Comments on “Extended Rational Discussions”

Comments on “Extended Rational Discussions”

This idea was intended to be a practical tool for policy makers.  The goal was to provide solid information to policy makers, especially legislators.  The method is simple:

  1. Find two or more legislators, who disagree on a specific policy, to sponsor the project, asking them to recommend experts upon whom they rely.
  2. Project staff brings together a pair of experts who disagree, asking them to make clear where they agree and where they disagree. If they disagree, is it over values or facts?  If the latter, what research could be done to resolve the disagreement?
  3. The staff records the discussion and then makes up a two to four page summary of the key agreements and disagreements. This summary is sent to the two participants with the request for comments.
  4. The pair is then asked to meet again to refine the document and make as clear as possible the areas of agreement and disagreement. They might meet for a third time, but never in the course of doing this was a fourth meeting held.

The Jefferson Center conducted three Extended Policy Discussions:

  • The first was on U.S. government held grain reserves in 1976-7. The project was sponsored by two legislators on the House Agriculture Committee: Bob Bergland (D. MN) and Paul Findley (R: IL).  Both were prominent members of the committee, Bergland becoming Sec. of Agriculture under President Carter, and Finley having served as the floor leader for the Republicans on several important agricultural bills.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the experts whom they recommended were too important for me to bring into dialogue with our small resources.  I learned very interesting things and must have recorded and summarized interviews with about 15 experts, but the only significant step was that I was able to introduce the head of government relations for Cargill to Don Paarlberg, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture for agricultural econonomics.
  • The second Extended Policy Discussion was on serious juvenile offenders, for three legislators in MN. Here, I and a few graduate students conducted a number of successful paired conversations.  But we soon realized that the information was really beyond what the legislators were willing and able to use.  One of them joked to me, saying roughly: “Your problem, Crosby, is that you are trying to get us to be rational and clear, but with that comes responsibility, and none of us around here want that”.  I was not so cynical, but did feel that we had created a scalpel for a group of people working with sledge-hammers.  It was clear this tool was not appropriate for legislators.
  • The third was in 2011 on single-payer vs. managed care. We did this with only two experts who were sincerely interested in creating clarity, one a legislator and the other an expert proponent of single-payer.  We learned a great deal, but again it was more complex than most legislators were likely to use.  Also, the Center decided by mid-2011 not to focus on health care, so we went no further with the project.

I still believe the tool can be useful.  If there are two powerful people who sincerely disagree over something and want to glean the best they can from experts, the Extended Policy Discussion could be very helpful.  It would be a very cost-effective tool to use.  But because that situation is increasingly rare in our political climate, the Jefferson Center has no intention of conducting another such project unless such sponsors can be found.