Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Issues with spin

I spent my normal writing hours this morning tidying up my blog list. There are too many on the list, many of which have not been updated for some time. Given this, I decided today just to point to a few of the posts I noticed in passing.

A little while ago in The art of slow reading, Neil quoted a Guardian piece on the decline in our ability  to read and contemplate. The piece said in part:

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other.

I have to agree. It has always been the case that an on-line page needs to contain less content to be comprehensible than the equivalent printed page. However, it's not just the impact of on-line, but also and especially the rise of powerpoint. This has affected authors as much as readers.

I have noticed the change in part because I use writing as a way of extending my own understanding of ideas. People are less able to understand the nuances that are central to proper debate. They require things to be far more packaged.

In The Worm, Legal Eagle expresses her disillusionment with the current political process. As always, the post is well written.   I dealt with related issues in Gillard's a blowin in the wind.

Those brave enough to read this blog on a regular basis will know that I often focus and at length on the way things are done. I do so because of my experience not just as a former public servant, but also as a management consultant. You have to understand how things work if you are to make sensible suggestions for improvement.

The problem with things like spin and focus groups lies in the way they have inserted deep roots into the policy process. The rank top growth we can all see is really just that, the leaves of a much larger plant.

Following my Gillard post, my old friend and colleague Noric Dilanchian sent me an email linking to an earlier article he had written on spin.

Both Noric and I are framework people. Working together, we have developed a number of integrated structures designed to facilitate explanation of complex processes. Both of us have had to learn, however, that explanations of those structures have to be limited on a need to know basis.

Our private sector and increasingly public sector clients need stuff tailored to their immediate problems. That's fine, but what do you do when the client actually needs to understand the broader context if they are to get full value from the advice?

Let me use a legal example. Noric is an expert on contracts. His central theme in this area is that if the lawyer does not understand the business problem involved, then the resulting contract is likely to be ineffective. The starting problem is a business, not legal one. The contract then becomes the legal wrapping.

Lawyers aren't cheap. Their fees are very visible. Clients just want their contract and are reluctant to pay for the time required to properly understand the problem, even though this will save them money in the longer term.

This is not an academic argument. I saw a case a year or so back where the client failure to properly identify the business problem actually doubled the legal fees. We are not talking small change here. The extra cost was equivalent to the annual salaries of the client's staff involved.

I may seem to have come a long way from the question of spin, focus groups and the influence of public opinion. I have not.

In the case of spin, the community is the client, the pollies and their advisers the lawyers. Unless we as a community are prepared to invest the time to understand what is happening, then our responses will do no more than lop of a few of the ranker leaves. The costs will continue.     


Legal Eagle said...

It's often difficult for lawyers to ascertain what the client wants to achieve. I think I've said on my blog before (but can't find it) that lay people tell lawyers all kinds of information which the lawyer thinks is irrelevant, and leave out all kinds of information that the lawyer thinks is critical. It helps if the lawyer communicates exactly which kind of information is critical at the outset. The lawyer also has to listen very carefully to the client, which is a skill which is sadly lacking on the part of many lawyers.

I do think one of the problems with legal services is the time billing aspect. It encourages clients to try and be as quick as possible with the lawyer rather than being thorough. Yet another reason why timed billing sucks.

Jim Belshaw said...

While I agree with you on time billing in a general sense, LE, I also think in terms of your first para that lawyers do need to listen.

This is an area which I picked up some time ago in the importance of the diagnostic, looking at the lessons for law from medicine. Another area that I should return too. sigh.