Edward Tufte, Ron Howard, and government consulting

Edward Tufte fans are understandably excited about President Obama’s announcement last Friday that Tufte has been asked to serve on the Recovery Independent Advisory Panel.

Tufte is a widely respected expert in data visualization. I attended one of his seminars years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. I wish him well. I’m sure he will do a good job. However, there are limits on any statistician working for politicians.

I recommend listening to Ron Howard’s explanation for why he no longer consults for government. (Ron Howard the Stanford University professor, not Ron Howard the actor/director.) Howard produced a decision analysis of nuclear fuel reprocessing for the Carter administration, but his hands were tied for political reasons. He concludes

If this were the only case where I had this dispiriting result … perhaps I could treat it as an exception. But what I’ve found is every time I did a study like this … there was nobody home in terms of really wanting to know the result.

Howard’s interview is available from the here. The remarks above run from 5:00 to 8:15.

2 thoughts on “Edward Tufte, Ron Howard, and government consulting

  1. As a fellow Tufte fan, I was disappointed instead of excited to hear about this. I think it will be very interesting to see how he reacts and if he posts anything about his experience.

    I hope he doesn’t turn out to like it and end up swallowed up by the government.

  2. Re: Bill Mill’s comment. I don’t know; I’m not disappointed at any rate. I suspect this has more to do with one’s psychological make-up than anything else. There are people who deal better with socio-political forces than others. I don’t think it’s necessarily limited to government the way Bill is making it out to be. There are brilliant academic types who manage to thrive or survive in organizations because they have the wherewithal to make it through (whatever that entails — zig, zag as necessary, or not get totally bummed out at the general idiocy as you work in the direction of incremental improvements). Then there are others who just can’t deal with any of the politics and whatnot.

    With all the recent talk of how government is such an awful, incompetent beast, you’d think we’d forgotten why we chuckle at the tales of middle manager and peter principles in Dilbert and the like.

    Not that I’m making an argument that government is so much better than business; just that there are substantial political, bureaucratic hurdles to overcome at many businesses, and it baffles me that we ignore that. A lot of businesses aren’t super efficient well-oiled machines. We’d all be pleased to hear that Tufte had a significant impact at some company A. But would we be surprise to hear that his presentations and advice fell on deaf ears at another company B? Really?

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