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02.16 A Wobbly Three-Legged Stool: Science, Politics, And The Public

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010 | Francie Grace



With science more and more an issue in public policy, and the public unsure about many scientific subjects, what should policymakers do to involve the public more in this kind of policymaking, given the fact that big changes in a democracy don't happen easily or smoothly without public participation in the choices that we face?

Social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich, chairman and a founder of three organizations including Public Agenda, and Jean Johnson, Public Agenda executive vice president and co-author of public policy books including "Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis?", spoke on this subject Feb. 19 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Our Energy Learning Curve™ research on what the public knows and believes on energy issues and climate change was be a part of the discussion. Yankelovich's presentation will examine "Redefining What "An Informed Public" Means On Science & Technology Issues" and Johnson will speak on "How to Advance the Public's Energy Learning Curve."

The theme of this year's AAAS convention, in San Diego, is Bridging Science and Society: a call for every scientist and engineer to make their work both beneficial and understandable. AAAS president Dr. Peter Agre, in setting the tone for the meeting, points to this quote from President Obama, in a speech to scientists:

"Science, technology, and innovation proceed more rapidly and more cost-effectively when insights, costs, and risks are shared; and so many of the challenges that science and technology will help us meet are global in character. This is true of our dependence on oil, the consequences of climate change, the threat of epidemic disease, and the spread of nuclear weapons."


The challenge we all face then, is involving citizens in public choices – even in cases where the underlying science may be complicated. That's a mission close to the bone here at Public Agenda, where our research and public engagement both focus on closing gaps between experts, policymakers and the public, empowering democracy as citizens make informed choices as part of the policymaking process.

In addition to being on the panel for the Feb. 19 AAAS panel discussion, Johnson was able to take part in two other events: the AAAS' Promoting Climate Literacy Conference panel discussion on "Public Knowledge & Attitudes" on Feb. 17 and a National Academy of Sciences Feb. 18 panel discussion in Irvine, Ca., on "Challenges to Public Trust in Science: Lessons from the University of East Anglia/"Climategate" Incident.

We've posted the Yankelovich and Johnson PowerPoint presentations online for the benefit of the Public Agenda community. You can find out more about the AAAS meeting on its web site and on Facebook.

Editor's Note: this blog posting was updated after the AAAS meeting.

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02.12 Sound Financial Advice

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace



In the season when many Americans' minds turn to thoughts of getting some financial advice to help with their taxes, the Senate is following suit, on another serious matter that affects all of our bottom lines.

Rudolph Penner, a former Congressional Budget Office director who co-chaired the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States that wrote the report Choosing Our Fiscal Future, was the source Thursday for some advice for members of Congress.

Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee, Penner emphasized the unsustainability of the federal budget deficit, with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid accounting for 40 percent of all government spending other than interest in a normal year - and all growing faster than the economy and revenue.

As the deficit increases, said Penner, the national debt will grow ever more rapidly, until interest on the debt becomes a budget problem in itself, with debt expected to pass 100 percent of GDP in less than twenty years.

And that's more than just a ratio. Penner observes that it's highly unlikely that world capital markets would tolerate those sorts of numbers for very long. If no changes are made, it is projected that the market for U.S. debt would collapse long before 2040.

That grim scenario, based on facts and the two-year long work of the committee, was used as a scene-setter. Penner did go to Capitol Hill armed with recommendations on a way forward.

"Our committee," Penner told the panel, "believes that Congress should set a target for the debt‐GDP ratio and not exceed it. Given an explicit target, the American people could judge how well the Congress and administration are doing in their pursuit of fiscal responsibility."

"We believe further that a prudent target would hold the debt to 60 percent of GDP," Penner continued. "That ratio should be achieved by 2022 and we should begin implementing the necessary policies by 2012. If the nation experiences good fortune while holding the debt to this level, it would be wise to lower the target further."

Click here to check out Penner's complete remarks (and here's a shortened link to spread the word on Twitter: http://bit.ly/ariLRF), where you can follow our updates on the federal budget and national debt on @PublicAgenda, @FiscalFuture and @FacingUp.

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02.12 Shout-Out For College Stories

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace



What's life really like for today's college students? How can we help more of them succeed? If we don't really know what it's like, the solutions are unlikely to be effective. These questions, and that principle, are at the heart of a lot of what we do here at Public Agenda – in the With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them series of reports, and as a partner in the Achieving the Dream initiative to boost success for community college students.

We'd like to lend our support to a project with a similar mission: Take America To College, which has set up a web site and YouTube channel to encourage non-traditional currently enrolled college students, age 20 to 30, to tell their stories – either in words, or in short video form. By non-traditional, we mean students whose path through college hasn't been one of straight to college from high school, followed by four years and a diploma. Many instead had their education interrupted to work full-time, serve in the military, or address family responsibilities.

