A third alternative to thinking about public discussion as debate or as the immediate prelude to decision-making is to understand it as a means of testing contrasting conceptual possibilities. Testing of contrasting conceptual possibilities—whether these have been developed in sanctuary discussions or in previous public discussions—is well suited to public discussion, either by itself or in interactive combination with public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.
The purpose of testing for possible practical consequences. Whereas public discussion of an area of concern and of the conceptual possibilities for addressing it clarify citizens’ choices primarily by expanding and refining their repertoire of choices, testing clarifies citizens’ choices primarily by illustrating the possible practical consequences that might follow were each particular public policy possibilities previously developed in public discussion or presented in a staff work report actually “in place” in “the real world.” At the same time, testing can often contribute to the other types of public discussion (see Section B., below).
Although testing’s immediate aim is primarily practical rather than conceptual, it shares with the other types of public discussion the larger aim of promoting citizens’ autonomy by engaging them in civic activity (specifically, public discussion) and clarifying and expanding their choices and may, in turn, contribute to improved public policy. And, because it presupposes a certain level of citizen involvement, testing, like the other types of public discussion, will most typically sustain, not create, civic motivation and citizens’ autonomy.
The process of testing for possible practical consequences. Again like the other types of public discussion, testing in public discussion (which assumes that conceptual possibilities have been first explored and developed, then selected and excluded) involves citizen interaction. And its various moments, described below, interact with one another and with other possible forms of public discussion.
Testing itself involves three—sometimes four—conceptually distinct but interactive moments:
- Specifying a series of policies that might implement a conceptual possibility (this first sort of possible practical consequence might be described as possible implementation consequences). Testing starts by identifying a limited set of (governmental and non-governmental) policies that might be used to implement each of the contrasting conceptual possibilities. Because (1) not all possible means of implementing a particular conceptual possibility can be explored given practical limits on citizens’ time; and (2) not all possible means of implementing a particular conceptual possibility will be of equal interest to citizens, this step involves a relatively formal process of selection and exclusion.
- Listing of possible practical consequences of possible implementation policies. Once possible policies for implementation have been specified, participants list their possible practical consequences. This second sort of possible practical consequences might be to: culture, social norms and values, social processes (e.g., market prices), institutions (both governmental and non-governmental), groups, organizations, and/or individuals—but participants may come up with consequences that do not easily fit within these categories. Furthermore, participants may wish to explore chains or sequences of consequences—the consequences of consequences, as it were (though there will be a limit to how far such sequences can usefully be pursued). The consequences of implementation consequences that are listed by participants are not excluded by debate, consensus, or vote. Consequences are not judged as to their “truth” or “desirability.” Nor are they refined, except perhaps qualitatively. They are simply enumerated. The term “possible practical consequences” is descriptive only; it is not used to exclude anything from the discussion. It is up to discussion participants to decide what “counts” as a possible practical consequence. For these reasons, it may well turn out that testing will result in a list containing consequences that are ambiguous or even contradictory.
- Further exploration and/or development of conceptual possibility in light of testing. Testing usually yields results that can contribute to the further exploration and/or development of a conceptual possibility. However, there will typically be practical constraints on the degree to which any given public discussion will present participants with an opportunity to take advantage of this potential.
- Conclusion of testing pending choice or further discussion. As with exploratory and developmental public discussion, discussion involving testing must come to an end, either to resume later or to come to terms with the necessity of choice. Testing is in this sense, like exploration and development, always “unfinished”—always illustrative rather than conclusive. This last point bears emphasizing. Testing deals with possible practical consequences, which can never be fully or exhaustively known because:
- the world of human affairs changes in ways made unpredictable by citizens’ intentional choices, the sometimes random effects these produce, and natural forces that are themselves to an extent unpredictable
- different citizens have different concerns and will therefore “test” for the consequences of different concerns
- different citizens will perceive even the consequences of similar concerns in different ways.
Attempts to forecast or predict the future, which typically employ statistical techniques, ignore these points. They may be quite accurate in their own terms—able, for example, to predict whether a given policy will increase or decrease economic growth (and even by what amount). But the precision with which they are stated can easily obscure the residual element of randomness they always contain and the number and breadth of concerns they exclude (e.g., employment, justice, well-being, and environmental integrity in the example just given).
Interactivity between Testing for Possible Practical Consequences, Discussion of An Area of Concern, and Discussion of Contrasting Conceptual Possibilities. In actual public discussion, testing will perhaps typically interact with discussion of an area of concern and contrasting conceptual possibilities for addressing it in several ways:
- Testing for practical consequences may begin informally or as part of a discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.
- Testing can lead to new discoveries about the conceptual possibility(-ies) under discussion.
- Testing can lead discussion participants to elaborate or refine the conceptual possibility(-ies) under discussion.
The place of Testing for Practical Consequences in the Policy-Making Process. As already noted, testing for practical consequences is well-suited to public discussion, either on its own or in combination with public discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.
Testing, like discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities, is most usefully conducted well in advance of other sorts of discussion like debate and deliberation aimed at making actual decisions. Unfortunately, opportunities for public discussion that incorporate testing are perhaps at least as rare as those that offer opportunities for exploratory and developmental discussion of contrasting conceptual possibilities.
Encouraging Testing in Public Discussion. Testing in public discussion can be encouraged in a variety of ways. Beyond attending to language, testing will tend to be encouraged when participants:
- are allowed sufficient time
- focus on qualitative consequences rather than on precise measurements, statistics, predictions, or quantitative forecasts
- refrain from debate about whether a particular consequence is “true,” “likely,” or “real.”
* For more extensive discussion of this topic, see essay T-5 at: https://www.interactivityfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/Public-Discussion-paper.pdf