10 March 2017 | Expertise, Advice Seeking, and the President, By Michael Siciliano

Kevin, · Categories: monthly_posts

Individuals across the organizational spectrum face complex work tasks and decisions that require them to reach out to others for information and advice.  An important question is: “Which individuals are sought for advice and why?” Particular sources of information influence the way in which we understand novel events and shape the criteria and options we use to make decisions.  As someone interested in bureaucratic behavior and the formation of help seeking relationships within public organizations, one dynamic in the early weeks of the Trump administration has proved particularly interesting – how President Trump makes decisions and from whom he seeks advice when formulating those decisions.  In some cases, he articulates his opinion, but relies on experts in his administration to determine policy.  This approach was on full display when ABC’s David Muir interviewed him on January 25th.  President Trump stated that he believed torture, and in particular waterboarding, was an effective interrogation tactic.  However, he said he would defer to the advice of James Mattis, his Secretary of Defense.  Mattis has openly stated that torture does not work and that you get further with “a pack of cigarettes and a beer.”  In this instance, the opinion of the expert, Secretary Mattis, supersedes the President’s own position.

In most other cases, Trump relies on family members and a small number of close strategists to design policy.  This approach was highly publicized in the aftermath of the controversial travel ban signed on January 27th. Many criticized the ban for being developed without accessing or properly integrating expert opinion and for avoiding standard inter-agency processes.  Many homeland security and justice department staff were unaware of the details of the executive order.  Some reports suggest Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly only saw final details shortly before the signing.  In this instance, the ban appears to have been developed by the White House in isolation, with limited input from experts or from the agencies tasked with implementation.

What might lead one to defer to experts in one area and seemingly ignore them in another? In a recent study [1], I examined the role of expertise in shaping the advice seeking behavior of bureaucrats.  The study took place in a large public school district in the Midwest.  The research aimed to understand how teachers, when in need of help or advice, utilized the expertise and knowledge of their peers. I want to highlight three of the findings and then use those findings as framework for thinking about the President’s decision-making.

First, there are psychological costs associated with advice seeking.  An individual’s decision to seek advice from another is not solely driven by a rational pursuit of information.  As humans, we are hesitant to make others aware of what we do not know.  For these reasons, people weigh the value of the potential information against the psychological costs incurred from obtaining that information.  Teachers in the study were asked to rate, on a five point scale, how comfortable they felt seeking help and assistance from each of the other members of their school. On average, just a one point change in how comfortable a teacher felt with another, corresponded to a nearly 25% increase in the likelihood of seeking that person for advice.

Second, accessibility matters. The world’s foremost expert on a given subject may be just down the hall, but if they do not make themselves accessible to you in a timely manner, than their expertise is not really useful to you.  People have a natural tendency to form perceptions of those around them and those perceptions function as a social lens to guide behavior.  As with psychological costs, teachers were asked how accessible they perceived each of their coworkers to be.  A one unit change on a five point accessibility scale translated into a 65% increase in the odds of seeking that person out for advice.  When people need help, they want it as soon as possible.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the role of expertise may depend on the type of information sought.  In the study, rather than conceptualize help seeking as a general action, specific knowledge domains known to be critical for effective teaching were used.  In particular, two domains were chosen which varied in their level of knowledge explicitness: (i) student behavior and classroom management (less explicit/more tacit), and (2) instructional material design and student assessment (more explicit/less tacit). The instructional material design and student assessment domain is more explicit, as the knowledge associated with that domain can be captured and transferred in written documents, such as tests, quizzes, and lesson plans. I asked teachers to nominate the coworkers they deemed as expert in each of the two knowledge domains and to identify who they sought for help when in need of that knowledge.

The results were surprising. In the more tacit knowledge domain of classroom management, teachers tended to ignore the experts.  In fact, across all five schools in the study, peer expertise had no influence on whether or not that person was sought for advice on classroom management. For the less tacit and more explicit knowledge domain concerning instructional material design, the results were quite different.  Peer expertise was now found to be a significant predictor of help seeking in the majority of the study schools.

What can explain this difference in social behavior when it comes to expertise?  One theory relates to the distinction between process- and product-focused goals.  While this distinction is often used to characterize fundamental differences in public vs private organizations, it aligns directly with different knowledge types and their level of explicitness.  For process-oriented tasks, such as managing behavior in the classroom, there is likely no single best solution as the problems related to this aspect of work are constantly changing.  In this context, the advantages of seeking the expert may be reduced, and individuals may be more likely to turn to close colleagues or those who hold similar views as way to minimize the social and psychological costs associated with advice seeking.  In comparison, with product-focused goals, obtaining expert advice may be of primary concern, as one aims toward innovation and developing a single best solution (in the case of teachers, the best lesson plan or quiz). This suggests that the relative weight of the costs and benefits shifts depending on the knowledge and context.

What are the implications of these findings for the decision-making of the Trump administration?   While generalizations are limited, applying the results can be instructive and offer fodder for further thought and research on how advice networks operate within our bureaucracies as well as in the highest levels of our administration. Take for instance, the reports of President Trump’s call to his then National Security Advisor Mike Flynn to ask whether a strong dollar was good or bad for the US economy. One way to think about why such a call would occur is to consider the psychological costs of seeking that advice.  As Derek Thompson of the Atlantic put it: “Reaching out to a national security adviser for economic advice further suggests that Trump doesn’t have many people he can trust with a brief, and potentially embarrassing, question about policy.”  Exactly.  The key word being embarrassing.  Of course he could have called an economist.  He is the President.  But doing so would have required him to suffer the psychological costs of admitting that he (a business mogul who was elected in part on the belief that he can rebuild the US economy) didn’t know the answer to a basic economic question.

Going back to the first two examples: torture and the travel ban. In the first instance of whether waterboarding works, one could argue that seeking advice on torture is product focused, in the sense that there can be a correct answer to whether a particular type of interrogation tactic works.  Ignoring the moral aspects of this issue, either you should interrogate suspects in a particular way or you should not. It is a question about the most effective means for securing needed intel. And individuals like Secretary Mattis are in a unique position to have an answer. In that case, and on a policy topic for which no one expects President Trump to be an expert, the benefits of relying on an expert seem to outweigh the costs.  Contrast this with the travel ban.  There is no single solution for how best to keep America safe. Broad aspects of national security, and most other complex policy areas, are certainly process driven.  This creates an environment where ideologies take center stage, and those in charge rely on pre-existing opinions and beliefs to drive their decisions.  When there is no right or wrong answer, going to an expert who may hold a different underlying philosophy may not provide sufficient benefit.

Given the collective level of government experience among the President and his close White House advisors (Bannon, Kushner, Miller), we should pay attention to whether they seek and utilize outside advice when crafting policy decisions and from whom they obtain that advice.  I suspect there will be continued and growing battles over the role of expertise in the administration.  As a recent example, the newly appointed National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told council members at an all-hands meeting that the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ harms American security. CNN reported that McMaster urged President Trump to avoid that phrase in his February 28th address to a joint session of Congress. For those of you that watched, you know that the President ignored that advice and in his speech warned of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’.

[1] Siciliano, M.D. (2017). Ignoring the Experts: Networks and Organizational Learning in the Public Sector. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 27(1): 104-119.

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