Tag Archives: Fitzroy

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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I did but see her passing by…

by Tim Harding

In 1979/80 I was the Mayor of Fitzroy, an inner suburb of Melbourne now described as ‘one of the most hipster suburbs of the world’. (Back then, it was mainly a low-income area with a significant migrant population).

Like all Mayors, I received lots of invitations to various events and functions. One that particularly caught my eye was an invitation for me and my then partner to an evening reception for HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Phillip at the National Gallery of Victoria. You don’t get invitations like this every day so I accepted, mainly out of curiosity (my fellow councillors and I were nearly all republicans).

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At around 7.30pm on the night, we parked in the Gallery car park, flashed our invitation and proceeded to one of the big rooms of the Gallery lined with nineteenth century paintings. There we were served drinks and hors d’oevres by black tie waiters (we guests mainly wore lounge suits and evening gowns). In the crowd, I recognised some Members of Parliament and other Mayors, so I assume that the invitation list consisted of MPs, Mayors and Shire Presidents plus Supreme Court judges and top public officials such as the Chief Commissioner of Police. Including spouses and partners, this would amount to around 1000 people filling several big gallery rooms. There was a white line taped to the floor, where we were obviously supposed to stand when the Queen and Prince Phillip arrived.

People started forming up on this white line when they saw others doing so, indicating that the Queen had started her ‘procession’. After a few minutes we saw Her Majesty gliding slowly and silently towards us, with Prince Phillip walking the customary one step behind. She was wearing a lacy white evening gown with a blue diagonal sash, plus a diamond tiara and necklace (like the picture below). She was carrying a small bouquet of flowers, presumably so that nobody would try to shake hands with her. Prince Phillip was wearing a black tuxedo plus the smaller version of his medals. I was surprised that the lapels of his tuxedo were a bit crumpled – perhaps this tux was an old favourite.

The Queen was aged in her mid-fifties at this time, so her hair was a light brown colour under the diamond-studded tiara. She wore heavy white make-up, presumably for the media photographs, and was a little stouter than I had imagined. She didn’t nod and smile at everybody, presumably to avoid RSI of the neck and facial muscles. But at about every tenth person, she would pause, smile and say ‘Oh hello. Where are you from?’ ‘I’m the Shire President of Nar Nar Goon, Your Majesty’ was a typical reply. Then she would say ‘How nice. Where is that?’ fluttering her eyelashes. ‘It’s near Koo Wee Rup’ came the helpful explanation.

Unfortunately or fortunately, I was not one of the lucky 100 out of 1000 she talked to. So within a couple of minutes, she was gone. I never saw her again. In the words of the poet Thomas Ford, ‘I did but see her passing by…’

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