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Communications Key to the Mix: Reflections on ACEEE’s Policy and Analysis Conference


January 18, 2011 - 6:44pm
By R. Neal Elliott, Associate Director for Research

While the ACEEE 30th Anniversary Policy and Analysis Conference included many excellent presentations on the two topics in its title, based on the scope of discussions, the conference might have been more accurately named the Policy, Analysis, and Communications Conference. It was clear that too often, the policy and analysis communities speak different languages. This conference represented an interdisciplinary trading zone, as described by Peter Galison, wherein we need to develop a new composite language—a pidgin that with time evolves into a creole—that allows these two distinct communities to communicate. Many in the analysis community are not providing the policy community with the information they need—in a form that resonates—to make good policy decisions. To be effective, the analysis community needs to be responsive to the needs of policymakers. An informal session at the 2003 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Industry led to the crafting of an energy modelers’ manifesto calling for the analysis community to be more responsive to the needs of policymakers.

The analysis community—as is common among technical professional communities—has developed a vocabulary specific to its area of study. As Mike Messenger’s presentation at the conference pointed out, the analysis community sometimes creates terms that are impenetrable to all but the most plugged-in insiders, such as “narrow net” and “expansive market gross.” These terms may communicate important nuances within the community, but are worse than meaningless when relayed to policymakers who do not understand what is being discussed.

In addition, it is sometimes difficult for policymakers to discern the difference between opinion and fact as presented by the analysis community. As The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein wrote in a recent column, “A favorite tactic for zealots on the right and the left is to try to disguise their ideology and values as economic necessity.” Because of such alarmist yet contradictory ideologies, policymakers often discount analyses that purport to show an imperative for action.

This said, numbers—at least a few key numbers—are useful to policymakers in both making choices and communicating to the public. These numbers, however, need to be placed in a narrative context so they can be understood by those not among the analysis cognoscenti. It is critical that we frame the results of analysis as stories. As has been realized for millennia, a story or parable is one of the most powerful ways to communicate information to a broad range of audiences. Stories are also remembered far better than are isolated facts.

Thus, it is imperative that the energy efficiency community not only seeks to improve our analyses to inform better policymaking, but that we also learn to tell better stories so that we can more effectively inspire others and see our ideas turned into action.