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Rising Above “Fake News”: Is Unbiased Information Gathering within Public Sector Decisionmaking Still Possible?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Sean Ziller
January 7, 2019

Bill Schneider, professor of policy, government and international affairs at George Mason University, recently stated in an interview with The Hill media outlet that he believes America—and the political discourse nation-wide—to be at its most divided than at any other time since the Civil War. This stark analysis has gained significant traction within the political and bureaucratic spheres, as well as notoriety across the varied political persuasions of the general public. Two questions inevitably have to be asked: should it truly exist, what is the source of such discord and how do administrators, in particular, overcome it in order to lead responsibly? These are complex questions with equally complicated answers. Many may argue that an exploding social media footprint is to blame for such apparent societal conflict. Others may contend that despite the benefits of a much more engaged citizenry in regard to public decision-making, even the possibility of implementing certain policies has elicited reactions that have become more visceral and in certain instances pitting the public and officials against one another. Regardless of the actual degree of division or political derision, public administrators are now facing a multitude of emergent challenges. Chief among these is how to properly utilize evidence and, thereby, conduct work ethically without biased information sources negatively influencing well-intentioned decisionmaking. This can occur either with the administrator’s full knowledge, or inadvertently through a process of reinforcement from sources that may altogether seem trustworthy.

Whether or not the public service community and its leaders are ready to acknowledge it, a fundamental shift in the decisionmaking process is occurring. Public administrators, at all levels and in all areas, can no longer rely solely, as they may have years ago, on the same sources in order to inform ethical decisionmaking. A new generation of public administrators is entering into the academic and professional environments, equipped with their own methods of research and new techniques for area-specific policymaking and management. As administrators are aware, technology is now developing to the degree that officials regularly have access to multiple types of evidence and can, in turn, implement policy much more efficiently. However, with so many information streams available to public servants—including online databases, professional resources, policy experts both at home and abroad, and even new methods to examine the progress one’s own organization more comprehensively—complex questions of source validity present themselves.

In order to gather information responsibly, public administrators first have to examine any implicit bias they may possess. Recognizing what one is “bringing to the table” in terms of their own perspective or comfort with prior source gathering processes will go a long way in improving the efficacy and strength of future fact-finding efforts. Public administrators, being people, may inherently gravitate toward research that supports their views, values, or the objectives of the organization to which they belong. Such a natural disposition toward potentially skewed sources is further examined by Janna Anderson and Lee Rainie in their 2017 article, published on behalf of the Pew Research Center, titled “The Future of Truth and Misinformation Online.” Several the participants polled for this article ultimately believe the current information environment, for both the citizenry and public administrators, will not improve as technology continues to develop. Instead, those “acting for themselves and not the public good” would continue to manipulate in the information age potentially outpacing those within the public service field who would wish to combat such negative tactics.

Public administrators must ultimately be willing to dedicate the time and energy to in-depth analysis in order to foment comprehensive fact-based decision-making. This is already becoming a growing practice. For instance, in terms of policy formulation as it relates to the area of public budgeting, many state legislators and policymakers have begun to increasingly rely on evidence-based practices in addition to incorporating public opinion and the usual fiscal mechanisms. As highlighted by Allison Hiltz, policy associate for Strategic Initiatives at the National Conference of State Legislatures, in a 2017 State Legislatures article entitled “Facts Before Funding,” evidence-based policy involves “careful, unbiased, scientific analysis.”

Despite the challenges ahead, there is hope. In addition to overcoming one’s own potential biases, public administrators can do more. In evaluating sources of information, administrators should first recognize the mechanism through which they’re attempting to gather this data. Is the method itself trustworthy, and will it produce information that is peer-reviewed, verified, or otherwise responsibly cited by others. In addition, a source that implicitly states its own bias, whether in favor or against one’s own policy objectives, should be carefully evaluated to determine whether data was collected using trusted and tested mechanisms. Leaders will recognize that a “one-source-fits-all” philosophy does not work. Instead, evidence needs to be cross-checked and cross-referenced to ensure its validity. Namely, in conducting online research, attempting to gather information as close to the original source as possible helps to limit any information alteration that might have otherwise occurred along the way.

To many public administration professionals, this may all come across as fairly common sense. However, amidst the day-to-day operation, it’s important not to become comfortable in relying on a “game of telephone” methodology in order to gather crucial information or result to picking and choosing information that may simply work best for the intended results. Lastly, public administrators should encourage information literacy among colleagues or subordinates. Understanding not only how to “fact-check”, but why it’s necessary will lead to more fruitful policy that has both short and long-term benefits for the targeted constituency, and a subversion of a growing attitude of “fake news.”

Author: Mr. Sean L. Ziller is a policy analyst and consultant with Conduent State and Local Solutions, Inc. in Philadelphia. He possesses a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from King’s College (Wilkes-Barre, PA) and a Master of Public Administration degree from Pennsylvania State University, with graduate certificates in Public Budgeting and Financial Management and Public Sector Human Resource Management. All opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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