Wednesday, May 22, 2013
"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong." - H. L. Mencken
The worst part about citizen involvement in complex public policy decisions is enduring the arrogant nincompoops who approach every problem absolutely certain that they have THE answer and absolutely convinced that anyone who disagrees is either hopelessly ignorant or part of a secret conspiracy bent, for unknown reasons, on thwarting the way life ought to be.
The best part of citizen involvement in complex public policy decisions is watching people of good will struggle to articulate their goals, work to understand the forces that shape their shared destiny and formulate the choices before them.
It is often said that listening to Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke explain the decisions of the Federal Reserve is as exciting (and informative) as watching paint dry.
I think it can be equally said that listening to a group of citizens passionate about their communities' struggle to formulate their policy choices is exactly the opposite. It's as exciting and as awesome in its way as witnessing a birth. It is observing the struggle to learn, watching the teaching moment, understanding the truth behind the phrase "the wisdom of crowds."
I have been privileged to witness several such episodes over the past few months as citizens in cities and towns across the state struggle with the question of how to organize their educational systems. Should they remain part of multi-town districts? Should they withdraw and go their individual ways? Should they join with different partners? Should they, through a tuition arrangement, hire an independent contractor to provide education services?
Many enter this process with strong opinions. And many bear strong resentments about the reorganization process they felt was imposed on them over the past few years. But the dominant attitude I have observed is an overwhelming curiosity about possible alternative outcomes.
Most community decisions are about changes on the margin: Which roads do we repair? Do we expand the transfer station hours? These school decisions are big. They involve known variables whose values we must try to predict into a very uncertain future.
People, programs, property and players: How many students will we have? What sort of educational programs do we wish to provide? What will be the value of the property we can tax to pay for these programs? And how will the value of that property change relative to the values in neighboring towns and in the state as a whole?
And finally, how many players are there in our system? Do we go it alone? Or do we join with one or more of our neighbors? If so, which ones?
Formulated in this way, these decisions are like three-dimensional games of chess -- clearly defined pieces that must be moved into a future where economic growth, migration and budgetary decisions in Augusta are unknown but must be estimated. And, most importantly, as the citizens who wrestle to understand the rules of this "game" play out a few imaginary scenarios in their minds and discuss the likely outcomes with their neighbors, they will come to understand and to "own" their decisions.
And for this reason alone, these decisions -- whatever directions they may take -- will be "better."
Fiscally, they may not be the cheapest; educationally, they may not be the most efficient; but socially they will be "ours." Their outcomes will be "better" because they will produce not resentment toward some nameless bureaucracy that imposed a solution on us, but community-wide learning. And after all, isn't that what education is supposed to be about?
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, a public-policy research firm. He can be reached at: