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The taxi driver test: a new way of testing the relevance, usefulness, and stickiness of your policy recommendations

Coming up with the right policy recommendations is not easy. Most researchers (and for that matter, most think tanks) struggle with them. Often they are quite irrelevant to the mood or the current agenda; they are too vague or too obvious and present no clear way forward; or are just impossible to understand.

I have been in Lusaka for a bit over a week following up on research on think tanks that I had started earlier in the year and looking into how to help strengthen economic policy debate. I have been taking taxis around town and talking to the drivers about the upcoming elections (last time I was here, the date for the elections had not yet been set). I had been trying to ask them about the policy proposals from the various candidates but with little luck. So last Wednesday I tried a different approach. On my way to and from interviews here in Lusaka I decided to ask taxi drivers to tell me what they would want from their preferred candidates: If you had Sata (most will vote PF) in your taxi, what would you ask him for?  What three things do you want? (Then I extended it to 5).

It took a while but soon I got responses –and I was rather surprised by them. These were not thoughtless demands but rather well considered policy proposals or recommendations (often with a bit of background analysis for my benefit). Among the top policy recommendations I heard last week were (there are more or less in order):

  • More and better formal employment –particularly for the youth
  • Improve the quality of existing housing complexes and build more housing units to bring down rent costs
  • Lower fuel taxes to bring down fuel costs –and hence transportation costs and food prices
  • Improve the roads in Lusaka and in the countryside
  • Improve the quality of health in the country -hospitals need more medicines and to be better staffed
  • Develop a youth policy to give young Zambians a better education (address the barriers to access –cost, distance and lack of family income) and job prospects
  • Control the rise of food prices
  • Tackle corruption

Here is what I suggest think tanks do with this. It might sound a bit NGO-ish but based on the conversations I had last week I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the discussion that could talk place.

First, find a few taxi drivers around the political centre of your country –if you can do it more widely around your city then that would be good too (Ideally, you want some well-informed taxi drivers). Bring them over to your offices for a lunch meeting or maybe just do this as you travel across town. Ask each one of them to think of the top 5 policy recommendations they would have for the government (or what they would ask the president for if he/she rode in their taxi). What should the government do? Then aggregate their recommendations to try to get a list of 10 (top) (maybe counting their frequency or having them debate them until they reach a consensus).

It would also be a good idea to print them out on a single sheet of paper and give each driver a copy. They can then take them to their ‘landings’ or taxi ranks and share them with their colleagues and passengers. Maybe the passengers can sign them if they agree with the ‘taxi manifesto’ and slowly turn this exercise into a petition. I suggested this to the taxi drivers here in Lusaka and they seem to have liked the idea. Is this the beginning of a taxi union?

Anyway, as a think tank you could use this list and your taxi drivers in the following ways:

  • The relevance text: Take a look at your research and analysis agenda and see if it addresses any of these issues. If it does, then you are likely to be relevant. Taxi drivers have a particular knack for keeping up with current affairs and they are, everywhere in the world, great indicators of what opinions and views are in and which are out. You should repeat the exercise every once in a while to make sure that you are not too far from public opinion. Of course, I do not suggest that all your work should focus on these issues –some have to be below the radar and maybe even too farsighted for taxi drivers to know about. (Remember that demand driven think tanks are really just research consultancies.)
  • The usefulness test (this was originally recommended by Emma Broadbent): Ask your self if the recommendations of your think tank’s research and analysis go beyond what taxi drivers have recommended already. If your researchers say that the government should ‘Improve the quality of existing housing complexes and build more housing units to bring down rent costs’ then you could tell them to get another job and replace them with the taxi driver who came up with the same recommendation. Your research should lead to recommendations that go beyond those made by the taxi drivers: How can the government improve the quality and quantity of housing? After all, how useful can you be if you cannot answer this?
  • The stickiness test (which includes a series of retweet questions): Once you have your recommendations, hail a taxi (or get the researcher to do it if you did not do the work) and ask the driver to drive you to the most relevant ministry or policymaking body. Here is the test: Can you explain your recommendations to the taxi driver in the time that it takes to get there? If you can’t then you may need to go back to the drawing board. (To make sure that think tanks based in a different city or in cities with lots of traffic do not get an unfair advantage, let’s use Lusaka as the standard: about 10 – 15 minutes.) The retweet test is this: After you have explained them, 1) ask your taxi driver if he would tell his peers about it; 2) get your taxi driver to take you to his landing or to a taxi rank and see if he can explain it to other drivers; 3) if they understand them, then ask see if one of them can repeat it back at you? (Don’t worry if they do not use the ext words you used. In fact you don’t want them to. You want them to incorporate your ideas into their own arguments and ways of speaking.) If the answer is yes in all cases, then you’ve done well. If the answer to any of these is no, then the chances that your message will get anywhere beyond your usual circle of friends and colleagues is slim.
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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. A fun idea – although in many countries (including in my home town, London), taxi drivers tend to represent quite a narrow (dare I say bigoted) view of what policies are needed to improve the situation in the country (for the UK it would amount to less immigration – which usually mean non-white immigration, reduced taxes, less support to single mothers, more support to protect ‘Englishness’, fewer speeding cameras etc). The policy recommendations you listed above for Zambia are relevant and definitely capture the main issues here but there are already quite good policies on all of these topics in all the relevant Government ministries – the trouble is that they are not implemented, they are diverted, the good parts of the policy get lost along the way etc. And, on why this happens and how to deal with it…that’s a bit trickier and may need more than a taxi-driver straw poll!

    August 31, 2011
  2. Emma #

    The point is, I think, LESS that taxi drivers/members of the non-research non-policy public are particularly capable, but that those who are exalted as policy experts are not always not worth the money invested in them (i.e.are no better than taxi drivers). This is not a new idea, but is a bit of a white elephant. Of which the international development sector has a few.

    However, it does not just apply to international development – we should not pride ourselves on possessing a sector-specific woe. It reflects a general trend (yaddi yadda – we know this. Spot the consultant).

    A good bit of pop-lit on this subject:

    August 31, 2011
  3. i guess that another point, besides the one Emma makes, is that we’d have to pick the right sample of taxi drivers. Even if they are bigoted, their choice of issues is an indicator of what matters to the public and hence the media and the politicians.

    But this is particularly challenging for ‘international development’ think tanks. Who can they ask? the taxi drivers waiting outside Waterloo Station? What should we do to solve the problems of Africa? (I have the feeling that they may very well know.. but that is another matter). You’ve got to ask Africans. Or for that matter, you’ve go to ask Zambian, Kenyan, Malawian, etc. taxi drivers. Not so they can tell you what to do (this is not an argument FOR letting the poor dictate the agenda) but so that they tell us what is important to them. What matters to them. They are, after all, the people for whom politics exist. And think tanks should not, in my view, forget that it is their lives that their research and advice are ultimately affecting.

    So the least we can do is be relevant to them…. no?

    August 31, 2011
  4. Hans Gutbrod #

    the slightly more formalized way of doing this, that is more representative (among other things, taxi drivers are predominantly male) is to conduct focus groups on these issues, testing for relevance, usefulness and stickiness. Wherever I have seen that done (my old organization did 200+ focus groups on political issues), it proved incredibly powerful. They are not terribly expensive to conduct.

    It would indeed help think tanks to be able to do those, or draw on those.

    May 11, 2013
    • Thanks Hans. You are right about the representativity issue. But on the other hand, taxi drivers tend to be rather well informed…

      Would you mind writing a blog post about the use of focus groups? I think it would be a great contribution to think tanks. Might go well with the ‘call for evidence’ approach

      May 11, 2013
      • Nice idea. But I assume you aren’t really serious, unless 50% of your taxi-drivers were female, and they included a representative sample of all the different cultural and linguistic groups in the country – not to mention old, young and disabled people.

        May 12, 2013
      • Sure, but taxi drivers tend to be well informed. If we really wanted to be fully representative then think tanks themselves would be in trouble. They are, after all, part of the elite (political, economic and social), certainly more male and definitely not staffed by minorities or vulnerable groups.

        But that representation is not their point.

        May 12, 2013

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