VOP attended the recent American Political Science Association Teaching and Learning conference in Washington, where we demonstrate­­d our policymaking simulations to hundreds of political science professors. The educators travelled from universities across the country and overseas, to learn more about the latest teaching tools that are available for their classrooms.

We were eager to show how the policymaking simulations we are developing can be used in classroom settings as a learning tool. These simulations are designed to mirror the actual policy debate in Congress, in a way that is balanced and fully transparent.

These policymaking simulations are developed by the Program for Public Consultation, affiliated with the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. They work with senior staff experts from both parties in Congress, and outside experts from a range of viewpoints, to ensure that the presentation of the issues is accurate and fair, and that the arguments for and against the various policy options are the strongest ones being made by proponents.  Respondents can then use them to communicate their views to their representatives in Congress in way that is informed and more sharply targeted at the choice points that Congress is dealing with.

The feedback we received from political science professors in various disciplines was very positive and indicates real interest in utilizing these new tools in classroom settings. Several mentioned that the simulations would be a great way to bring students into the policy debate in Congress.

This strong positive reaction suggests that VOP’s policymaking simulations will not only help members of Congress gain a better understanding of their constituents, as well as help their constituents better understand the issues and tradeoffs Congress faces.

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama asked Congress to practice a better politics where both sides “talk issues, and values, and principles, and facts, rather than ‘gotcha’ moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies…”

We believe the path to breaking our government’s dysfunction is by citizen participation in the policy debate. Congress needs to be guided by the common sense of the American people.

A critical aspect of Voice Of the People’s Citizen Cabinet program is the development of the advanced online survey instruments we use, also known as “policymaking simulations.”

Policymaking simulations are designed to put citizens in the shoes of policymakers, so they can better understand the policy choices Congress is facing and more effectively engage with their elected representatives on those issues.  The instrument is designed to mirror the actual policy debate in Congress, in a way that is deliberative and fully transparent. Participants are first given a briefing on the issue, then they weigh the various policy options Congress is considering, with strong pro and con arguments on each option. Only then are they asked to make their recommendations.

Voice Of the People works with the Program for Public Consultation (PPC), affiliated with the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, to carefully craft each simulation through a lengthy and rigorous process.

The topics we select for each policymaking simulation are generally prominent issues Congress is having trouble resolving. 

Once the topic is selected, PPC’s research team reviews previous debates on the issue in the Congressional Record, any proposed legislation, analyses conducted by government agencies such as the Congressional Budget Office, academic studies, reports from research institutes, news accounts, and statements by officials and advocacy organizations from all perspectives.

The researchers make great efforts to speak with experts from various points of view, including outside organizations that are working on the issue and prominent scholars who are recognized experts in the field. This ensures that the simulations contain relevant, accurate and balanced information, and provide a complete and unbiased presentation of each issue.

In drafting the simulations, the key challenge is to provide enough information for the user to make informed choices, but in a way that is both focused and accessible to most people. Finding the right balance is the key so that the process can be completed in about 15-25 minutes.

Once the simulation is drafted, our researchers meet with top Democratic and Republican congressional committee staffers who deal with the issue.  Often they meet together to expedite the review process and make sure that everyone’s best arguments are being made, and that the information presented by both sides is factually correct and not misleading.  Other outside experts and advocates are consulted as well. The simulation is not considered ready for use until all the reviewers are satisfied that it is both accurate and fair.

A final step is to field the revised draft simulation to a small group of “beta-testers,” members of the general public who volunteer to test the simulations and provide user feedback.

Once the final testing is complete, the policymaking simulations are presented first to members of the Citizen Cabinet, a scientifically-selected representative sample of the public in each state or district.  Their responses are analyzed and shared with members of Congress, to give lawmakers a clearer sense of what their constituents want them to do.

We then invite the broader public to go through the same policymaking simulation as a way to get informed on the issue and more effectively communicate their views to their elected representatives. At the end of each simulation, members of the public are given an opportunity to formulate their key conclusions and automatically send them to their representatives with the click of a button.

Policymaking simulations are particularly well-suited for the classroom, for civic groups and citizens who wish to know more about the matters their representatives in Washington are debating. 

To learn more, or to try one of our policymaking simulations for yourself, click here.

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