Economic panel dealt with data pool

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By John Bartlit

 The raw material from which able decisions are shaped is information. Ignoring the tradition is a recurring story. The trials and tribulations of data have endless forms, some as large as national politics and others as small as a dozen-person panel or a small-town issue.This column about a  panel in 1975 first appeared in the Monitor on April 2, 2000. In the last 35 years, I fear public forums large and small have lost too much of a  vital strength: a broad sense of data exchange.  

     Each  of us carries a lifetime of experiences that makes us who we are. Back in 1975, I was on a national panel of the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment  (OTA) in Washington D.C. The experience still shapes my views today.

     Our panel had the formidable task of assessing the impact of regulations on the nation’s economy. The concern was regulation that protects the environment, public safety and health. To help in our work, we had each other and the results of detailed studies, some which were done for our use.

     The panel members had varied backgrounds. I was the citizen environmental advocate. There was one other “public” advocate like myself. The rest of the 12 or 15 on the panel worked for companies such as General Motors Corp., 3M Company, big drug  companies and drug testing firms.    

     Business people are business people. Engineers are engineers. I found people to be citizens as well.

     At least most are, if given half a chance. A citizen voice in the room lets their citizen side work in more tangible ways than with no citizen voice nearby.  

     The effect is real. It happened again and again on the OTA panel.         

     Our first meeting feels as fresh as last week. A weight of despair hung over me. My mind told me, “My concerns for clean air and water are going to get  squashed flat as a bug. Too many of the others want to see ways that  regulation has ruined the economy.”

     But that was before I knew of the “citizen effect.” The business folks on the panel were reluctant to offer the citizen viewpoint. But they had a great readiness to agree with it when it came from others.  

     I can only guess why. The reluctance seems to stem from a perceived company duty. The readiness, from their long-held practice of dealing with data.  

     An example: To aid the panel, the OTA hired the Harvard Business School to do a  study of the economic impact on the auto industry of the rules to improve  safety and reduce pollution. The draft report of the study said the  regulations added $600 to the cost of a new car.  

     The day we met to go over the draft, I was  puzzled. I said the cost I had heard on the news was much less, more like  $200 per car.

     The GM engineer sitting  across the table from me was quick to join in: “That’s right,” he said.  “GM’s testimony to Congress put the costs at around $200 to $250.”  

     Points as small as this one, re-echoed in  discussion, suggest new places to look and see more. It did this  time.

     First here, then there, fresh ideas  popped out. With professional pride, the 3M process engineer told how 3M had  to revamp a process to meet a regulation. They found a safer chemical to use  that improved the product and lowered costs. Innovation, whatever the spur,  can discover benefits not found the first time.    

     Data came together in  surprising ways.             

     The  surprise springs from the variety and nature of people – how they act and  interact, how they affect each other. In small ways that matter, people’s  behaviors change with those around them, for better or worse. Even in our  small forum.  

     To cut to the end, the  business-dominated OTA panel formally reported the impact of environment,  health and safety regulations on the overall economy is too little to  detect. The net effect is so small it barely shows up, maybe a small loss,  or a small boost.  

     The main reason  things work this way is the $250 paid for new devices on a car are earned by  people who make the devices. And so on.     

     Would the verdict  have been different with no citizen voices on the panel? I can’t prove it in  court, but the evidence to me was overwhelming. The experience changed my  ideas about the latent capacity in people and information.