Thursday, October 17th, 2013 | Jean Johnson
While we have avoided an unprecedented federal default for the time being, the debt ceiling matter hasn’t been resolved. We could be right at the brink again in just a matter of months. Pundits and politicians from both parties lean on recent polls to demonstrate why their perspective is the one that the American public supports. But have a majority of Americans actually made up their minds about the debt ceiling? This is an issue where a single survey finding taken at face value or in isolation can be misleading.
What polling really reveals is that members of the public are still wrestling with the debt ceiling dilemma. Public opinion on this issue is still "mushy" – a term used by Public Agenda’s founder Daniel Yankelovich to describe poll findings that aren’t stable because people are still absorbing new information and ideas, grappling with trade-offs and unsure what they really think. When opinions are still mushy, survey results can fluctuate dramatically. Once people become more realistic and settled in their views, public opinion tends to be remarkably steady over time.
Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
The argument to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which led to this week’s government shutdown, is partly rooted in the assertion that the public does not support the law. Yet public opinion of the health care law is not as simplistic as some members of Congress (of both parties), and even the media, have painted it. Before we continue basing decisions that have real consequences on opinion regarding the Affordable Care Act, it’s worth taking a deeper look at how the public is really thinking about this issue.
Many of the recent polls, when taken together, suggest that the public is confused and unclear about many aspects of the Affordable Care Act. In the most recent health tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 51 percent of respondents said they don’t have enough information to understand how the law will impact them and their families. When asked to provide, in their own words, the one question they would most like to have answered to help them understand this impact, many focused on very basic information:
“Will the medical insurance be free or will I have to pay?”
“Can you just put it in plain laymen language so we can understand what you’re doing for us?”
“How is my care going to change?”
Furthermore, while most recent polls suggest the public does not support the Affordable Care Act as a whole, when the law is broken down into its respective elements, they support what’s in it. For example, in a 2012 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, majorities viewed individual elements of the law as either very or somewhat favorable:
- Closing the Medicare prescription drug coverage gap (78%)
- Allowing children to stay on parents’ health insurance until 26 (71%)
- Expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income, uninsured adults (66%)
- Prohibiting insurance companies for charging women more for coverage (61%)
- Prohibiting insurance companies from withholding coverage for preexisting conditions (60%)
Many people also don't realize that the Affordable Care Act and Obamacare are one and the same, and their opinions depend on how the law is referred to. In a CNBC poll from September, 24 percent of respondents said they felt "very negative" about the Affordable Care Act. In the same poll, 35 percent felt very negative about Obamacare.
When people lack basic information about a policy, and when they are unable to clearly understand how the benefits and tradeoffs of a policy will affect their lives, it's very difficult for them to get past impediments like denial and wishful thinking. And people need to resolve these impediments before we can fairly consider their opinion a clear-minded judgment of a policy or approach.
This confusion is a normal part of what happens when people are working through an issue and figuring out where they stand. Politicians are doing their constituents a disservice by playing political football with this issue when the public is still unresolved and in flux. In fact, their game-playing is creating even more hurdles for the public to navigate as they try to develop clear judgment on the issue of health care reform.
Our leaders ought to be helping, not hindering, the public as they grapple with complex issues like health care reform. And there are ways for them to do so. In fact, we have experimented with some approaches to engaging the public on this issue, with encouraging results.
In a forthcoming report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation, we study how citizens think about the challenge of controlling health care costs. In particular, we examine how, when the public has the opportunity to examine choices and think through a few strategic facts – like how our health care spending and outcomes rank against other countries – they feel more confident about the issue. They are able to work through denial and wishful thinking and reach common ground on the sorts of policies they'd support as well as the policies that concern them.
As we wrote in the last Public Agenda Alert, when given the chance and with the right kind of support, citizens want to engage on long-term solutions to health care spending, and they do so with surprisingly productive results. Instead of bludgeoning the public with political spin and consequential brinksmanship, our leaders should provide more resources and opportunities to help citizens better understand the issue and come to a clear judgment on the approaches they support.
Monday, September 16th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
In our most recent research, employers and community college students expressed doubt about the quality of online education. Just 17 percent of employers said they'd prefer a graduate from a top-tier college with an online degree over a student from an average college with a traditional degree. Forty-two percent of community college students say they think people learn less online than in-person, and many students who are currently taking online classes say they wish they could take fewer.
Of course, online education is a rapidly evolving issue. The field and its technology will get more sophisticated, and students and employers will gain more experience and exposure. As such, we anticipate their attitudes will evolve as well.
