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- Some background
- The who, what, where, and when: representatives, a policy topic, a forum, and a deadline.
- An exchange leaves me baffled at our different understanding of the same word.
- Seek first to understand, then to be understoodSteven R Covey
- “It’s scale.”
- “It’s complicated” – also an unsatisfactory response
- Underestimating the power of scale and how it delivers surprises
- That unsuccessful exchange was instructive: every word matters. It is important to reveal how they are understood and why.
Is one word, on its own, ever enough to convey how we understand our world differently?
My journey into policymaking has focused on the impact on small businesses in Colorado and the workforce they employ. There is so much to understand in layers beneath the surface that I want to share.
This fourth essay is part of what has become a series. It was inspired by an exchange that was eye-opening to me. I had often noted that there seems to be a collection of terms and vocabulary that are regularly used by the distinct points of view. But I am struck by how we can have such a fundamentally different understanding of even one word.
The who, what, where, and when: representatives, a policy topic, a forum, and a deadline.
In 2019 I was honored to participate in the Paid Family and Medical Leave Task Force. Colorado Senate Bill 188 authorized the task force to study options for a state-administered benefits program. We would deliver our findings to Leadership in January 2020 in time for the next legislative session. The team that drove our agenda included representatives from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (the agency authorized to oversee the task force) and the independent facilitator and moderator that the Department had hired. It also included the Chair and Vice-Chair that the 13 member-committee had elected in our first formal meeting.
During our topic discussions, the moderator passed the mic around to members who had comments or questions. While not as formal as typical hearings guided by the protocols of Robert’s Rules, the moderator rationed opportunities to engage. There were, after all, thirteen of us plus nonvoting members (representatives from gov agencies), and there were deadlines to meet.
An exchange leaves me baffled at our different understanding of the same word.
I can’t remember the exact topic, but I was always looking for opportunities to share concisely the risks this program posed to small businesses. Keep in mind that proponents were (and are) quite confident that this program will be good for small businesses. They believe it will even the playing field. It will make it affordable for small businesses to offer this coveted benefit, thereby allowing them to attract talent and compete with larger firms.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Steven R Covey
Demonstrating this certainty, one member responded to one of my comments about the integrity of the program, “It’s scale.” I think I may have been a bit stunned. I was waiting for elaboration. But there must have been a sense that this one word was adequate, a mic drop moment. And it was, literally, because the mic quickly moved on to the next speaker preventing me from gathering my thoughts and offering a reply.
The thinking is that by mandating participation by workers and businesses across the state, the pool of beneficiaries is so large that we will spread risk more widely. But effectively?
“It’s complicated” – also an unsatisfactory response
The program’s design makes it dramatically different in multiple ways from benefits products that employers offer in the private sector. Proponents are confident that their design will perform as expected despite the complete rewiring of feedback loops and the lack of information on costs that extend way beyond those they will be able to measure.
It ignores how complex human systems are. These are people making decisions guided by relationships, all hitched together. How could I communicate all the pieces that would not be tracked by a government-administered program? Pieces that matter. A lot.
Proponents have succeeded in conflating the two – a government program and a privately provided benefit – in the minds of many voters. They continue to represent it as a seamless substitution. The dense details have made clear communication a heavy lift. We all want successful outcomes.
When the program delivers surprises, do voters understand how few tools we will have to address them? Employers are left in only a compliance role. We will never be able to go back to the original conditions – with employers working hard to meet employees’ needs in sustainable ways. And for small businesses, this has always meant closer-grained one-to-one relationships, highly customized for sustainability – when our ever-expanding regulations allow.
Underestimating the power of scale and how it delivers surprises
Scale has tremendous power in complex systems that we easily underestimate. It introduces changes to sensitive feedback loops. Distance between operations, people, their decision-making, and their roles in an organization presents a loss of quality and responsiveness. Any small business that has had to navigate a growth period from 10 or 20 employees to 100 or more employees has experienced this.
This ambitious government program will supplant a multitude of customized private employee benefits and will serve nearly 3 million people. It turns intricate, adaptable interpersonal agreements into non-negotiable, depersonalized transactions. What’s more, it deliberately disarms critical risk management tools in the pursuit of social goals. Our public institutions, hampered by their inherent infrastructures and already struggling to keep up with a rapidly changing private economy, will be challenged to meet the task.
Suffice it to say as a starting point, and what I would have contributed had I had the time to collect my thoughts and the chance, not only benefits scale, but harm scales as well. Discovering a balance requires agility, not an attribute that these institutions, bound by laws and politics, have at their disposal.
That unsuccessful exchange was instructive: every word matters. It is important to reveal how they are understood and why.
I have thought and thought about how we communicate policy. Our over-reliance on words that have such diverse underlying realities are hindering productive communication. They are not the knowledge itself.* Like maps, only those who know the actual territory can genuinely understand them.** That’s why a word, on its own, is never enough. It takes more hard work than that.
PostScript, follow-up thoughts –
On words as mental models:
*Richard Feynman on the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something. Anyone can learn the name of something. It takes work and time to understand the real-world thing it represents.
**The lack of common understanding of the word “scale” also reminds me of the mental model, The Map is Not the Territory. It is one of a collection that can be found in the three wonderful books published by Shane Parrish and Farnam Street Blog. All three are remarkably relevant to thinking about public policy.