What is an Executive Session?
An Executive Session is a convening of individuals of independent standing who are prepared to take joint responsibility for rethinking and improving society's responses to an issue over two, three, or four years. It is more than just a series of conferences. The people invited to be members of an Executive Session might be thought of as the Board of Directors, if there were one, for the issue.
The continuing nature of the Executive Session is crucial to its success. In early meetings the members get to know one another, get issues on the table, and generally establish the context of the discussion. As the Executive Session progresses, the members work together to move beyond the conventional wisdom about an issue and the standard prognostications about what needs to be done. If this is to take place, it is important that the members have grown to trust one another.
Although the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) convenes the Executive Session, ultimately the members must take responsibility for the work of the Session. The members are the experts. The convening organization basically serves as a staff, preparing background documents, summarizing the discussions, and preparing products for the members to review. It also serves as synthesizer and challenger of the conversation.
As each Executive Session moves toward some degree of resolution, the members decide how the group can best influence public policy. For example, those addressing police issues chose to organize a large meeting to which many of their colleagues were invited, to arrange for publication of their point of view in various journals (The Atlantic, Police Chief, Public Management), and to sponsor an ongoing series of papers.
Individuals are selected based on their experiences, their reputation for thoughtfulness, and their potential for helping to disseminate the work of the Session. While several constituencies are represented, every effort is made to have at least two individuals from each constituency. That ensures that no individual feels as though he or she must be a spokesperson for some group, and thus is free to speak his or her mind freely.
The members convene on five, six, or more occasions over the years of the session. The length of each meeting of the session is important. Typically, a meeting will convene on a Thursday evening for a working dinner, and then continue to work all day on Friday and part of the day on Saturday. Meeting over a three-day period (two working days) makes it possible to delve deeply into an issue. It leaves time for individual members to hear one another, to discuss papers, and to have an evolution in their own thinking. In shorter meetings, people often do not get beyond their initial positions.
- For more information download our Working Paper on Executive Sessions and Theory and Practice of Executive Sessions, the defining documents of the Executive Sessions (also at top right)
Past Executive Sessions
- Executive Session on Human Rights Commissions and Criminal Justice (2006-2008)
- Executive Session on Public Defense (1999-2001)
- Executive Session on Medical Error and Patient Safety (1998-2000)
- Executive Session on New Paradigms for Child Protective Services (1993-1997)
- Executive Session for State Drug Control Executives (1991-1993)
- Executive Session for State and Local Prosecutors (1986-1990)
- Executive Session on Drugs and Community Policing (1990-1993)
- Executive Session on Policing (1985-1991)
- Executive Session on the Juvenile Justice System (1983-1987)
- Plus the Executive Session on Delinquency and the Family