Attention to process

I will have several posts in the next few weeks with insights from Decisive, a book that had so many sticky notes in it when I was finished that it would have been easier, probably, to mark the pages that I didn’t think I needed to highlight.

I’m starting with this, a finding from some of the academic literature (mostly from the business world) reviewed in the book:

When it comes to producing solid decisions, process matters more than analysis, by a factor of six, in influencing the quality of the outcome (p. 5).

Essentially, how much we know–about the issue at hand, and even about ourselves and our own biases–does not matter nearly as much as the process we develop to guide us towards our conclusions. In part, this is because even knowing our limitations isn’t enough to correct for them, and because we can never know everything that we need to know, in order to independently arrive at the best result.

Process matters, for helping us to identify the range of best options, for ensuring that we incorporate others’ perspectives as needed, for encouraging small failures that facilitate innovation while minimizing risk.

We get better decisions, all else held constant, if we work those decisions through a better decision-making process.

And that, I believe, has profound implications for government policymaking.

The fall semester just started, which means that I’m teaching policy classes again, charged with helping social work students to not only understand how policy is made in this country, but, at least on some level, to believe in that process, at least enough to want to work through it, and to improve it.

But the truth is that much of my students’ impressions about our policymaking structure is correct: we really shouldn’t leave the most important decisions about how we want to live and what we want to value, as a nation, to a process that we jokingly refer to as ‘like watching sausage being made’.

We shouldn’t be surprised, after all, to so often get bad results from such a bad (read: too much influence of money, too short a timeline of measuring impacts, too polarized in terms of district boundaries) process.

But, and I think this is fundamentally important, too:

Process matters not just for shaping the kinds of outcomes that result, but also for influencing how people feel about a decision.

We call it “procedural justice” for a reason and, when people perceive that a process is bad/unfair/illogical, they don’t feel as good about the decision that results, even if they would otherwise prefer it.

And that makes me wonder, could we restore engagement in government, even if people disagree with the outcomes, by improving the process through which those decisions are arrived?

Could that motivation be enough to compel some critical changes (maybe changes to Senate rules, certainly campaign finance, districting), in ways that more base desires to shift advantage to one side or another have failed?

We’re social workers. We ‘get’ process.

What would it take for us to have a policymaking process worthy of our democratic ideals?

And what difference would it make?

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