Critical reasoning and strategic decision making—Analysis, values and persuasion in public policy

Theseus and the Minotaur – Artwork by Susannah Bishop—Ethos CRS

By John Preston

In ancient Greek mythology, Theseus—the founder of Greek democracy—entered the Labyrinth on the island of Minos and conquered the Minotaur. Theseus was renowned for his great strength, courage and—above all—wit.

Today’s regulatory and policy environments are a labyrinth worthy of Theseus. Public policy professionals—tasked with producing coherent and effective regulations—must display Theseus-like attributes to navigate through the labyrinth and deliver them.

Public policy professionals grapple daily with multidimensional challenges in a highly contested environment—managing risks that confront the very core of government. Traditional thinking won’t get them through.

What is required is a new awareness of the way problems are approached—a bird’s eye view of the convoluted labyrinth that makes up the policy and regulation processes. In short, relevant and purposeful analysis, critical reasoning and strategic decision making.

Right from the start, good analysis targets clear conclusions—it leaves no doubt as to where it’s headed or the path it will follow to get there. Conclusions are based on clear, accurate and logically structured evidence.

Good analysis pre-empts the question ‘so what?’ Its conclusions are drawn in context and are relevant to the overall situation.

What does this thinking require?

Rodin’s Thinker

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle proposed the three pillars of philosophical thought: logic, dialectic and rhetoric.

  • Logic: applying reasoning to reach a point of certainty
  • Dialectic: testing probable knowledge in order to learn
  • Rhetoric: communicating and persuading.

Despite the passing centuries, modern thought should be no different. These three pillars are still the basis of the idea of ‘critical reasoning’—the wit and wisdom which today’s Theseus must use to produce relevant and effective policy.

Aristotle’s logic suggests that sound decisions emerge from coherent thinking: disciplined and methodical, yet resourceful and creative.

Aristotle’s dialectic requires analytical tools, metrics and pure research form part of the toolkit. There must be a clear purpose, lucid conclusions, realistic recommendations and a feasible implementation strategy.

This is no easy task. Along the way, personal circumstances, ideology and risks arise. How the public policy professional recognises and overcomes these hurdles is an issue of personal and corporate ethics.

But this is only half the battle.

The art of persuasion—rhetoric

The orator Photo courtesy of mharrsh on Flickr

The analysis has been done and solid policy has emerged. It must be delivered. Aristotle’s third pillar—rhetoric—now comes to the fore.

In the quiver of skills available to the modern regulatory and policy professional, persuasion is often overlooked. Many professionals analyse and develop exceptionally great technical solutions, but they have no awareness of the environment into which these solutions fit. As a result their solutions never see the light of day.

Effective persuasion creates a potential to improve public value. An increase in the perception of public value leads to resources becoming available and together these increase the likelihood of producing and implementing relevant and effective regulations.

At Ethos CRS we are fortunate to have access to industry-leading facilitators with over 40 years of senior public sector and academic experience.

Shannon Ford

Mary Harwood

Mary is an expert in high-stakes decision making and policy, and program and stakeholder management. As a senior executive in the federal public service with over 20 years’ experience, she is intimately aware of the inner workings of government.

Mary has extensive experience as a negotiator in forums including the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, and has facilitated consultations on high profile resource management issues—including water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Shannon Ford has had an extensive career both in academia and with the Department of Defence.

Shannon is widely published, including by the Lowy Institute. He has recently completed his doctorate in Military Ethics Security Institutions, Use of Force and the State: A Moral Framework, through the National Security College of the Australian National University.

Our professional facilitators can help your professionals to develop the critical reasoning and strategic decision making skills needed to produce the policy and regulatory outcomes your organisation needs. We can coach your Theseus to make persuasive policy recommendations backed up by critical and creative analysis—logic, dialectic and rhetoric.

Contact us at for a customised program for your organisation. Ethos CRS provides most of the policy programs for the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) through their National learning and development calendar.

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