Improvisation & Policy: Notes for a Roundtable

Daniel Weinstock
April 25, 2016

logo1A Roundtable on Improvisation & Policy will be convened by ArtsEverywhere, Musagetes, and the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation (IICSI) on May 7, 2016. The roundtable will consider the following two questions:

  • How can policies be created to shape & enable environments conducive to improvisation (or improvisatory methodologies) in the enactment of collective daily life, civic relations, and social struggle?
  • How can the creation of and interpretation of policies be improvisatory acts themselves?

The roundtable will be moderated by George Lipsitz. The respondents will be Parmela Attariwala, Charles C. Smith, Roger Dean, and Sara Ramshaw. A full video of the roundtable, as well as video and written synopses, will be uploaded to ArtsEverywhere in late May.


Why might an understanding of the improvisational arts provide us with an interesting lens through which to understand both the process of public policy formation and that of public policy implementation and interpretation?

Obviously, the claim is not that public policy practitioners make it up as they go along. (Perhaps they do, but then the claim is not that this is what they ought to do!) But improvisation is never about just making it up, either. Among others, the following principles seem to be true of improvisation:

  • Improvisation is structured, but its structure is not of the top-down variety in which one agent defines a theme that then constrains the subsequent actions of those who are hierarchically subordinate to that agent. Rather, it begins with a shared sense of the broad parameters within which performance will occur, but is premised on the idea that all will contribute to fleshing out what lies within those parameters according to an understanding and/or set of competencies that may at first diverge. The final result fleshes out the theme in ways that might not have been predicted on the basis of any single participant’s starting point.
  • Improvisation is social. It requires reacting sympathetically to others’ contributions. It is underpinned by social virtues such as trust, sympathy, friendship, and the like.
  • Improvisation is egalitarian. All participate equally in the creative process. No single set of competencies or perspectives is privileged.
  • Improvisation is rational, but the conception of rationality that is in play is not one that drives a hard wedge between emotion and reason, nor is it one that views the kinds of canons of rationality that are expounded in logic textbooks as exhaustive of what human rational life consists in.

If these four properties adequately capture what happens when people improvise, then it can be of use in illuminating some of what happens in the public policy process. Furthermore, it can illuminate the ways by which this process is carried out, in ideal circumstances.

When Rivers Meet, directed by Dong-Won Kim, featuring dancer Georgia Simms

When Rivers Meet, directed by Dong-Won Kim, featuring dancer Georgia Simms

Let’s consider some possible truisms about public policy formation today.

First, public policy is complex in that very few (if any) public policy issues are domain-specific. They cut across a wide range of areas, both in that a given public policy objective will often be shared by practitioners across different domains, and because the pursuit of a given public policy objective will often impact on other domains, sometimes in unexpected ways.

What this means is that public policy must escape the silos that still structure the ways in which policy competencies are defined. It will therefore necessarily be social in that good policy will result from the bringing together of many minds. It will also have to be egalitarian in that things will begin to go wrong when one perspective or way of understanding the public policy question at issue attempts to achieve a position of normative privilege. And it will have to instantiate many of the social virtues that are important components of social rationality, especially sympathetic responsiveness to the often unpredictable points of view of others.

It also means that public policy formulation will have a relationship to theme and structure that resembles what we find in improvised music. Though a public policy initiative may originate from a particular domain, its final form ought ideally to reflect the contributions that will be brought to its fleshing out by a number of participants.

Second, the importance of thinking about improvisation in the context of public policy formation is all the greater if public policy formation incorporates a component of public participation. Increasingly, governments are attempting to bring the public in at a consultative level in the process of making policy. This has been especially true in areas of moral controversy, such as new genetic technologies or assisted reproduction technologies. It could be argued that in societies like Canada’s there is an expectation on the part of the public that mechanisms will be set up that allow governments to canvas the views of its members when complex issues of public policy arise.

However, the ways in which public participation has been elicited have oscillated between two extremes. On the one hand, some models (citizen juries, deliberative polls, etc.) regiment public participation within fairly tight structures that channel participation along fairly narrow lines. On the other, for example in the case of the citizens’ forums organized by the Bouchard/Taylor Commission, public participation can take the form of a free-for-all or of a succession of monologues that do not truly take advantage of the social setting in which they are set to effect epistemic and empathetic gain among its members. Thinking about improvisation may help us come up with better ways by which to incorporate citizen viewpoints into the public policy formation process.

A third way by which we may illuminate our practices of public policy making in helpful ways by thinking about improvisation points back to what was said earlier about improvisation as a rational activity, but one in which a conception of rationality that belies the standard reason/emotion duality is at work. Standard theoretical views about democracy tend to cluster around two extremes, neither one of which seems either very attractive or particularly true to life. On the one hand, we have conceptions that view democratic deliberation as having to do merely with the jockeying of diverse interest-holders, attempting to gain competitive advantage relative to others. On the other, we have partisans of “deliberative” democracy who conceive of democracy as having to do with the exchange of reasons, where reasons are construed in a narrow propositional manner. Squeezed out of this duality is the way in which actual people comport one another discursively within democratic space. They tell stories, cajole, attempt to elicit sympathetic identification, etc. There may be a point at which such practices become manipulative in a way that should worry democrats, but surely there is a need both for a “phenomenology” (for lack of a better term) and an ethics of democratic persuasion that is truer to our ideals of what democratic life is like. Perhaps the ways performers communicate within the context of musical (or dramatic) improvisation can provide insights into the validity of such a theory.

Finally, turning to issues of policy implementation and interpretation, an improvisatory responsiveness to the irreducible unpredictability of others may help to counteract some risks to which public policy implementation is prey. Like all rational agents, public policy practitioners are subject to confirmation bias. An epistemic and moral investment (in a particular policy, for example) may tend to make us insufficiently sensitive to evidence that tends to disconfirm our initial hypothesis, and to place excessive emphasis on evidence tending to confirm it. This is particularly problematic in the area of public policy when the sources of disconfirming evidence are the people for whom policy has been designed in the first place.

Public policy practitioners should possess the epistemic and moral virtues required to constantly adapt and alter their initial conclusions in the light of new evidence, to view them as in some sense provisional. What’s more, feedback loops desirable at the level of individual agents should also be built into public policy institutions. The hypothesis here is that looking at the way in which agents incorporate the requisite traits and virtues in the context of improvisation can help us to come to a better understanding of how the process of policy can be both conceptualized and improved by attending to improvisation.

Daniel Weinstock

Dr. Weinstock holds a Canada Research Chair in Ethics and Political Philosophy and is the founding director of the Centre de recherche en éthique de l’Université de Montréal.

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