Persuasive Presentation vs. Manipulation

Public servants should act to serve the public interest – non-partisan, truthful, build public trust, and fulfill the public interest through service to the elected government.

Institute of Public Administration Canada (Saskatchewan)

A public servant such as a policy analyst often has to take a complex issue and communicate it. There can be a fine line, however, between influencing a decision maker with visual rhetoric (manipulation) versus sticking to a neutral presentation of facts (persuasion). Is it possible to strike a balance between the two?

Ideally the policy analyst should strive for persuasive presentation without manipulation. One technique is using visual information, a tool that can help the decision maker to better understand an issue, its analysis and complexity. While it is possible that a non-visual presentation such as a briefing note can be manipulative, I suspect that it is easier to be manipulative with visuals than without. In that case it is important to present information in a neutral way even when using visuals.

When presenting an issue and analysis, the policy analyst should keep in mind who their audience is and speak in the language of who they are talking to. If their decision maker tends to be more of a visual person for example, then that should be taken into account in the presentation.

It is also important that policy analysts acknowledge their biases (and be free from conflict of interest) so that they present visual data and statistical information in an accurate, ethical and impartial way. Otherwise bias can get in the way of the neutral presentation of facts.

In politics there is a saying that public servants advise and ministers decide. Public servants should give politicians what they need to make decisions and defend them – not just what they want. Politicians have political advisors who share their views and give them what they want to hear anyway, and that is not the role of the public servant.

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