If that sounds like you, or someone you know, Take America To College would love to hear the story: the college experience, the challenges and triumphs of staying and trying to stay in school. Students who participate in Take America To College will be considered to be one of five people who will be featured in a documentary video series that will air on a major news site. Each of the five will also be awarded $500 plus a video camera and a trip to Washington to meet with policymakers.

The last day to submit entries is February 19.

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02.12 The Importance Of Play

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Francie Grace



Turns out the old axiom about all work and no play may be right (and, heading into a holiday weekend, this may be the right time to make this observation). But being dull isn't the only risk of not spending enough time at play: a lack of time at play can also make you less flexible and less knowledgeable about the world, as well as less trustful and by extension, less able to cooperate with others in working towards solutions. So for both children and adults, it has implications for society and civic life.

Those are some of the theories explored by Alison Kadlec, director of our Center for Advances in Public Engagement, in "Play and Public Life," published in the current edition of the National Civic Review. She interviews Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, and author of "Play: How It Shapes The Brain, Opens Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul." Brown argues that for both animals and humans, "playful interaction allows a penalty-free rehearsal of the normal give and take necessary in social groups." Trust, he says, "is the core process that evokes and allows enough safety for play to take place."

Trust is also a foundation of the public engagement process, in which groups with disparate interests agree to explore trade-offs and solutions. Brown points to some real-world examples, such as George Mitchell's crediting the successes he had brokering peace in Northern Ireland to having spent time telling jokes at the dinner table.

We can think of some other believers in this art, evidenced by President Obama's fondness for basketball and bipartisan invites to Super Bowl parties, and GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch's song composed for Ted Kennedy when the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts returned to Capitol Hill in 2008.

Click here for more about Alison's article on this interesting aspect of both child development and public life.

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02.12 Will The View Be Clearer At The Summit?

Friday, February 12th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



You'll be able to watch the White House summit on health care reform live on both webcast and television, which may be an advance for government transparency. But will the bipartisan summit be an advance for the public in clarity on this tough issue?

Anticipation is certainly high for the summit. President Obama put the Democrats' proposals on the table earlier this week, and the Republicans are expected to arrive with their own plan. There's been a lot of argument, and fierce debate over whether the summit itself is a real opportunity or just political theatre.

One of the greatest challenges during the long debate over health care has been making the options understandable to the public. But in our view, all through this process there hasn't been enough effort by leaders to help people weigh alternatives and work through the tradeoffs inherent in any reform plan – and that process of thinking about options is essential to real public engagement.

So with that in mind, we'd like to suggest a few useful tools as a viewer's guide to the summit. Our Citizen's Survival Kit on health care reform, prepared for the last election, sums up the key issues and lays out some of the basic choices. Essentially, the kit provides the big picture on an issue where it's really easy to get lost in the details.

To compare some of the current choices on the table now, have a look at the Kaiser Family Foundation's side-by-side summary of the proposals before Congress. It's just been updated to include President Obama's latest proposals.

Finally, it helps to have a glossary, and a sense of history, both in this case provided by the Prescriptions blog at The New York Times.

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02.11 Government Waste, and What's Really Being Wasted

Thursday, February 11th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



The American public says more than half of every federal tax dollar, 53 cents, is wasted, according to an ABC/Washington Post survey released today. But what that survey suggests to us is what's really being wasted isn't money; it's trust.

The ABC/Post survey has been asking this question for 25 years now, and the number has been as high as 56 cents and as low as 43 cents. Budget experts would say that while there certainly is waste in government, it's nowhere near that high.

Based on Public Agenda's research, when people say half of every tax dollar is wasted, they're not analyzing bloated defense purchasing or Medicare fraud (although those stories have an impact). They're expressing an overall frustration with government – and based on the same ABC/Post survey, frustrations are running high. Two-thirds of those surveyed say they're "dissatisfied" or "angry" with the government. According to the Post:

The opening is clear: Public dissatisfaction with how Washington operates is at its highest level in Post-ABC polling in more than a decade -- since the months after the Republican-led government shutdown in 1996 -- and negative ratings of the two major parties hover near record highs.


There are two lessons here, one very specific, and the other more general.

The specific point is about how these levels of distrust shape the debate over the federal deficit and the national debt. There are solutions to the government's grim long-term fiscal problems; the Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report is full of them. Public Agenda's research has shown, however, that one of the biggest barriers to solving the budget problem is the public's lack of trust in leaders. People simply aren't confident that the government will use their money wisely. They're worried that if they agree to spending cuts or tax increases, the government won't put that money to good use.

