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IF Reports: Multiple Metaphors

One of IF’s central activities is to produce discussion reports.  We have since the beginning emphasized that these reports are different from other texts, such as conventional policy reports, on the one hand, and philosophical treatises, on the other.  They are meant to be discussed, not studied.  More than that, we hope that they actually help the discussions along.  But how exactly?

Here are some of the metaphors we’ve commonly used to answer that question—along with some of the nuances I think they evoke.

I think they are worth describing because despite some obvious affinities, they are not the same.  Each carries with it quite different implications for the content, design, and development of the reports—not to mention their actual discussion.

We’ve spoken of IF reports as:

  • “Citizens staff work.”  This was IF founder Jay Stern’s original description, which explicitly invoked a comparison with the kind of background research and thinking on which leaders rely.  Jay’s emphasis was on ensuring that democratic citizens’ discussions got a “head start” by building on others’ (specifically, sanctuary panelists’) thinking.
  • “Springboards” and “jumping-off points.”  If Jay tended to emphasize giving discussions a “head start,” this metaphor implicitly focuses attention on the role IF Reports can play in giving them a “kick-start.”  Reports can do this either by engaging discussants’ interest, by suggesting avenues of exploration, or both.
  • “Prisms” and “lenses.”  These images both suggest that the main value of  IF’s reports is that they require participants to consider a variety of alternative ways of viewing concerns, possibilities, and consequences

Then, too, we often speak of our reports as providing participants with models—not of the “right” answers, but of the conceptual level at which we’d like the discussion to operate, of the kind of thinking we want them to do.

Of course, IF reports might be all of these things.  For example, providing discussants with alternative prisms or lenses for viewing a policy area can give their discussion both a head start and a kick start.  But I doubt that IF reports can be all of these things in equal measure, not because each is rooted in a different sense of the ultimate goal of public discussions, but rather because each has a subtle but importantly different view of how best to achieve it.  Are public discussions most in need of staff work?  Alternative lenses? Or a springboard?