On memos, details, nuance, and information

GOVREAGAN

Memos have been in the news a lot lately, what with the whole Nunes memo fiasco going on. It’s four pages long, which makes it kind of lengthy. The Democrats’ rebuttal should be released if and when the White House approves it, but apparently it’s longer than Nunes’ memo, which means President Trump probably won’t read it.

Memos have been on my mind a lot lately, even before the Nunes memo bubbled up. They are a huge policy tool used to distill complex information into a digestible chunk that’s easily consumed and oft repeated. It’s like the paper form of an elevator pitch. Of course there should be a long form report and analysis to back up the memo should the need arise, but decision makers (and the public) don’t have the time to go through that. There’s an art to conveying a large body of work and discourse into a one or two page overview and not have it be reductionist. I don’t know when the best time to do this in the research process, but there needs to be time, money and energy allocated to do this. It’s a key step to moving from research to policy and implementation.

The Nunes memo, the whole TL;DR culture, fake news and anti-intellectualism seem tied up. As we as a society focus on hyper productivity and outcomes, it’s assumed there’s no time for reflection and learning. There’s probably a correlation to the lack of sustained funding for longterm research, everything is results driven. And not just results for the future, but results for today and tomorrow. It’s exhausting.

So why do I have a picture of Governor Reagan on this post? Because the “mini-memo” is his legacy (and his longtime advisor William P. Clark). I learned about this while reading Pat Brown’s Reagan and Reality, where Brown spends a page contrasting how much work he put into educating himself before making decisions, compared to Reagan’s reliance on the memos. (Brown was the California Governor before Reagan, lost to him in the 1966 election, and was admittedly biased. If you want to read some early liberal venom toward Reagan, definitely check out Brown’s book.) Here’s a more sympathetic view of Reagan’s use of “mini-memos”:

Reagan frequently came under criticism in the press for seeming to have a shallow understanding of some issues, a result of misstatements at news conferences; his slip-ups appeared to reflect his style of running California, with his tendency to delegate authority to subordinates and rely on the four-paragraph “mini memos” to gather information he used in making decisions. His aides, however, defended his reliance on the mini memos as an effective management tool. “Some people joked about them,” said Caspar Weinberger, who served Reagan as State Director of Finance and was later Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Nixon, “but they were backed up by more information. The Governor sought out more information when he needed it. The memos were a very effective way to take a large problem and present a kind of distillation of it that focused the discussion. Then the Governor would apply his own Judgment to the problem,”

It’s kind of wild to think there was a time when people would actually read the report. I’m not buying it, but I am more aware of the power of a memo.

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