The Importance of Questions in Public Policy: A Conversation with Phil Bennett

Bennett speaks to Sanford students.
Photo: SJPP, 2017

According to Phil Bennett, questions are more important than answers. On November 28th, the Emmy-award winning journalist and Sanford professor spoke with students about the importance of asking the right questions.

Bennett has the experience to back up his claim. He has worked with The Lima Times in Peru, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, and is now Special Projects Editor for FRONTLINE, an investigative public affairs program from PBS.

Questions drive investigative journalism.

Bennett explained with an example from his time at The Washington Post. The attacks on September 11th, 2001 ignited a massive change in U.S. foreign policy. Out of these horrific acts rose the questions “How did this happen?’ and “How will the U.S. respond?” The Post’s leadership recognized these questions would frame much of their reporting for the foreseeable future. Focusing their agenda to pursue specific stories allowed them to try to unravel how these events would impact the United States.

Over a decade later, important stories continue to flow from these questions.

But asking the right questions, and continuing to pursue them, can be difficult.

An increasing obsession with likes, retweets, and trending topics can divert attention away from the necessary questions journalists should be asking. In politics and policy, language and superficial statements can dominate the conversation, blinding reporters, and the rest of us, to actions occurring beneath the guise of speech.

For example, many trending stories involve President Trump’s speech, but not the actions his administration is taking. Trump’s comments about the NFL, administration staff, and the FBI take center stage. Less recognition is given to actions taken by federal agencies and changes in policy.

But Bennett suggested that there are still reporters asking the right questions. In a series of articles in Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short, the 2008 bestseller exploring the financial crisis, unveils the inner workings of the Department of Energy and the U.S.D.A. under the Trump Administration.

Journalists have also started to uncover the Environmental Protection Agency’s shift toward valuing the research and opinions of corporations and industry over those of its own scientists. These changes have had a profound impact on policies issued from the agency and the administration. In March, President Trump issued an executive order to review, and possibly rescind, regulations “that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources.” As of this summer, under the guidance of Scott Pruitt, the EPA has acted to change more than 30 environmental rules.

Effective evaluation of public policy mirrors effective journalism. Questions allow us to clearly define problems, conduct evidence-based research, efficiently present possible solutions to current policy problems, and make decisions.

So what are some questions public policy students can ask themselves as they begin internships and jobs, take on projects, and engage in meaningful work?

  • What group or groups are we trying to help with a policy proposal? What group or groups will bear unintended consequences?
  • Is the present policy problem a symptom of a larger problem in society?
  • Can the present policy issue be subdivided into smaller issues?
  • What are the interdependencies between this policy problem and others?
  • Is the desired change going to play out incrementally or all at once?
  • What is the value of further researching an area as compared to the costs?

Whether assessing tax law, health or education policy, energy regulations, or national security, it is important to take a step back and ask the key questions. Rather than letting politics or the influence of social media guide research, we need to think critically, delve into the details, and implement evidence-based policies.

Gabrielle Murphy is a first-year MPP student interested in tax policy and public finance.

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