Using Evidence in Decision-Making

Former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton was a Center for Integrative Leadership Executive Leadership Fellow from 2019 to 2021. As part of his fellowship, Dayton discussed his approach to leadership in a series of interviews with Associate Professor Kathy Quick, the Center’s Academic Co-Director.

Governor Dayton using laptop

Seeking Breadth of Evidence through Multiple Perspectives

I devoted basically every waking moment to being governor, and in the evenings, if I didn't have events – or after events – I'd go online and read everything I could get my hands on. I’d try to read broadly and constantly. I endeavored to have as much objective and balanced information in front of me as possible. I didn't catch everything, but I tried to have a broad perspective. I was always trying to hear and better understand different points of view.

As I was reading, I was searching for evidence – for the truth – so I could have as much of a fact basis for my decisions and actions as possible. Dwight Eisenhower once said that any eighth grade student in history can make better battlefield decisions with perfect hindsight than the best general can make amidst the battle. That's where I tried to be as broad-gauged as possible, ensuring that in those decision-making moments I had the information, and that there wasn’t some big piece of evidence that I wasn’t aware of that would really change my view.

The “evidence” that I applied to situations accumulated over decades. A lot of evidence is subjective, so it really depends on whose point of view the evidence is coming from. Another challenge is that sometimes the information is constantly evolving and other times it's pretty well solidified, and as a leader, you have to distinguish between the two and understand how to use data that may change in the near future.

The internet has made information available at our fingertips, but I think that has also created one of the problems we have in our society now: most people are only talking to people who agree with them. Many people seek out sources of information that are heavily biased and weighted toward their particular ideologies, their own points of view. This means people’s pre-existing opinions get self-reinforced and then they can't understand how somebody can have a totally different view of an issue. Two people can be on totally different sides of these gulfs that exist when it comes to information, and the gulf keeps widening, making collaboration increasingly difficult.

This is why policy staff are really crucial. They do their own exploration of what evidence is out there. Having an ongoing dialogue was really important when I was governor, and I was blessed to have really supportive policy people on my team. These were people whose evidence I could trust: they weren't just trying to sell me their point of view, they presented the facts.

Understanding the Context through Conversations

Another important element to consider in decision-making is the context. If it was an important issue, I usually met with two or three of the groups on one side and then several groups on the other side to hear various points of view. Almost everybody brings self-interest into these conversations, so I always wanted to try and find out what's driving them to engage in these discussions. Is it economic self-interest or ideological beliefs? How well is their position evidence-based?

I tried to get a sense of the credibility of the people representing one side of an issue, which can be challenging because these particular individuals may not be the ideal or best representatives of their position. That policy position may be much more well-honed than the select group at the table are able to present. Sometimes, people involved in these discussions may become confrontational in ways that detract from the cogency of their position. My job was to try and get as much of a sense of what's driving them and therefore what is presumably driving other principals in that issue. I typically didn’t try to engage in a debate, but I would present some of the arguments on the other side to get a sense of how they would respond to the counterarguments.

 There have absolutely been times when having these conversations with people on different sides of an issue has changed my mind. For example, when I came into office, my thinking on the issue of requiring driver's license for undocumented immigrants was that it should be enforced. My sense was that there were a lot of people who don't have driver's licenses who can instead use public transportation or rides from family and friends as other means of getting around. In my mind, there wasn't really an occasion for driving without a license. I started out less sympathetic on that issue, but then I started hearing personal appeals and stories of people and their situations.

Then I actually found out some law enforcement officials were in favor of licenses for undocumented immigrants because that results in better public safety on the roads. Especially in Greater Minnesota where public transportation isn’t a viable option, people maybe had a job that was 45 minutes away from their home, so they had to drive to a manufacturing plant, and then they had three kids to get off to school or to doctor's appointments, and it just wasn’t possible for them to live a productive life without the ability to drive a vehicle. Through having these and many similar conversations I realized: life is never black and white. It is almost always gray. Because of these conversations and the evidence that was presented to me through these discussions, I changed my position on that issue.

Using Evidence for Common Good

The reality is that social problems are so complex, but unfortunately, people often gravitate to the evidence and answers that they tend to agree with and can find on the internet. Now more than ever, many people are gravitating towards sources of information that are narrow and that they already agree with, so their views are getting reinforced. It’s very hard to break through all the flotsam that is out there. 

We have to remember that when we’re talking about the common good, change is not immediate. It always takes time. It takes a significant amount of effort and collaboration to develop and sustain momentum for real and lasting change. Meaningful change is even more challenging when faced with rampant trends of misinformation campaigns. Even before the current polarized political climate, it was a big step as a leader to take your private decision and make it a public position, especially on a big issue that was controversial.

It’s important to understand that once you go out there and make a public statement, it's too late to take it back or revise it significantly.  After that, the die is cast. As a leader, you always want to know: Is there any piece of information out there that would change my decision? Surrounding yourself with a strong team who will present you with the evidence on all sides of an issue, having conversations with people who hold different positions on that issue, and consistently seeking out those varying pieces of evidence yourself, will enable leaders to make the most informed decisions possible.

*Edited for clarity.