Inquiry or advocacy?

There are two kinds of public policy research:  there is inquiry and there is  advocacy.  In the case of advocacy, you start with an answer and go in search of the facts that will bolster and support your position.  In the case of inquiry, you start with a question and let the facts lead you where they may.

It is important to understand the difference.  I have seen too many cases where association lobbying efforts have gone horribly wrong because someone got so excited about the case it was possible to make for their desired outcome by carefully selecting their facts that they ignored even the most obvious data that could be used against it.  And their beautiful, fact-based strategy collapsed the first time it was challenged.

Effective association advocacy requires both forms of research.  Before the association begins to craft its legislative or regulatory strategy, it needs a good, clear headed and pragmatic understanding of what the facts of the situation actually are.  It is like the intelligence gathering that gets done before you plan a military campaign.  Just because naval warfare is your particular strength, you can’t start planning a water-based assault on your enemy without first checking into whether key targets are accessible by water.

If the inquiry is open and honest, you sometimes learn something unpleasant that you won’t like hearing.  But that can be even more important than getting the answer you wanted.  If naval warfare is your particular strength, but the rivers are too shallow for your ships, that is a setback.  But you’re better off knowing it before you’ve committed your navy.

Sometimes the research merely confirms what you already knew.  Understandably, that kind of research often gets criticized by members as a waste of time and resources.  But if the stakes are high enough, if the issue is of life and death importance, it doesn’t hurt to verify and confirm the reliability of the assumptions you are betting the industry’s future on.  To further torture the naval warfare metaphor, it might be “obvious” that the city you need to capture is accessible by the river. “We don’t need some high price mapmaker to point that out.”  But before putting your military personnel’s lives on the line, it would be nice to know for sure and to have maps with the river depths precisely charted for your ships to follow.

Both forms of research require intellectual honesty.  Spinning the facts to serve your purpose to such an extent that you distort reality is not an example of either inquiry or advocacy research.  In fact, it isn’t even research at all.  It is
dishonest salesmanship masquerading as research.  And the only mark you are duping with the deceptive sales pitch is yourself.

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About Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE
Mark J. Golden, FASAE, CAE, is Executive Director of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior CEO roles include a nearly fourteen-year tenure as Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA), Vienna, Virginia. Before joining NCRA staff , he spent eight years with the Personal Communications Industry Association (PCIA), Washington, D.C. He also spent 12 years with the Association of Telemessaging Services International (ATSI), Alexandria, Virginia Long active in the association community, Mr. Golden is a past Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for Association Leadership, a past Vice Chairman of the ASAE Board of Directors, past Chair of the Center for Association Leadership’s Research Committee, and past member of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce's Association Committee of 100. He is the 2011 recipient of the American Society of Association Executive's Key Award, the highest honor ASAE bestows, to "honor the association CEO who demonstrates exceptional qualities of leadership in his or her own association, and displays a deep commitment to voluntary membership organizations as a whole.”

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