Still, many people are banking on online education as an avenue to increased access and decreased cost. As such, online is increasingly becoming part of the higher ed mainstream. All types of post-secondary institutions are offering various online programs, from universally-accessible MOOCs to online/in-class hybrid programs to online-only degrees.
About a third of all undergrad students today take at least one of their classes online. Past research does suggest that some forms of online education can result in equal or better learning outcomes for students compared to traditional instruction. Plus, online education provides the flexibility many students need to combine school with work and family responsibilities. Online classes can also sometimes be the only way to complete requirements for often oversubscribed or problematically scheduled courses.
At the same time, low-achieving students seem to benefit more from in-class or hybrid instruction over online (for example, see here and here). Those who are already struggling to keep up with their college work are more likely to drop out of online classes than classes taught face-to-face.
Within this rapidly-changing, high-stakes context, the findings from this research raise some very important questions that leaders in higher ed really ought to examine.
It is unclear whether the current trajectory of online education is adequately meeting the diverse needs of community college students. What can colleges do to make sure online education is an effective option for the students who want it or can best benefit from it and keep it from becoming a burden or obstacle for those who don’t?
It also seems employers remain wary of online degrees and continue to prefer candidates with traditional degrees from average institutions over candidates with online degrees from top-tier universities. What do higher ed leaders need to do to ensure that students who have made vast investments in their education are competitive in the workforce? Employers' skepticism may also indicate a general need for better communication between colleges and employers about the knowledge and skills the latter seek in their employees.
Other stakeholders matter in this discussion as well, and we must also take continuous stock of their perspectives. We need to hear from other student groups, of course, but also, and in particular, from faculty, who will of course be key in adopting, improving and expanding online education.
And we can't afford to wait - among the community college students we spoke to, 46 percent said they took at least some of their classes online, and 5 percent said they took all of their classes online. Online education already affects many current students. It behooves us to make sure that online learning is adopted in ways that meet the needs of students and society.
Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
Life on campus this fall will be very different from last year, when a forthcoming election enlivened debate from the dining hall to the lecture hall. But in an off year for national politics, how can you build your students' interest in critical public issues?
Engaging students on public issues is not an easy task, and no wonder. It's hard for most to connect with theoretical policy, especially when they see their political system as inept, broken, or otherwise unworthy of trust. For students enmeshed in social lives, academics, a job and, often, family responsibilities, talking about policy can seem even more hopeless. While many students may simply consider such matters as wholly theoretical abstractions far removed from the reality of their daily lives, we know they are not. Policy has the ability to change the answer to questions like: Will I have a job in my field when I graduate? Has technology forever changed the landscape of employment? What does the Affordable Care Act mean for me when I turn 26?
We've found that there are ways to make policy decisions come alive for students (as well as other members of the public). Together with the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda developed the Choicework approach. Rooted in the theories of our co-founder, Dan Yankelovich, Choicework can be truly transformative for a few reasons. In the same way that storytelling can bring a news article, research or cause to life, Choicework roots policy approaches in finite and human choices, using accessible language and grounding the choices in essential values that people really connect with.
Choicework can make policy come to life. The point is not to choose one and only one approach; rather, by emphasizing the inherent choices and stakes in the issue at hand brings policy to life, Choicework helps students connect to it and envision how policy plays out in their own lives and the lives of others, and visualize other approaches and broaden the discussion.
Here's an example of Choicework, from our Citizens' Solutions Guide on Immigration:
In addition to Immigration, Public Agenda has published Citizen Solutions Guides on Jobs & The Economy, Healthcare, Education, The Federal Budget, and Energy. All of our CSG’s include introductory overviews of the topic, key facts, links to online supporting documentation, and illustrative charts and graphs.
Interested in experimenting with this approach in your classroom? Our nonpartisan Citizens' Solutions Guides on some of our nation’s most hotly contested issues make great discussion starters in the lecture hall and are free to download. We’d love to hear your stories putting Choicework to use. Let us know how it works out!
Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo
The majority of transfer students from community college (62 percent) will go on to receive a bachelor's degree within 6 years. Students who have already received a two-year credential before transferring have an even better shot, with 72 percent going on to complete a bachelor's in 6 years. This data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a report released last week.
While there is certainly room for improvement, this is hopeful news. For many young Americans, community college represents one of the few remaining pathways to the American Dream, and these colleges serve nearly half of the nation's undergraduate population.
