Public Policy Writing That Matters
John Hopkins University Press 2017
David Chrisinger works as an academic and as a “communications specialist at the US Government Accountability Office”. And it matters, especially to a UK audience.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is roughly the equivalent of the UKs National Audit Office (NAO – and indeed it used to be called the Government Audit Office). But there is one very big difference between the NAO and the GAO – the NAO is limited, by law, to only examine the implementation of policy and the achievement of propriety and value for money. The GAO, by contrast, is free to challenge policy itself.
This explains why David Chrisinger, as a GAO employee, is writing about “policy”, something his NAO counterparts would not be doing. But, whilst the GAO is free to discuss policy it is still restrained about how it does so, as is apparent from the book.
Chrisinger brings a lively, obviously enthusiastic and experienced approach to his topic – how to write effective policy recommendations to a US policymaker audience. But he does so within the constraints of the GAO mindset.
This is most obvious in the central case study he uses to explain his approach to writing good policy “findings”. He uses the example of suicides amongst US military veterans and the response of the primary agency, the Veterans Administration (VA), to this problem.
In a relatively short book (110 pages of text) he spends 30 pages on this case study and various ways of looking at it. None of the other chapters is anything like this long, and it undermines some of the central messages about parsing, brevity and good structure for a policy paper.
This opening chapter is slightly confusing as he introduces too many different ways of constructing a logical and coherent approach to setting out an argument. The case study itself also raises a lot of questions.
He assumes that the ‘problem’ is mainly about how the VA deals with vets with mental health problems.
He fails to consider whether the higher suicide rates amongst vets may be a symptom of a wider problem about how the US military recruits to its volunteer armed forces. Discussing this with UK experts on suicide they confirmed that US has relatively lax standards for psychological assessment before volunteers are accepted for service (as compared to the UK armed forces) and this was almost certainly a contributing factor to post service suicide rates.
Despite these criticisms the book contains a lot of useful, detailed, advice about writing styles and methods for policymakers in the latter chapters. For novice writers it could prove very helpful, at least in parts.
It’s worth adding that there is a lot of advice appearing, much of it based on sound research and experience, about how to convey messages that ‘stick’ with your targeted audience. Books like “Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck” by Chip and Dan Heath and “The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough” by Alex Evans are well worth a look.