking to strangers, or rather, they have no problem talking to me. I just mention my job and everyone has an opinion about what needs to change. Everyone experiences transportation in a way that is more clear-cut than how we experience, for example, health care in this country. This doesn’t make transportation policy simple, but everyday experiences make it more accessible to everyone.  

The lived experiences of the public are needed to turn data into knowledge. Policy decision-making should integrate technical and experiential knowledge. In a practical sense, this means getting public input throughout the data analysis or technical phases of a project or policy decision (instead of at the end). In a principled sense, this means valuing the public’s experiential knowledge, especially from people whose voices are not well represented inside the agency or at the decision-making table, as important as technical knowledge. Valuing experiential knowledge requires stretching beyond any stated principle of equity in decision-making to operationalizing this principle in ongoing relationships with communities. It is more complicated in practice than most technical analysis, but rarely is given adequate resources.

Taking steps to open data and lift up experiential knowledge can be very challenging for insiders who get their power from their technical expertise. Within complicated organizations controlling access to information, to the public or other employees, is one way the few retain power-over the many. By sharing information and integrating technical and experiential knowledge, agency insiders can build power-with outside partners to make change.   

(Side note, a great example of how technical and experiential knowledge clashed and then combined to make better health care policy comes from the relationship between Dr. Fauci and AIDS activists in the late 1980s.)

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