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Interactivity Foundation

The Interactivity Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation that supports the creation of sound public policies in selected areas of concern. Created by Jay Stern, a West Virginia businessman, the Foundation funds and manages projects that allow it to test its public policy exploration concepts. The Foundation’s website offers a freely downloadable 132-page Facilitation Guidebook for helping citizens explore and develop public policy possibilities in a sanctuary-like discussion environment.

In forming the Foundation, Jay Stern commented, “I have always wanted to use the income from the coal reserves accumulated by my family to improve the way our society practices democracy.” Jay remains active in the development and operations of the Foundation.

The Foundation is funded by contributions from Stern Bros., Inc. and from Jay Stern himself. Funds for the Foundation come primarily from royalty payments from coal mining.

The Interactivity Foundation’s Discussion Process

The Foundation has developed a discussion process which it uses to explore contrasting policy possibilities for an area of public concern. The intent of the Foundation’s process is to develop at least four coherent and contrasting possibilities for public policy that can become the basis for further public discussion.

The Foundation’s process is based upon the following beliefs:

  1. That deliberation of public policy could be improved if the public and their elected representatives had available to them an analysis containing a number of contrasting public policy possibilities and their likely practical consequences.
  2. That separate panels of citizens and experts can be effective in developing coherent possibilities for public policy. We also believe that these panels require an unhurried environment where they can feel free to speak their mind without public attribution.
  3. That public policy is improved when possibilities are explored from a broad conceptual perspective rather than from the perspective of an immediate problem to be solved.
  4. That an interactivity exists between processes of “government” and “governance.” We use the term “government” to refer to practical policies for addressing more immediate concerns, and the term “governance” to refer to broader more conceptual concerns-that provide the general framework for the core concerns that shape policy.

These beliefs are reflected in the IF Discussion Process that has been developed by the Foundation.

IF projects start with a selected area of concern (AOC). An AOC is a public policy concern that warrants conceptual exploration and practical testing. AOCs are described in minimal terms (without data) and are accompanied by broad or general questions to start the IF discussion process. IF employs Facilitators to lead small panel groups in exploration and development of each of the selected areas of concern.

Each Facilitator works with two groups of citizen participants in each selected area of concern. One group is comprised of ordinary citizens, without formal training or professional experience in the AOC. The only requirements for such citizens is that they have inquiring minds and a willingness to perform the hard work involved in considering possible public policy choices. Another group is made up of persons with expertise, with highly developed analytical skills or experience in the general area of concern.

The Facilitator meets with each panel separately, in a sanctuary setting (explained below) and leads the participants of each panel through:

  • a careful consideration of their analytical questions about the area of concern
  • the policy possibilities that may be suggested to deal with the analytical as well as practical questions involved
  • the foreseeable and/or probable consequences of each developing policy possibility.

It is anticipated that each of the two panels, working separately, will develop four or more policy possibilities to deal constructively and practically with the issues raised in exploration of the area of concern. Each panel will produce relational constructions meant to form a bridge of minimal language from the conceptual world of possibilities to the world of practical realities, so that the possibilities selected by the panels can be “tested” for consequences and, perhaps, reformulated.

After the two panels for an area of concern complete their separate work, they meet to produce and agree upon a set of contrasting public policy possibilities, each of which is internally coherent and is felt to be worthy of further discussion in the public arena. The Facilitator then works with the combined panel to provide a written staff work report, setting forth the selected policy possibilities, the thinking and reasoning underlying each selected possibility, and their foreseeable consequences. The end result of the panel’s work, then, is not to seek consensus, but rather to produce a set of contrasting but relevant approaches for public policy in the area of concern. At the end of project, these contrasting policy possibilities (on the area of concern) are presented in what we call a Citizen Staff Work Report.

Once the careful sanctuary discussion and selection among possibilities is completed, the Citizen Staff Work Report for the selected area of concern is made available to citizens for their public discussion.

IF is now considering various possible ways of having the results of its sanctuary discussions enter the public arena, so that they may be useful in a policy development process by democratic citizens.

Some Conceptual Underpinnings

– Why a Sanctuary Setting? –

IF recognizes that executive and legislative actions ultimately require sunshine, and not secrecy. It feels, however, that privacy is essential in the thoughtful development of contrasting policy possibilities. For that reason, IF panelists are assured a “sanctuary” discussion setting in which to develop public policy possibilities. “Sanctuary” ensures panelists’ privacy by guaranteeing them anonymity. After sanctuary discussions are completed, IF Facilitators encourage full public scrutiny and discussion of the resulting Citizen Staff Work Reports (see Going Public, below).

