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02.01 We Are Less Divided than We Look

Monday, February 1st, 2016 | Will Friedman, Ph.D.



With the Iowa caucuses tonight, primary season is in full swing. It's easy to get discouraged by the polarized rhetoric of primary season as candidates seek to disqualify their adversaries and mobilize their most passionate—and often extreme—supporters.

This season has been especially divisive, but it's important to remember that this divisiveness does not reflect the American public at large. We are far less divided than we are portrayed to be.

I dismantled the myth of deep polarization among the public in a piece for the Huffington Post last year. In an effort to rein in your feelings of despair, I've shared that piece here. Please let us know what you think in the comments below.

***

Are we becoming a more polarized people, as a new and important study from the Pew Research Center seems to demonstrate? In spite of the hype surrounding this new research, I argue that the public is not as polarized as a cursory reading of the Pew study would suggest.

Certainly, this research reflects an important problem, but that problem is less about the public and more about our political system.

The vast majority of participants in the research (about 8 in 10) do not actually fit Pew's definition of ideological polarization. Further, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina explains in an excellent analysis of the research, the methodology used -- forcing respondents to choose between two dichotomies -- leads to a result that can exaggerate the ideological consistency of respondents.

Fiorina also examines the wider body of public opinion toward specific policy issues. He finds that most Americans are not either/or thinkers. Rather, they see merits in various points of view and are open to compromise.


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01.29 Engaging Ideas - 1/29

Friday, January 29th, 2016 | Public Agenda



A collection of recent stories and reports that sparked consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.

Democracy

Letter to the Editor: Spin in American Politics, for Better and Worse (The New York Times)

Will Friedman writes in response to “Why Spin is Good for Democracy,” by David Greenberg (Op-Ed, Jan. 15):

It had to happen. Someone is spinning spin by seeking to convince us that the predictable pronouncements of political hacks-for-hire are good for democracy. The obvious inauthenticity of focus-group-tested spin commentary does more to turn people off to politics than to engage them.

Voting rates and satisfaction with the political process have not been rising in America along with the spin machine’s prevalence. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite.

To the extent spin creates “a yearning for a more authentic politics” and leads to political innovations and commitments that increase voting and civic engagement, spin will have served a useful democratic purpose. To the extent it is allowed to masquerade as a true battle of ideas and solutions, it does not.

Politics Is a Competing View of Reality “Spin” (The Leonard Lopate Show)

A treasured part of American political history. Politics has always been the realm of half-truths, messaging, and branding. But are voters seeking a spin-free candidate in 2016? And is there even such a thing? In Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, presidential historian David Greenberg traces the history of highly crafted press conferences, image making and narrative creation in American political news and media.

Don't Wait. Participate. (The Huffington Post)

Larry Schooler writes: "For too long, government has made unrealistic demands of citizens when it comes to their participation. Initially, whole segments of the population could not vote or faced significant obstacles to registration--still an issue in some states. Meanwhile, the only choice many citizens had was to speak for no more than three minutes at a podium--often on live television, after hours of waiting, minutes before a vote. At one city council meeting in Texas, a speaker at a public hearing asked (in a nearly empty chamber at 11 o'clock at night), "Will there be an opportunity to weigh in on this issue? "I believe you're doing so now," replied the mayor. "With any power?" she asked, to applause from fellow citizens and befuddlement from her elected officials."

Tech Titans Fix Democracy in Single White House Dinner (Civicist)


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01.28 Tracking Community College Outcomes Can Help Get More Students to the Finish

Thursday, January 28th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo



If you've ever made the questionable decision – as I have – to read comments on an article about student debt, you've probably seen a common argument. Why don't students just start at a community college and transfer to a four-year school for their bachelor's? They'll save money and catch up on any preparation they're lacking.

On the surface, this argument makes sense. Two years at a community college, plus two years at a four-year university equals four years to an affordable college degree. Easy.

Unfortunately, a solution to rising student debt, a lack of student preparedness or low completion rates will not be that simple. Two plus two rarely equals four. And a new study proves it.

Out of the 1.7 million students who start at a community college each year, just 14 percent transfer to a four-year school and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. This finding comes from a ground-breaking report released last week by our friends and partners at the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse. (We worked with these organizations to put together a slidedeck summarizing the report findings. Download the slidedeck here.)

The report examines community college student outcomes in nearly every state in the country. Even in states with the best track records, only about one in five community college students transfer and graduate within six years of enrolling. In states at the bottom of the list, transfer and graduation rates are in the single digits.


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01.22 Engaging Ideas - 1/22

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 | Public Agenda



A weekly collection of stories, reports and news to spark consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.

Democracy

Of the People (New York Times)
Americans share their hopes, fears and frustrations in interviews from the campaign trail.