More broadly, this shows the public's distaste for gridlock and hyper-partisanship in Washington. And it also shows the opportunity for a different approach: real public engagement that allows citizens' voice to be heard and their concerns to play a role in decision making. Public engagement, properly executed, can break through gridlock and allow decisions to be firmly grounded in the public's values and priorities.

Surveys like this send a clear message that politics as usual isn't working for the American public. If we're going to solve our budget problems – or any of our other problems, for that matter – we need to get that trust back, and that means getting the public back into the process.

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02.10 Fiscal Sanity: It's Been Done Before

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



Today's must-read budget story is in USA Today, which makes a point that often gets lost when we debate getting the federal budget under control: namely, that it's been done before, and not that long ago, either.

Balancing the budget in the late 1990s required sustained, bipartisan effort, and a combination of both spending controls and tax increases. But it also came at a political cost to a number of the politicians involved.

It's also worth remembering that those efforts in the Nineties to get rid of the year-to-year shortfall never translated into strategies to deal with the problems that are leading the federal budget into disaster in the long run: the rising health care costs and aging population that are going to send costs for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security soaring, and the national debt along with it.

Right now the nation's finances are getting more attention than they have in a long time. But bipartisanship is in short supply, unless, as some argue, you count a bipartisan unwillingness to look at real solutions, particularly any solutions that might affect their own home states. Others argue that this is no time to worry about the budget at all, given the Great Recession and the risks of long-term unemployment.

That's why the Committee on the Fiscal Future suggested that real efforts to deal with our long-term budget problems start next year, to give the government time to deal with the economic crisis, and time to build consensus on solutions. History shows this can be done. And in this case, if we learn from history, maybe we can repeat it.

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02.05 No Teacher Left Behind?

Friday, February 5th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



The No Child Left Behind law, which for good or ill has been the center of American education policy over the past decade, is up for an overhaul. That's the word from the Obama administration, which says a central point will be changing how schools are rated, one of the most controversial parts of the law. Public Agenda's research shows that teachers are open to many different ways of assessing their work. More than half of teachers, 56 percent, said test scores were a "good' or "excellent" way of measuring teacher effectiveness, but other yardsticks were more popular, such as student engagement (92 percent), how much their own students learn compared with others (72 percent) and feedback from administrators (70 percent).

But there's may be an even more important hurdle here in improving schools, which is that significant numbers of teachers are frustrated with their work. Our Teaching For A Living study found four in 10 teachers "disheartened," struggling with their work environment and their ability to make a difference.

Frustration like that is bound to affect their success with students – and their attitudes about reform. As the nation continues to try and make American schools all they should be, one of the greatest challenges is figuring out whether good leadership and different policies could re-energize these teachers, or whether they'd be better off doing something else.

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02.04 Up To The Limit?

Thursday, February 4th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



The House voted today to raise the national debt ceiling to $14.3 trillion, but by a pretty close vote on what's usually a routine matter. Opponents said the debt has to be brought under control; supporters pointed out that without an increase in the debt limit, the government would end up defaulting on its debt, throwing the world financial markets into chaos. Again.

So if we can't just stop borrowing cold turkey, how do we get a handle on this? The Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States concluded you have to start soon, in next year's budget. (In other words, not the one President Obama just submitted for fiscal year 2011, but the budget after that). And the committee argued the goal should be to control the debt at 60 percent of GDP over the next decade – that would keep it from getting too far out of hand while still allowing the government to fight the recession and do the other things it needs to do.

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02.01 The Budget As Board Game

Monday, February 1st, 2010 | Scott Bittle



In a torrent of news about President Obama's new budget proposal, two things really stand out to us – and they're probably not the points upon which most of the coverage and commentary will focus.

One point comes from the Wall Street Journal's interactive graphic of the federal budget process, which is something to make you laugh or cry, as you prefer.

This eight-stage, 27-box graphic could be the basis of a board game for particularly wonky kids. But at a moment when everyone in Washington is combing through President Obama's $3.8 trillion budget proposal, with its record $1.6 trillion deficit, it's important to remember just how long and complicated this process is.

That doesn't help the public come to grips with this. Budgets are all about setting priorities, and while this budget proposal tells us what the Obama administration thinks the priorities should be, there's nothing in this long, convoluted process that helps the public sort through options and choices to figure out what their priorities are.

The second point that strikes us comes from the sheer volume of coverage, analyzing the budget proposal from so many angles that it's hard for anyone who's not immersed in the coverage to keep up. (If you want to make a start on it, we'd suggest this roundup of stories from almost every angle in the Washington Post's 44 blog, and of course the Choosing Our Fiscal Future news tracker). No matter what angle you're interested in, somebody's covered it.


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