Thomas N. Webler

Adjunct Faculty, ES PhD Program
Department of Environmental Studies

Research Interests

Statement of research interests:
The following question reflects the essence of my research interests.

How can we develop practical tools to incorportate a plurality of voices and ways of knowing into a just policy making process in a manner that builds on peoples’ lay competence as well as on all available technical knowledge and expertise?

Practice Tools
I use the term practical tools very broadly. My attention is largely focused on seeing policy or decision making as a discourse. By that I mean, an opportunity for people to engage in free and open communication with each other. Specifically, I understand discourse in the sense Juergen Habermas uses and I draw heavily on his theories of communicative action and moral discourse.

I also use the term to refer to what are more commonly understood as decision aids. For example, computer simulation models, value trees, multiattribute utility analysis, delphi, etc.

Plurality of voices and ways of knowing
In my understanding of public policy making people come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Each person brings a unique experience and skill to the table. Frequently, knowledge and perspectives not supported by an instrumental rational way of knowing has been discredited. First we need to recognize that there are different ways of knowing and different ways of speaking, of participating in public decision making. Second, we need to validate these differences as legitimate and recognize the value and strength that diversity brings. Third, we need to understand how we can reconcile differences that emerge because of different voices or different ways of knowing in a manner that is just and that leads to competent policies and decisions.

Just policy making process
A just policy making process is fair and legal. It is fair in the moral sense that it provides each individual the opportunity to be free of external coercion. Clearly this idea is related to consensus, but consensus is not required in every aspect of the decision making process in order for the process to be just.

Lay competence
The distinction between lay people and experts is simply meant to differentiate between governmental officials and their hired consultants (the experts) and the rest of the people and groups involved in the process (the lay people). Clearly lay people are expert in a number of areas, some may even be experts in other contexts. In my understanding, consultants and scientists usually bring formal instrumental, positivist knowledge to the venue, while lay people bring local experience and wisdom to the process. Both are essential if the outcomes are to be competent and responsible.