Daniel W. Drezner

A case study on the mismatch between editors, reporters and experts [UPDATED]

I’m at a stage in my career when reporters will occasionally call or e-mail me for an "expert" opinion on something.  I’ve gotten better at refusing those requests when I’m not really an expert but just a snarky blogger.  Still, even when I can claim expertise, I don’t always do that great of a job.  ...

I’m at a stage in my career when reporters will occasionally call or e-mail me for an "expert" opinion on something.  I’ve gotten better at refusing those requests when I’m not really an expert but just a snarky blogger.  Still, even when I can claim expertise, I don’t always do that great of a job. 

To see what I mean, consider this New York Times front-pager by Mark Landler and Annie Lowrey on President Obama’s proposed reorganization of foreign economic policy agencies.  I’m quoted accurately in this story — but I’m not quoted fully.

To explain, here’s the key bits of the article:

Mr. Obama called on lawmakers to grant him broad new powers to propose mergers of agencies, which Congress would then have to approve or reject in an up-or-down vote.  If granted the authority, he said, he would begin pruning by folding the Small Business Administration and five other trade and business agencies into a single agency that would replace the Commerce Department….

Despite regular vows by presidents to overhaul government — Mr. Obama made one in his State of the Union address last January — few have followed through. Those who did, like Richard M. Nixon, often met with failure. Scholars have mixed feelings about such reorganizations, with some arguing that they rarely lead to lower head counts, more effective departments or savings.

“My gut tells me those benefits will end up being much smaller than advertised, and the costs much larger,” said Steven M. Teles, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University, pointing to the time wasted during the consolidation and the changed political dynamic between the agencies and Congress.

But experts on government efficiency applauded the initiative, saying it was overdue, and some analysts said it made sense to combine agencies involved in business development, foreign investment and trade promotion into a single department with the mandate to promote American exports.

“If you look at American exports, it’s dominated by big business,” said Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University. “If you want small and medium enterprises to get more involved in exporting” — a goal of the Obama administration — “having small business and the trade office in the same agency makes sense,” he said. “So this could be a boon for that.”

Now, based on that quote, you might think that I’m pretty enthusiastic about this initiative.  If, however, you checked my initial tweets about this proposal, you would notice a lot more agreement with what Stephen Teles said in the paragraphs above me.  My instant assessment was that this was one of those "reorganizing government" initiatives that makes a lot of sense in the abstract but probably leads to more transition costs than long-term benefits.  Indeed, the first thing that came to mind could be summed up in four words:  Department of Homeland Security. 

So what gives?  This is what happens when I talk to reporters.  I had a long chat with Annie Lowrey during which I listed A) the various ways in which Congress won’t go for this; and B) why merging different organizational cultures will likely be a big mess.  Lowrey then asked me if there was any rationale for this kind of reorganization.  At which point I said what was quoted in the paper of record. 

Now if you know my views about the National Export Initiative, you’ll see I don’t hold out much hope of this accomplishing anything.  Still, to repeat, Lowrey’s quote of me is completely accurate, and it is a decent motivation for this kind of initiative. 

This is one of those mismatches between reporters and experts.  It’s not really the reporter’s job to convey the full gist of a conversation with an expert.  This story isn’t "What Dan Drezner The Expert Thinks About Something," after all.  Still, this is often the natural expectation of many experts, because we think about the entire conversation, not just one part of it.  Furthermore, it’s an expectation that, despite multiple occurences like this, stubbornly persists in my brain.  So the impulse to develop disciplined talking points and not stray from them has never developed. 

Why?  Because I like answering questions fully, or trying to, anyway.  That’s why I got a doctorate, and why I became a professor.  This impulse, by the way, is why so many experts loathe presidential debates.  The candidates are  usually too savvy to directly answer a question.  Rather, they are being tested on their ability to pivot from the question that’s asked to the talking point that is closest to that question. 

This is a long-winded way of saying that what I said in the Times was the truth but not the whole truth.  And that the odds are good that I’m probably going find myself in this situation again.  And that’s OK — one of the perks of having this blog is that when this sort of thing happens, I can ramble my way to a more fuller explanation of my views. 

So check out David Rothkopf for a full-throated defense of Obama’s proposal.  Despite my quote in the Times, you’re not going to see one here. 

UPDATE:  Now this is fascinating.  The Anchorage Daily News runs a version of the Times story — except that the ADN version has much fuller quotes from more experts.  The relevant portion: 

One government efficiency expert, Jitinder Kohli, applauded the move.

"These efforts to rationalize government are long overdue, frankly," said Kohli, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "In fiscally tight times, it’s even more important to think carefully about how to deliver savings — and that includes making websites easier to use, providing single points of entry and streamlining."

"In the world of business, reorganization happens all the time, for good reason," Kohli added. "The world changes around businesses, and businesses change to better serve the world. But the government is far, far less nimble."

Still, a body of research throws cold water on the notion that such reorganization leads to lower head counts, more effective departments or cost savings.

"The most important considerations are the costs in wasted time while they do the reorganization, how this changes the politics of the affected agencies in relation to Congress and other executive branch agencies, and how specific the purported benefits of consolidation are," said Steven M. Teles, an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. "My gut tells me those benefits will end up being much smaller than advertised, and the costs much larger."

Daniel W. Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts, said "This is one of those ideas that looks great in abstract. But you’re talking about merging the organizational cultures of five or six agencies. It takes a long time for efficiencies and synergies to work out. They’re not going to play well for a while."

Nonetheless, Drezner said that having a single body devoted to export promotion made sense.

"If you look at American exports, it’s dominated by big business," he said. "If you want small and medium enterprises to get more involved in exporting" — a goal of the Obama administration — "having small business and the trade office in the same agency makes sense. So this could be a boon for that."

Susan C. Schwab, who served as a U.S. trade representative during the Bush administration, agreed that the move might improve export promotion. But she said that it might do so at the expense of broader trade policy.

"You’d take a small, very efficient agency and have it totally swallowed up by this behemoth," said Schwab, who is now a professor of public policy the University of Maryland. "From a trade policy perspective, it makes no sense at all."

Schwab added, "Trade policy involves so many different sectors of the economy, and U.S. interests. It’s foreign policy. It’s manufacturing. It is services, agriculture, consumers, labor, the environment, intellectual property."

An agency without a strong trade representative, she said, could end up giving "short shrift" to some concerns.

Had this been the version that the Times ran, I wouldn’t have bothered blogging about this, because my quotes were both accurate and captured to gist of what I was saying. 

Of course, this is a longer story, which reminds me that sometimes it’s not the reporter that has mismatched incentives — it’s the editor worried about length. 

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