- George Santayana
Resolving complex, highly political, public policy issues is inherently messy. On occasion, a unique chemistry of effective leadership, good technical information, and principled negotiating actually does the job. It beggars the imagination to think that a bunch of smart high school kids could create inspired political breakthroughs where leaders in government, industry, and non-profits have repeatedly failed. Nonetheless, that is what recently happened.
Last summer, 35 students from 10 specialized math and science schools in 7 states met in Colorado for an experimental one week “Youth Policy Summit on Sustainable Energy Use for Transportation in the United States.” The goal of this meeting was to help high schools students integrate state-of-the-art technical information with real-life policy challenges. The summiteers, all high school students, were meeting under the auspices of The Keystone Center and the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools in Mathematics, Science and Technology.
As in real life politics, the run-up to the summit involved months of research, technical preparation, and consultation with energy and transportation experts. Each student was charged with researching a specific form of transportation fuel before arriving at the conference. Some studied gasoline, electric and gasoline-electric hybrid cars. Others reviewed what is known about diesel, bio-diesel, solar, ethanol, and hydrogen fuel vehicles. The students contacted professionals with knowledge on specific fuels and reviewed the divergent energy and transportation positions that are at play in the nation’s capitol.
At the summit itself, students arrived in small groups, settled into dorms, and got to know each other over hot dogs and Sloppy Joes. Then the pace quickened. For the next few days they inspected demonstration vehicles provided by General Motors, Segway, the Town of Breckenridge, and non-profits like H2Gen and 21 Wheels. They heard from transportation and energy experts, gave their own detailed research reports to fellow students, and received training in the fundamentals of negotiation and creative problem solving.
The students then got down to business. In response to a simulated call for recommendations from The White House, each individual adopted the role of spokesperson for an actual public, private, and civic sector organization. True to life, they quickly organized themselves into four negotiating coalitions -- government agencies; environmental organizations; industry and manufacturing interests; and consumer advocacy groups. Then the haggling began.
In the hypothetical simulation, the four teams were charged with developing joint recommendations to The White House on five key issues: (1) a working definition of sustainability as it pertains to transportation and energy; (2) a list of fuel sources that should be fostered or discouraged over the next 50 years; (3) proposed regulations and tax measures to achieve actual sustainability; (4) a general investment strategy for $100 million in Federally sponsored research and development; and (5) the identification of mitigation measures for those who might be adversely impacted by any nationwide fuels transition.
For three days, the student negotiators struggled to find common ground. People grappled with insufficient information, conflicting values, and technical uncertainty -- all of the ingredients that bedevil real-life policy negotiations. On occasion, tempers flared when students talked past each other or interrupted a conversation that someone deemed productive. There were overly long plenary sessions, hastily called team caucuses, and huddled lunches and dinners planning strategy. Slowly, the students started building a contingent bundle of gives-and-takes.
On the last afternoon of the Summit, the students drafted their agreement. Suddenly, they became lawyers, quibbling over words, smoothing over rough spots, parsing and resolving last minute ambiguities. And the result? While not every issue was addressed with equal intensity and attention to detail, some of the Summit’s results are unique and innovative: a slow and carefully implemented rise in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (Café) standards that govern fuel efficiencies; an automotive pollution credit trading system; purchasing incentives for hybrids; and funding for new infrastructure, safety, and technology development.
Late on the last day, over a salmon dinner, the agreements that the students forged were presented to the project’s sponsors, staff, teachers, and partners. Every student signed the agreement document, copies of which have been disseminated to the White House, to lawmakers, and to thought leaders in the private and non-profit sectors.
And the value of all this effort? Across a political landscape beset by cynicism, squabbling, and backbiting, it is refreshing to find moments of lucid thinking and reasoned problem solving. It is even more delectable when the problem solvers are young and knowledgeable and when, despite profound disagreements with each other, they manage to accomplish what lawmakers cannot: a sensible plan for the future of automobiles and the fuels we will all be using in the United States not too many years from now. Examples like this inspire us. They show us that it is possible to rise above our partisan interests for the common good.
This summer, a new group of 40 students from a dozen schools in as many states will again be gathering at The Keystone Center. Once more, they will have spent months doing technical preparation and, once again, the students will learn the fundamental principles and practices of contemporary negotiation theory. This time, they will be tackling a major theme being grappled with by the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control: child and adolescent nutrition in America and the growing personal and societal burdens of obesity.
Stand by for the results. It might just inspire you and, with luck, our lawmakers, corporate leaders, and advocacy groups.
Be sure to visit the Youth Policy Summit web site.