Date Submitted: 10/24/2019

Question summary:

Changing assessments based on sponsor sensitivities?

Full question:

I am working with a regional development bank on an assessment for a country that is emerging from civil war and has just gone through a liberalization that falls well short of democratization. I’d been asked to provide an assessment of governance trends looking at macro indicators of performance—most of which are very negative. Moreover, I have real misgivings about the future trajectory there; many of the underlying drivers of conflict are still present and the new president seems to take a very hardline approach to dissent. I included language on these issues in my initial draft report, but the regional development bank is asking me to “walk back” some of my criticisms of the new government, saying that it could harm prospects for constructive engagement and may curtail new investment (that they see as being key to jump start the economy and boost standards of living). Should I protest and demand they include my misgivings? And if they don’t acquiesce, how should I respond?

Response 1

I see a few possible ways forward. 1. Write the response according to your "true" analysis of the situation in this country. But also include a "counterargument" set of paragraphs at the end that acknowledge the concerns of the RDB and think these through. 2. Reorient your response to focus on any gains made, rather than goals not met (while still including some discussion of these). Also discuss possible future dangers/pitfalls that can bring in your thoughts about the dangers of the president's hardline position without mentioning the president by name. 3. Pull out from the project, on intellectual integrity grounds. For #1 and #2, I would certainly want to find out how the RDB was going to use your report. Would they pull out quotes that supported their position? Or would the unredacted report be shown to key stakeholders in the government? If they don't acquiesce (i.e., if you go with some version of option 1), I would pull out of the project. In your position, I would likely choose option 1 or option 3, because both allow you to maintain your intellectual integrity. Even if this particular RDB is no longer willing to work with/fund you if you don't soften your position, there are also negative reputational consequences - in the policy and academic worlds - to tailoring your work to your sponsors' preferences. Moreover, think about why you engage in scholarship. Being true to our own scholarly and intellectual commitments generally follow from these motives. In the end, there are costs to either strategy, but more long term costs to softening your position as significantly as they seem to be suggesting. Finally, I will note that I don't have a sense from your question of what the costs of pulling out of the project entirely might be. Negotiating these might require an additional question/response.

Response 2

This is a very common situation. Stakeholders often ask for substantive changes to documents of this type. I have three thoughts. First, it's great that you wrote it as you see it - even knowing you may get pushback, always do that first! It opens conversations with a stakeholder that themselves are a form of responsible engagement. Second, I see it as absolutely appropriate to push back if a stakeholder is asking you a put a byline on something that does not reflect your accurate scholarly view of the situation. You may not be able to "demand" that they include those views, but you do have the power to resign from the assignment and control how your name is used. Ultimately knowing your bottom line and being willing to draw it can be useful here. But I would not necessarily advise jumping to that - know your bottom line and keep that in your back pocket and instead engage in a conversation about how to express the points you find important in a way they find palatable. Maybe figure out how they see their interests and see if there is a way to present the needed information in a way that you can both live with. But I absolutely agree with not caving to their demand that you drop it entirely. If nothing else, that conversation about why it needs to be in the report itself is an important form of responsible scholarly engagement with a stakeholder. And if the negotiation goes well, you may still be able to put your byline on the product. However I do believe it is very important to be prepared to walk away if there is undue censorship of important facts at work, and knowing what is the line you wouldn't be comfortable crossing is the first step. Don't feel discouraged by these conversations or feel that they aren't willing to negotiate - they likely will be. They are invested in your work, just as you are, and they will likely want to find a win-win. Good luck!

Response 3

How you respond depends, in part, on what the purpose of the assessment is. First, is this an internal/confidential assessment that will be provided to the Board or the Senior Management of the Bank, or is it something that will be made public? Second, the question does not make clear whether the regional development bank is paying you to do this assessment. Depending on your own normative commitments and whether this relationship with the Bank is one you hope to maintain, then these two conditions might have an impact on your response. More on this below.
But based on the information you have provided in this question, I know how I would respond. I would ask myself whether the information provided to me by the Bank (prospects for constructive engagement and the impact on economic investments) is something I did not already know and whether these factors, if included, might have an impact on my initial forecast of the macro trends. If the answer to these questions is "yes," then I would re-assess the evidence in light of this new evidence and judge whether these two new factors were likely to change the forecast. If the answer to these questions is "no," or if including them does not change my conclusions, then I would be firm about including my negative assessment. In fact, my response would include the methods/process I employed to make this decision and to reassess my initial forecasts in light of this new evidence. And I think this is the take home message for researchers who are engaged with practitioners -- we have adopted particular norms and procedures that guide our analysis of evidence in our scholarly work. We should employ these same methods as guides to action and as justifications for our decisions to partners and funders in the policy world. In the end, the reason we believe that our own analyses and assessments are qualitatively different (superior?) from those provided by practitioners or internal analysts is because we are more committed to transparent methods and because, if tenured at a university, we can afford to be. So, my answer would be: Include my assessment in the final report and feel free to attribute it to me alone, or else you can get someone else to do your "external" assessment.
Now let me return to those first two conditions that I started with. I recognize that my own answers comes from a position of privilege. My next paycheck is not dependent upon what I say in any given report and I value my reputation among my peers far more than a good working relationship with any regional development bank. That makes the decision easier. If you choose to modify your forecast and "walk back" some of your criticisms, then you likely need to convince yourself that your involvement in future assessments with/for this Bank are going to do more good than the next researcher they plug in to fill this role. I'd have a hard time convincing myself of this idea, but I could imagine someone else coming to this conclusion.

Ethics of Engagement