The Recommendation Fallacy

By Tim Harding

(An edited version of this fallacy was published in The Skeptic magazine Vol.37, No.1, March 2017 ).

I was once elected as a local government councilor in an inner Melbourne suburb.  The Council had serious concerns about poor staff performance, both in providing advice to Council and in implementing Council decisions.  As these problems appeared to be systemic rather than just the fault of the CEO, we brought in management consultants for an independent review of the Council administration.

After interviewing both Councillors and staff, the management consultants reported that there were indeed systemic organisational deficiencies related to poor staff culture.  One of the most pervasive problems was that few staff understood the difference between a recommendation and a decision.  They seemed to think that staff made decisions and the Council either ‘ratified’ or ‘overturned’ their ‘decisions’.  Some staff even mistakenly classified rejection of their recommendations by the elected Councillors as ‘political interference’! They did not seem to understand that their role was to provide professional advice to the Council, including options and recommendations. (There were also deficiencies in the implementation of Council decisions, but that is a separate issue).

I also found that this was a problem at junior levels in the state public service; but not in the middle and senior ranks. (Public servants tend not to get promoted if they do not even understand how organisations operate). Junior staff needed to be taught how to analyse problems and make recommendations, instead of indulging in what I called ‘problem referral’ without providing options or recommendations to management.  I have also found this staff deficiency in some NGOs, such as ANTaR, where I have been a board member.  It seemed to me that our education system did not teach students these fairly fundamental skills of working in a professional office environment.

A recommendation has no status other than as advice to a decision-maker.  Although a recommendation may well be persuasive, depending upon the expertise of its author, there is no obligation by a decision-maker to adopt any recommendation.  Thus it makes no sense to say that a recommendation has been ‘overturned’.  Only decisions can be overturned.  Similarly, a recommendation cannot be ‘implemented’ unless and until it has been adopted as a decision by decision-maker who is authorised to make that decision. (The media often make these errors). These are errors of reasoning, just like other fallacies.  So I have dubbed such confusions between recommendations and decisions instances of the Recommendation Fallacy.

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