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Many minds take the right fork

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David Wendt

David Wendt Perspective

I’ll never forget the night I got everyone lost. I was leading a pack trip into the Upper Yellowstone, and we had gotten a late start. Camp was supposed to be set up for us on the other side of the river, but long before reaching the river, darkness had fallen, and camp was nowhere to be found on the other side. We spent the night huddled together in an early winter snowstorm, while our horses stood tired and hungry nearby, tied high and tight to the trees.

Kneeling by the river bank early the next morning, I saw to my surprise when I went to look upstream that I was instead looking downstream. I was totally disoriented. Then I realized: Somehow in the dark I had gotten turned around. The river we had crossed was not the Yellowstone, but the Thorofare, an adjacent tributary. Camp was at the juncture of those two rivers, much further downstream. Once I had that figured out, I knew exactly where to go, and we were on our way.

In that case, I had the advantage of having been there before and knowing the lay of the land. But how are we to get our bearings and move forward in the face of some of today’s unprecedented challenges?

One way to compensate for this lack of historical experience is to try to look at an issue from as many points of view as possible. This approach involves bringing a collective focus to bear. Its advantage is that it enables participants in a process of decision-making to understand where they stand with the issue, size up what they are dealing with, and decide how to move forward with it.

The first policy project I ever organized, at the end of the Cold War, was on the cleanup of radioactive waste from nuclear weapons manufacturing at U.S. national laboratories. I am no rocket scientist. I just knew that the idea of abandoning large swaths and aquifers of the country to radioactive contamination as “national sacrifice zones” was unacceptable.

So I gathered a group of congressional staffers who knew something about this problem, and we started talking about it. It quickly became clear that one of the key issues was reconciliation of differing approaches to the cleanup between the federal government and the states. The federal government wanted to prioritize the cleanup on the basis of the “worst first,” while the states wanted the federal government to adhere to a series of state-by-state agreements that had already been made.

Ten years ago, as president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, I faced this dilemma when organizing a series of U.S.-China exchanges to reduce carbon emissions from coal. I had no idea how to proceed. All I knew was that pollution from coal combustion in China was a global problem, and that China needed help in coping with it. But I didn’t know what concrete issues to address, or how to address them.

It was only after we had organized a few discussions and conducted a few site visits that I could wrap my mind around some of the central priorities. These included utilization of waste products from coal combustion, including carbon dioxide. Before too long, I knew exactly what issue to address — carbon capture and storage. That, in turn, led us to coal gasification technology, which became the central focus of our remaining exchanges.

Eight years later, when I decided to run for Congress, I was immediately thrown into a whirlwind of issues that I knew very little about. Questions and questionnaires came at me from all sides.

At times I felt completely overwhelmed. But gradually, in talking with people from both sides of the aisle, an issue-agenda emerged: Deficit reduction through closing of tax loopholes, job creation through public-private sector partnerships and clean energy. My opponent beat me fairly and squarely, but we had an honest dialogue about these issues.

In all these instances, the agenda didn’t drive the collaboration; the collaboration drove the agenda. So when I think back now on how lost I felt when I first started thinking about these issues, I am reminded of the lessons I learned that morning kneeling by the river bank: Put together what you know from your own past experience but, more importantly, from the experience of others. Draw on that experience to set your priorities and assess the risks. Then bear down hard on what you have come up with, and let it take you where you want to go.

Successful collaboration in public policy involves a series of forks in the road. If we start with the notion that collaboration is a way for many hands to make light work, then a simple play on words reveals an obvious truth: Many minds take the right fork

David Wendt is president of the bipartisan Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs. He was the Democratic nominee for Wyoming’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.


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Rudkin writes: It’s so easy to take God’s goodness for granted and simply go on about the business of living.

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