The Minnesota Policy Blueprint: A Case Study in State Policy Advocacy

IN THE SPRING OF 1997, the Minneapolis-based Center of the American Experiment began planning a comprehensive review of Minnesota’s executive branch of government. Over the next 18 months, and at a cost of about $320,000, the plan became a blueprint for restructuring state government. The Minnesota Policy Blueprint now stands not only as a guide for the state’s policymakers, but also, we hope, as a model for other states to follow.

The goals of the publication were concise: subject the executive branch to conservative and free-market tests “ask what should government do, not do, or do better?” and put forth recommendations for policy changes. This project was never about efficiency of government but about its fundamental purpose. We found it easiest to identify areas of government to privatize, make more competitive, or eliminate altogether when we concentrated on the underlying philosophy. Because we began with crisp guiding principles, specific policy examples flowed easily. These principles included:

  • Government’s reach must be limited, and individual responsibility must be enhanced.
  • Identifiable institutions and individuals should be held accountable for what government does.
  • Economic liberty and growth are best served by low-tax, low-regulation policies.
  • State policies and programs should be based on time-tested family and social values.
  • Competition (which is not always the same as “privatization”) should almost always be sought in the delivery of public services.

We brought together 19 task forces composed of six to ten volunteer participants. Each included lawmakers, business leaders, and policy experts. We generally considered cabinet-level departments and broad policy areas in separate task forces. Each task force’s deliberations generated a chapter of the Blueprint.

We chose task force chairmen for their leadership ability and their commitment to our organization’s principles. We believe that the composition of the task forces was the greatest determinant of their success. We found it most productive to assemble task force participants of a singular view for the ideologically-based task forces. For example, in the case of our task force on natural resources, we recruited only hunting and fishing enthusiasts.

This was less important process-oriented task forces. For example our task force on the Office of the Governor was effective with a broad range of political views because its recommendations focused more on process.

We found that it added credibility to the project to include high profile participants and a few individuals of diverse ideological bent when they agreed with our underlying philosophy on a relevant task force topic.

In addition, we found it beneficial to recruit task force participants with current or immediate past experience in the task force subject matter. Including current policymakers as participants has proven especially fruitful; they have been instrumental in subsequently converting the study’s recommendations into pending legislation.

We recommend that task force deliberations take place in three to five sessions of four to five hours each, with participants receiving background information beforehand. It is helpful if the first session includes introductions, a project overview, formulation of guiding principles, and determination of witnesses to call for testimony (to appear live at subsequent meetings or to provide written testimony).

During the course of our deliberations, we heard from dozens of witnesses—often ones whose ideas varied radically from our own—to learn about specific details unknown to task force participants, to understand competing ideas, and to forestall any charge of not being fair to the opposition. Our task forces found it valuable to hear testimony early in the middle sessions, reserving time at the end of those sessions for discussion and formulation of tentative recommendations. We suggest dedicating the last task force meeting to final formulation of recommendations and review of a rough draft chapter.

The project director, research director, and editorial director attended nearly every task force session to provide background information, direction, and continuity between task forces. After each task force finished its deliberations, we exchanged chapter drafts by fax until the task force participants were satisfied with the document before sending it to the publisher. By design, the ideological composition of our task forces led to few conflicting recommendations, and we were able to eliminate any inconsistencies internally that did arise as the chapters developed.

Fundraising for this project took place at the same time as the work of the task forces. In retrospect, we believe it would be more manageable to complete the fund raising before beginning task force deliberations and to have only three or four task forces active at once, perhaps meeting once a week for a month and completing deliberations before launching the next group of three or four task forces.

The Minnesota Policy Blueprint contains almost 250 recommendations, some of which lend themselves readily to implementation as specific policies. At last count, 30 Blueprint recommendations had been presented in 55 separate bills in the Minnesota legislature, and many have realistic chances of being enacted.

In addition, our new governor, Jesse Ventura, has adopted several Blueprint recommendations as policy goals for his administration. We believe that the impact of the Blueprint on the policy debates at the Minnesota State Capitol demonstrates that the political and bureaucratic establishment is willing to embrace conservative and free-market ideas when they are well-argued and well-timed.

Mr. Kaiser served as editorial director for the Minnesota Policy Blueprint, a project of the Center of the American Experiment.