Rewriting the Rules of Public Engagement (Governing)
Public meetings can be like purgatory. Cities are showing us there’s a better way.

Public Leadership and the Gift of Time Well Spent (Governing)
Civic innovation can improve the way government works, but it needs a long runway.

America’s Divides Aren’t Just Partisan (The Atlantic)
The Republican coalition doesn’t reflect the growing diversity of the United States, while the Democratic coalition has failed to persuade many Americans to embrace its vision of the future.

How Change Happens (New York Times)
Paul Krugman writes: "Idealism is nice, but it’s not a virtue without tough minded realism." As Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J. Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.


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01.19 Tending the Garden of Civic Tech

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016 | Matt Leighninger




NPS Photo by Jasmine Horn.

Over the last twenty years, technology has offered many new ways for people to engage with their governments, with organizations and institutions, and with each other. Known collectively as "civic technology," these online tools can help us map public problems, help citizens generate solutions, gather input for government, coordinate volunteer efforts or help neighbors remain connected.

It has been a period of heady innovation, as a thousand flowers bloomed through the efforts of countless people. Now we have reached a key phase in this work, as we begin to transition from simply sowing seeds haphazardly to carefully designing and tending the gardens of civic tech.

The list of civic tech innovations offers plenty of gardening possibilities. These include apps, platforms, SMS-based processes and other tools that allow people to:

  • Rank ideas for solving a problem or improving a community.
  • Provide discrete pieces of data that help identify community issues, improve public services or add to public knowledge.
  • Donate money to a cause or a campaign.
  • Create or sign petitions supporting an idea, a cause or a policy proposal.
  • Create or add to interactive maps that assemble information on community assets and problems.
  • Coordinate volunteer efforts to solve a common problem.
  • Play games that contribute to citizen education, gather public input or contribute in some other way to decision-making and problem-solving.

These tools have been summarized in a number of places, including this list by Caitlyn Davison, this report from the Knight Foundation, and in my book, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy. The table at the bottom of this blog post also includes links for a number of examples.


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01.15 Engaging Ideas - 1/15

Friday, January 15th, 2016 | Public Agenda



A weekly collection of stories, reports and news to spark consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.

Democracy

This is what makes Republicans and Democrats so different (Vox)
Ezra Klein writes: “Democrats are motivated by specific policy deliverables while Republicans are motivated by broader philosophical principles. But behind this finding is some interesting evidence.”

State of the State? What About the State of Your Block? (The Brian Lehrer Show)
President Obama delivered the State of the Union address, and New Jersey Gov. Christie and New York Gov. Cuomo gave the State of the State earlier this week. But WNYC went hyper-local and asked: What’s the state of the neighborhood? They examine two of the biggest stories around town: A brutal rape and a popular supermarket in jeopardy.

The Innovation the Grantmaking Process Needs (Governing)
The way governments give out money to solve problems is stuck in the past. Here are 10 examples of how to innovate the process from Beth Simone Noveck and Andrew Young at The Government Lab.

How to Fix America's Infrastructure (The Atlantic)
Board Member Philip Howard writes: “these two failures—meager funding and endless process—may actually point the way to a potential grand bargain that could transform the U.S. economy: In exchange for Democrats getting rid of nearly endless red tape, Republicans would agree to raise taxes to modernize America’s infrastructure.”


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01.11 Strengthening Public Engagement in Edmonton, Canada

Monday, January 11th, 2016 | Nicole Hewitt



We think leadership works best when it helps others hold the reins. With that as a guiding principle, we’ve worked with many types of community leaders across the country and even across the Pacific to build on and improve their skills so they can better engage their constituents.

In November, we partnered with Fiona Cavanagh and Zane Hamm of the Centre for Public Involvement, as well as the forward-thinking city of Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, to kick off a civic engagement training program.

We tailored this program, a series of workshops, to city employees, public servants and nonprofit leaders in the region. The workshops build upon the ongoing work of Matt Leighninger, vice president of public engagement, with the city, and in particular the findings presented in the Strengthening Public Engagement in Edmonton report.

Matt and I (I'm Nicole Hewitt, Public Agenda's senior public engagement associate) traveled to Edmonton to deliver the first workshop on strengthening civic infrastructure. Civic infrastructure refers to the opportunities residents have to participate in decisions, preferably in a wide variety of ways and across broad range of issues.


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12.14 To reduce economic inequality, do we need better democracy?

Monday, December 14th, 2015 | Matt Leighninger



When people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, they will be better off economically as well as politically.

This idea has intrigued community development experts, foundation executives, public officials and academic researchers for many years. It has also animated some of the work people and governments are undertaking to address inequality, both in the United States and (especially) in the Global South.

