Why Stating Assumptions Enables Policy-making in Uncertainty

February 27, 2021
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In February 2021, the City of Hayward, Calif. convened an eight-week Policy Innovation Workshop on Community Safety with the goal of developing and testing policy ideas aimed at improving community safety. Workshop participants include community members and city staff, including representation from the city’s police force and criminal justice system. The workshop was convened in response to a letter from several city council members to Hayward’s city manager. ESAL Founder & Chair Arti Garg is one of the workshop’s community participants. This blog series is a diary of Garg's participation in the workshop. For additional entries please see:

Workshop 2 on February 24, 2021
February 26, 2021

Prior to Wednesday night’s workshop, the facilitators had finalized the “challenges” that emerged from last week’s workshops, asked all of us participants to rank our preferred challenge areas, and assigned us to the teams we will work with for the remainder of the workshop sessions. I was assigned to one of two teams addressing the challenge: “There is a lack of trust between the community and government, including City Hall and Hayward Police Department, stemming from a lack in communication and relationship building and an inadequate recognition on the long-term negative impacts of systemic racism."

The first portion of the workshop focused on developing a sense of trust within our teams through exercises designed to help us surface and share assumptions. We each shared what we needed from ourselves, our team members, and our team coach to make the innovation efforts successful. I’ll be honest. I sometimes find these types of activities a bit hokey. But, upon reflection, I appreciate their importance. When conducting scientific research, we state our assumptions and attempt to account for all the biases in our methods that might obscure our findings. When doing collaborative community innovation, we must do the same thing. We need to identify for ourselves and share with each other the assumptions and biases we are bringing to the discussions.

For the remainder of the workshop, our team brainstormed with the goals of refining our challenge statement, choosing which of the stakeholders impacted by this challenge our team would focus on developing a solution for, and identifying what remaining information we needed to begin hypothesizing solutions. One question many of us had was whether the lack of trust many community members had identified in the survey stemmed from specific interactions with the city government and police. This launched a discussion about how much the origin of the lack of trust mattered. In particular, someone raised the observation that trust is rarely built by explaining past actions.

Being trained as a scientist and having engaged in many aspects of policy-making, I struggle with this question often. How much do we need to understand the cause of a problem in order to develop a solution? In astrophysics, causation matters because it’s a central tenet of our research methodology. We observe the universe as it is, and we attempt to understand whether a given hypothesis about the laws that govern the universe’s behavior can produce what we observe. In engineering, we want to know whether a given perturbation to a system, for example some number of cars driving on a bridge simultaneously, can cause catastrophic failures. In policy-making, we don’t always have the luxury of fully understanding causes. We need to decide whether to close schools and mandate masks without certainty about whether children can transmit a virus or the mode of transmission. And sometimes causal information isn’t particularly important. There are many things we don’t understand about cognitive development in children, but we have empirical evidence of the benefits of early childhood education. So we implement government-sponsored preschool programs without knowing the mechanism by which they produce desirable educational outcomes.

Going back to the question of whether the root of community members’ lack of trust matters, I think our questions reveal that our team is working under an unstated assumption that the solution looks different depending on whether you are rebuilding trust that has been betrayed or building trust for the first time. For myself, I can say that my lived experience relating to other people provides me evidence that this is a valid assumption. And the question is whether we can proceed with policy-making on this basis alone.

After last week’s workshop, I suggested reframing the discussion as “hypothesis-driven” policy-making instead of “evidence-based” policy-making. Another benefit of doing this is that hypotheses need to be contextualized in their underlying assumptions, and this framing provides us the accountability to surface assumptions in our policy engagement as well. It also provides some expediency without sacrificing rigor. We don’t need to answer the question of whether the cause of lack of trust matters. We only need to state that our team is operating under the assumption that it does, and that assumption will inform the ideas we propose and how we evaluate and interpret their impacts.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 02/27/21
Updated: 08/17/23
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