How to Ask Questions to Power
It was my great honor yesterday to attend the college graduation of my niece. The speaker was thankfully very brief. As part of his comments, he was instructing the students that their learning was just beginning and that going forward they should remember to “ask questions.” As part of his instruction he admonished them that they needed to “Ask questions to power.”
I thought this was an interesting twist on the old liberal trope “Speak truth to power.” I am a great believer in the power of asking questions but I wondered what sort of questions the speaker had in mind. In my experience there are three types of questions that are usually asked in this context.
Attacking Destructive Questions
In politics, questions are often asked not to seek and answer but instead to attack directly or by insinuation. An example of such a question would be, “Mayor, why did you direct city funds to a contract to benefit your personal friend?” Obviously this is a direct attack on the mayor.
Often you will hear this sort of question asked as the very first question at a town hall meeting. The problem with this sort of question is that it contains a number of assumptions which have not been previously established. Did the mayor really direct the funds or was that decision made by city administrator or department director? Is he really a close personal friend with the contractor or are they merely acquaintances? Was the money really directed for his friends benefit, or was it a wise expenditure of citizen tax dollars?
Useless, Unproductive Questions
I often hear these sort of questions at public meetings. This occurs when the questioner has a position and wants to force others into agreement but can’t figure out how to do it. It is the grownup version of a three year old’s endless “why” questions. “Daddy, why can’t I have a cookie?” “Because it will ruin your dinner.” “Why?” “Because if you eat it you won’t be hungry for your vegetables.” “Why?” etc. etc.
In a city council meeting these sort of questions start out with a citizen asking why the garbage fee has to increase by 10 cents and ends with the citizen demanding the mayor explain why we even need a garbage department at all.
These are not useful questions to ask to power.
Clarifying, Truth Seeking Questions
The purpose of these questions is to reveal what the actual truth of the situation is. Using this method we might pose the following series of questions to the mayor.
- “Mayor, did you approve the expenditure of funds for the new garbage contract?”
- “Could you explain why the new contact is better than the existing contractor, even though it cost more?”
- “Is it true the new contractor is a personal friend of yours, and if so, is that appropriate?”
The advantage of this series of questions is that it is fair to the mayor, but yet will expose the truth for the benefit of the citizens. I read a quote recently that truth is like a lion. It does not need to be defended, it just needs to be set free to defend itself.
Like the speaker at my daughters graduation I would encourage you to ask questions to power. Just be careful how you do it. It will make the difference between being perceived as a heroic defender of the public interest, or a meddling busybody that no one takes seriously.