But can a participatory democracy lead to greater economic opportunity? We are just beginning to amass evidence that this idea is true, understand how and why it works, and figure out how to make it happen better and faster.

Over the last two decades we have witnessed a quiet revolution in how governments and other institutions engage the public. Public officials, technologists, engagement practitioners, community organizers and other leaders have developed hundreds of projects, processes, tools and apps that boost engagement.

While they differ in many ways, these strategies and resources have one common thread: they treat citizens like adults rather than the clients (or children) of the state. They give people chances to connect, learn, deliberate, make recommendations, vote on budget or policy decisions, take action to solve public problems or all of the above. The principles behind these practices embody and enable greater political equality.

This wave of experimentation has produced inspiring outcomes in cities all over the world, but it has been particularly productive in Brazil and other parts of the Global South, where engagement has been built into the way that many cities operate. In these places, it is increasingly clear that when people have a legitimate voice in the institutions that govern their communities, and when they have support through various kinds of social and political networks, their economic fortunes improve.


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12.04 What do you want to see PB research address in 2016?

Friday, December 4th, 2015 | Megan Rose Donovan



As part of their work coordinating research on participatory budgeting processes in the U.S. and Canada, our research and public engagement teams have asked for input on potential tasks for the North American PB Research Board to tackle in the coming year (2015-16).

Below are five suggestions. What would you add or amend? Comment or tweet your suggestions to @PublicAgenda with #PBResearch.

  1. Building capacity for data gathering. This group would focus on the challenges facing local evaluators, such as: the lack of staff and volunteering time; lack of capacity to administer, collect, and enter data from surveys; translation of instruments; increasing survey response rates, and so on.
  2. Making PB data more usable, visible, and powerful. This work would work on ways to improve, facilitate, and institutionalize the collection, storage, and sharing of metrics data from all North American PB sites. There are a number of technological, ethical, logistical, and research challenges to making this happen. The final product would a rich, open data source for local PB evaluators and implementers, other PB researchers, and experts to draw on and share.
  3. Building a better infrastructure to support PB. Around the world, many cities have started doing PB without figuring out what kinds of supports they might need to make PB successful. At the same time, other engagement structures and processes that may already be in place may be far less effective from PB. This group would consider ways to use our research and evaluation efforts to help cities learn about PB, and learn from PB, in order to create a stronger engagement infrastructure.
  4. Organizing the evaluation and research track for the PB Conference in May 2016. This group would develop some interesting and thoughtful ways to present PB evaluations and evaluation data at the May 2016 conference in Boston. The overall goal would be to highlight the efforts, experiences, and insights gained through on-the-ground evaluation.
  5. Designing and supporting a larger research project to estimate the impact of PB in North American communities. This group would review the list of research projects that last year’s board members discussed during the development of the key evaluation metrics as important for further understanding PB in North America but beyond the scope and interest of individual, annual evaluation efforts. This group would focus on one of these project areas, design the study and develop a proposal for funding.

Comment

11.19 Dan Yankelovich Honored for Excellence in Public Opinion Research

Thursday, November 19th, 2015 | Will Friedman



On November 10th, our co-founder Dan Yankelovich received the Roper Center's Warren J. Mitofsky Award for Excellence in Public Opinion Research at a dinner in New York City. Will Friedman, who has known Dan for over two decades, introduced Dan, who joined the event via Skype . Below are Will's remarks, lightly edited.

There’s a story about Miles Davis at a White House dinner during the Reagan administration.

Supposedly, one of the guests naively asked him who he was and what he had done to warrant an invitation. Miles is said to have replied "I’ve changed the course of music five or six times. How about you?"

If Miles was a genius in music, Dan Yankelovich is a genius in our field.


Dan has changed the course of our thinking about public opinion, marketing and democracy five or six times. His many seminal insights have enlightened us on such questions as:

  • How public opinion changes
  • How public thinking differs from expert thinking without being inferior to it
  • How to help the public play its essential democratic role
  • How to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods into a unified research strategy
  • And what all of this means for market research, democracy, public policy, and true leadership

Central to his many contributions, Dan has given us a practical and meaningful way to think about the quality of public opinion and the stages that people go through to achieve what he calls public judgment. Public judgment is in contrast to raw, unstable, off-the-cuff reactions, like those we often see in polling.

As he’s shown, the concept of public judgment has gone a long way toward clarifying why some research results are better guides for policymaking than others -- because they are less, in his highly scientific term, "mushy."

Tonight, we honor this pioneering social scientist and esteemed figure in the worlds of polling, marketing, and democratic thought and practice. But note that his reputation was not always so: AAPOR once reviewed Dan's book, Coming to Public Judgment, by asking "Why is Yankelovich being so perverse?"

And, indeed, Dan's ideas have seemed perverse at times to various establishments, in the way the insights of innovative thinkers can.


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