by Ullik Rouk

Challenges to Policymakers' Satisfaction

Given an increase in information flow and stronger relationships with the public, constituent participation in community study circles might become the first step in public initiation or support of policy action.

Policymakers readily listed the benefits they saw accruing from their participation in study circles. SEDL also asked its respondents about the challenges of gaining satisfaction from participation in study circles. Two major issues that policymakers offered were low constituent attendance and scheduling conflicts. Secondary issues that affected the degree of satisfaction with their experience included relevance of discussions and nonconstructive dialogue.

Low Constituent Attendance

When participants, whether policymakers or members of the public, think that the study circle dialogue is worth the time they devote to it, they are more likely to attend. They are also more likely to attend when they feel that others value their contributions. In some study circles, the balance of attendees tended to be members of the policy subsystem—state-level officials and active education stakeholders—with whom policymakers regularly interacted (see Who are Constituents?). The constituents they heard from less often were not present in large numbers. One policymaker remarked that the people attending the study circle in her neighborhood were those with whom she already was in contact and did not include constituents outside her own personal networks.

According to policymakers, the low public turnout in their study circles, either in terms of sheer numbers or constituent representation, was the most significant dissatisfaction with their study circle experience. Of the fourteen policymakers who identified negative aspects of their experiences, eight identified low attendance as a factor that affected their ability to gain the most out of this method of interacting with constituents.

One policymaker simply could not fully participate in his study circle because of the low numbers of attendees. He implied that without at least a few people representing his constituency, the time spent in dialogue was not worthwhile. Low attendance not only limited the flow of information but also cut down on the number of perspectives that participants represented—the very reason policymakers agreed to attend the study circles in the first place.

Scheduling Conflicts

Image of a clock moving quickly, a person hurrying to a meeting, and a phone ringing..

Attending study circle sessions extracts a significant time commitment from participants. This commitment is difficult for policymakers, in particular, to make. In both states where study circles took place, senators and representatives are elected as citizen legislators. This means that in addition to carrying out legislative responsibilities, they also hold jobs or run a business to earn a living. In addition, election season, the legislative session, and other meetings compete heavily for policymakers’ time.

Scheduling study circle events must take all of these circumstances into account. A number of policymakers told SEDL researchers that it was difficult to carve out the time to participate fully in study circles. When policymakers were unable to regularly attend, the positive impact of the study circle experience was diminished.

Relevance of Discussion

The more that dialogue in a study circle focuses on a community’s or state’s current education agenda, the more relevant it will be to policymakers. To attain a high degree of relevance for policymakers, facilitators and the group must focus discussion on pressing, high-profile, and timely education issues. A few policymakers expressed disappointment at not being able to gain any new information relevant to their work because the study circle groups raised topics that were different from those facing the legislature. Later, however, one of these policymakers revealed that when study circle participants did not focus on charter schools (which happened to be a current policy interest of hers), her own disappointment had impaired her ability to understand that the constituents were in fact communicating their views about this education strategy: They didn’t discuss charter school reform because they simply were not interested in it.

Even with interest, a focused discussion on a policy-relevant topic alone won’t ensure that the discussion will be relevant to policymakers. Relevance is also related to the participants’ knowledge about given education issues. A few policymakers found that the level of the general public’s knowledge about an education issue was not high enough to be useful to help them with the issues facing them in legislative committees.

Nonconstructive Dialogue

Constructive dialogue is at the heart of the study circle process. Too many negative comments and complaints detracted from the benefits some policymakers derived from study circles. One policymaker put it this way: "It seemed to me there are more complaints than solutions and I think the purpose of these, to my notion, should be, ‘How can we fix this?’ not just continuing on the complaint path."

Similarly, when one member of the group dominates or disrupts the flow of communication, constructive discussion can break down. A policymaker recalled having a participant in his group who was "out of sync with the group" and a "pain in the neck." Such individuals who are not able to contribute constructively can become "spoilers" for others unless the facilitator controls the situation.

Next Page: Implications for Public Education

Published in Insights on Educational Policy, Practice, and Research Number 13, November 2000, Policymakers Build Bridges