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

31 August 2011

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.