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What’s Different About IF Policy Discussions?

The Interactivity Foundation (IF) promotes the thoughtful consideration of a wide range of conceptually contrasting policy possibilities in selected areas of concern. One way that we do this is through our sanctuary projects, which typically involve private discussions lasting a year or more in which a panel of experts and a panel of interested citizens explore an area of concern in breadth and depth, develop contrasting policy possibilities for addressing it, and describe those possibilities in a final ‘citizen staff work report’. Another way that we promote the thoughtful consideration of a wide range of conceptually contrasting policy possibilities is by organizing ‘public’ discussions of the possibilities in those reports. What are IF public discussions like and how do they differ from other type of policy discussions?

IF typically organizes a discussion series—usually 3 or 4 meetings—for small groups of people to explore the possibilities in our reports. The possibilities in our reports emanate from the different concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests that Americans might have about an area of concern. They thus present contrasting possibilities that emanate from conceptual differences. Our reports are thus very different from other policy reports, which generally tend to advocate specific possibilities, and rarely explore possibilities that conflict with them. Our reports are not recommendations, or policy proposals, or calls for action, like so many other policy reports and discussions. They are designed to engage citizens in an interactive discussion and to encourage a thoughtful exploration of an area of concern, and a better understanding of why some citizens might support one possibility and not another.

IF creates opportunities and public space for small groups of people to engage in thoughtful discussions. Our public discussions usually involve about eight participants. We usually take an hour or so to explore each possibility, and there are often eight possibilities in a report. Our discussion meetings are often spaced a week or two apart. This gives our participants time to reflect upon the discussions. We do it this way because it takes time to be thoughtful, and because we want to give our participants a chance to thoughtfully explore each possibility. We find that our participants often come back with new insights and new ideas and better prepared to explore the other possibilities in the report with more open minds.

We ask our participants to approach each possibility by trying to appreciate what it means and why someone might propose it. We also ask them to try to consider the possibility from the perspective of someone who might propose it before they begin to assess it from their own perspective. This often means looking at the world through someone else’s eyes and with someone else’s concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests in mind. The point is to try to understand the possibility and its connection to the concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests that inspired it before you think about where you stand in relation to it.

This is part of what it means to have an interactive discussion. Interactive discussions promote thoughtfulness by encouraging people to seriously consider concerns, beliefs, values, goals, interests, and policy possibilities that may be fundamentally different from their own. We explore each possibility through interactive discussions as we try to understand it. But we do not debate the possibilities or the concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests that inspired them, since debates tend to polarize the discussion and can even impede understanding as they often are more about attacking and defending a possibility than understanding it.

Our facilitators do not try to lead the group towards ‘the best possibility’ or to show why a certain possibility is the most feasible, or the most likely to be adopted given the political realities. They do not advocate for or against any possibility. Nor do they push for consensus. Our discussions are more about understanding the possibilities, and the concerns, beliefs, values, goals, and interests that motivate it, so that each participant is in a better position to make up their own minds for themselves.

Another difference between IF discussions and many other public policy discussions is that IF discussions tend to be more civil. This is partly because they are conducted by skilled facilitators, and partly because the exploratory nature of the IF discussion process and each policy possibility does not really threaten anyone by forcing them to conform or subscribe to the majority’s values and beliefs.

The best way to learn what IF public discussions are like is to participate in them. IF is continuously organizing them in different parts of the country. Do not hesitate to join one.