Sanctuary encourages panelists to let their ideas range broadly and enables them to contribute freely to the discussions without fear that their ideas will be misquoted, misinterpreted, or viewed as mere advocacy. An open process at this staff work stage would clearly dampen — if not destroy — the goal of broad-ranging discussion that IF seeks to achieve. Sanctuary meetings also free individuals to speak their minds without feeling obliged to speak as representatives of particular interest groups.

Another benefit of a sanctuary setting is that it allows discussions to be conducted in a relaxed, unhurried manner and allows time for reflection. IF panels may deal with concerns that have not yet become political issues.

Sanctuary gives IF panels the time they need for careful exploration, conceptual development, and practical “testing.”

Finally, sanctuary focuses the panels’ and, later, the public’s, attention on the content of the contrasting policy possibilities under discussion rather than on the panelists’ names or credentials.

– Why Two Panels? –

The IF process uses both a citizen and an expert panel. It feels that the democratic process is improved when the input and insights of ordinary citizens are used in policy exploration, in addition to those of experts or professionals.

The two panels are at first kept separate so that citizen panelists will be free to explore the area of concern without the pressure they might feel from having experts present. Citizens panelists do their work by reflecting on their practical and experiential sense of the selected area of concern. Expert panelists develop their alternative policy directions separately, based not only on their particular backgrounds and training, but also, as importantly, on their own experiences as citizens.

Once the contrasting policy possibilities and their practical consequences have been explored and developed by the separate panels, the panels are brought together so that the explorations and thinking of each can be enhanced by the work of the other group. This further exploration by the joint panel produces the policy possibilities that are to be presented to the public for discussion and is in the form of a staff work report. Further public discussion of the policy possibilities and foreseeable consequences presented for public discussion in IF Citizen Staff Work Reports may, in due course, enhance decision-making in any or all three branches of government.

– The Nature of the Discussions –

The facilitator’s principal task is to ensure that the sanctuary discussions are open-ended and exploratory. Panelists do not start with any express objectives or conclusions, but are encouraged to be open to and develop their own ideas and to freely explore them for their conceptual usefulness and their practical consequences. Initially, panelists raise for discussion and exploration all questions that they see as emerging for the area of concern. Panelists then interactively discuss possible answers to these questions. Panelists are always free to raise new questions as the possible answers are further developed. Panelists then begin to develop contrasting policy possibilities for the area of concern. Once a panel develops a policy possibility, it also attempts to analyze and describe the possible particular public policy consequences of that policy alternative.

This development process eventually leads to a selection process in which certain alternative policy possibilities are taken forward and others are not pursued.

– Why Four or More Policy Possibilities? –

IF’s goal is to provide both democratic citizens and decision makers with carefully developed contrasting possibilities for public policy in selected areas of concern. It has no specific public policy goals or political views. Its objective is to make available real, practical alternatives — along with their foreseeable practical consequences. Thus, IF panels do not attempt to reach consensus on a so-called “best” solution, or even to suggest that there are “either-or” solutions. Rather, their aim is to keep alive and continue to explore all reasonable public policy possibilities and their consequences.

In establishing public policy, there generally can be no perfect answers or completely clear courses of action. Rather, all policy possibilities have benefits or advantages, as well as costs and disadvantages. Policy possibilities therefore need to be well explored and examined and described in preparation for public policy choices. Citizen Staff Work Reports like those IF produces, in presenting multiple, contrasting and well-developed possibilities, can assist the public in this necessary discussion process. During the course of consideration by the panels, all alternatives that are felt to be worthy of further public debate are developed. Only those that are felt on the whole to be unsuitable for our democratic society and market economy are not pursued as useful for further public policy discussion. IF’s goal is to have four or more such possibilities in an area of concern in order to give the citizens real choices — not simply extremes from which to choose.

Going Public

After the work of the panels has concluded, the panels’ work is presented to the public for its discussion and deliberation. In contrast to “think-tanks”, IF does not view going public as a process of “shopping” our report to policy makers. On the contrary, IF’s concept of going public is focused on stimulating and enhancing discussion and deliberation by the public itself.

IF supports a variety of public explorations of its work. This approach to going public is grass-roots focused. The goal is public discussion, not merely public information. IF hopes that its work will be useful in encouraging public discussion and the formation of thoughtful opinions of choices about emerging public issues.

IF does not intend its work to lead directly to legislation. Rather it hopes that it can assist citizens in understanding emerging democratic questions and to use that understanding in their own democratic discussions and choices.

Resources

Along with several other resources, a 132-page Facilitation Guidebook for helping citizens explore and develop public policy possibilities in a sanctuary-like discussion environment is freely downloadable from the Interactivity Foundation website.  The guidebook was written by Jack Byrd, Jr. in 2005.

Resource Link: www.interactivityfoundation.org

Parkersburg

WV

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