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IN MY OPINION

The risks of real-world consulting

Be prepared to take some flak.

By EMMETT MACFARLANE | MAR 12 2014

Most academics want to try to contribute something to the world through their research, be it knowledge, new ways of thinking, or social or political change. Despite the privileges that come with possessing academic freedom, engaging directly with policy-makers, the media and the general public can be a daunting task. While it can be rewarding to provide input on a particular public policy issue, academics will discover a number of challenges, too.

My most recent experience of this sort was the result of non-partisan consulting I did for the Liberal Party of Canada on options for Senate reform. I was asked to provide advice about the constitutional feasibility of certain changes and to assess issues relevant to the Supreme Court’s ongoing deliberations over what types of changes to the Senate might require formal constitutional amendment. I reviewed a draft discussion document and took part in a conference call. I was asked not to divulge any details before an announcement was made, and I agreed.

In January, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that Liberal senators would no longer be members of the Liberal caucus and that, as prime minister, he would seek to remove patronage and partisanship from the Senate selection process. That day I made public my own involvement, on Twitter and in an op-ed for Maclean’s magazine. Much of the reaction was positive, with reporters requesting interviews and other people asking questions, debating the issues or just expressing their happiness that the Liberals had consulted with an expert in the area. Some of the reaction, however, highlighted the uphill battle that academics may face when engaging in “real world” consulting or policy work.

The most obvious and banal allegation you could face is to be labeled a partisan or ideologue. Providing advice to a political party would inevitably cause some to attack me as a Liberal hack (credit goes to Trudeau’s team, since they know I am non-partisan, that I have criticized their party and leader on occasion, yet still sought my advice).  Another criticism is that it is inappropriate for you to consult in confidence with policy-makers. I was accused of conspiring to hide the truth or not being transparent about my involvement (even though I wrote an op-ed detailing my involvement). More disturbing is the suggestion that any commentary you provide on an issue is automatically “biased” because you had a role in policy.

Academics who are associated with political or partisan issues must accept that there will be some medium- to long-term risk, particularly perceptions of bias, however misguided those judgments may be. You also risk being linked to the policy itself, regardless of how much influence your advice had on its final design – even if you disagree with it. At least one media report stated falsely that the ideas in the Liberal Senate policy were mine. While these misperceptions can sometimes be corrected, they also are something you must be prepared to swallow on occasion as a by-product of your involvement.

However, the idea that academics should not be free to give expert advice behind the scenes is tantamount to saying academics should not be involved in giving policy advice at all. If you believe that policy-makers should be taking advantage of more expert and evidence-based policy advice rather than less, then you also need to accept that professionalism will require simple confidentiality rules when policies are in development. Criticism that policy work makes you or your research “biased” reflects ignorance about the way that academic research and expert advice work. My analysis regarding the constitutionality of proposals was not influenced by my advice, it was the source of the advice. The opinion you as an academic express about a topic will reflect the thinking and evidence you bring to bear on that topic, whether before, during or after the policy consulting work has been performed. As long as you are transparent, your arguments stand on their own merits. Unfortunately, not everyone will see it that way.

In an atmosphere where the role and relevance of universities are sometimes called into doubt, this sort of outreach beyond the mythical “ivory tower” should be encouraged. Just as scholars need to engage more directly and frequently with the media and general public, so too they should not shy away from opportunities to make a substantive contribution on policy or social issues. If my experience has taught me anything it is to continue to be forthright and transparent, but also to recognize that in a political and hyper-partisan world, some criticisms are not worth worrying about.

Emmett Macfarlane is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

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