The students tracked for the study had transferred without taking time off, meaning they likely had more momentum than the typical student, according to researchers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Momentum – helping students maintain it and supporting them when it flags—is a critical component of student success. After all, while students in this study had decent success rates, for more than half of the country's community college students, in 6 years, they will not have completed a two-year degree or transferred to a four-year college.
Many students face hurdles in their personal lives that make completion difficult: they work full-time, they're caring for a family, they commute, they attend school part-time. But the ways in which some community colleges operate present many unnecessary barriers that prevent students from reaching their goals.
Most of us tend to think about the path through community college as something like this:
But here's what the community college experience is really like for most students:
Graphics courtesy of Greg Stoup, Rob Johnstone, and Priyadarshini Chaplot of The RP Group.
The complexity of a student’s pathway through an associate’s degree or transfer sheds light on why so few community college students make it to the end of their programs. Yet this flaw in the system is structurally fixable. There are policies and practices that straighten the completion maze and improve and support student momentum.
We've been working with leading, innovative community colleges to identify and implement practices that help students better find their way. We've also spoken to community college students from across the country to hear what they say would help them more easily navigate enrollment, completion and transfer. The ideas they raise include:
- Programs with well-defined pathways and clear goals.
- Advisors, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students’ educational and career goals.
- More inter-departmental collaboration and better channels of communication on campus, so students can better find the information and services they need.
- Exposure to career possibilities.
- Developmental education offered in a way that helps students succeed.
Another thing we heard frequently from students was, "I should have known." The students we have spoken to are quick to blame themselves for not being able to reach the end of the completion maze. Unfortunately, their experiences reinforce the misperception many hear their whole life: that they're not college ready; that college isn't for them.
We owe it to students to fix the flaws in our higher education system. The stories, concerns, and recommendations raised by current and former students serve as useful and powerful points of departure as we explore how to help more students complete a degree.
Thursday, July 11th, 2013 | Danielle Stouck
With a final vote of 68 to 32, a bipartisan group of Senators passed a groundbreaking immigration reform bill late last month. The bill aims to clear the way for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants to embark on a pathway to citizenship while enforcing tougher border security measures.
The future of the Bill in the House remains to be seen. However, in the Senate, the American people witnessed a rare political moment defined not by familiar stalemates and bickering but by solutions-oriented compromise.
How did immigration reform, a divisive and highly controversial topic, become an example of bipartisanship and collaborative decision-making in the Senate? And can we build on this forward momentum so that Congress can continue moving from arguments to dialogue and solutions that work for the American people?
The country has not seen comprehensive immigration reform in over a decade, even as the American public has called out for it. The legislature has taken up comprehensive immigration reform bills in the past. However, these have never made it to see a president’s signature, often due to partisan bickering.
Then, in January, the “Gang of Eight”—four Democratic and four Republican Senators including Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet and Flake—offered a bipartisan blueprint for immigration reform.
The blueprint begins, “We recognize that our immigration system is broken.” This opening statement does not focus on past legislation or place any blame on any particular branch of government or specific legislative bloc. Rather, it illustrates a commitment to progress. The blueprint goes on to list four basic legislative pillars agreed upon by the bipartisan group, which became the building blocks for the bill.
Bipartisan groups, such as the so-called Super Committee, have tried and failed to effectively address divisive issues such as the debt crisis and the fiscal cliff. What was different about the Gang of Eight?
The eight Senators agreed to focus on four major issues of contention from the beginning, despite an overwhelming 300 proposed amendments (fully 200 of which were actually debated). While we can only speculate on the intentions of the Gang, this narrow focus seems to signal that the Senators understood that practical solutions require restraint and compromise.
Furthermore, each side conceded to the other on at least one main point. The "pathway to citizenship" supported by the Democrats is contingent on an increase in border security and a crackdown on visa overstay, sticking points for Republicans.
In the words of Senator Schumer, “The other seven members of the Gang of Eight, we have come to become friends. We have argued with each other, we have bonded with each other, but most of all we are united in this effort to make our nation better by fixing our broken immigration system.”
Now the immigration reform bill must pass through a skeptical House of Representatives. While many remain pessimistic on this front, we hope this bill can not only help mend our country’s “broken” system but also come to represent civility, bipartisanship and functional governance on Capitol Hill.
Read more about immigration, its affect on jobs and the economy, authorized vs. unauthorized immigration, potential approaches to reform and other complexities in our Citizens' Solutions Guide on the issue. How would you reform our country's immigration system? Let us know on Twitter, or comment below!
Monday, July 1st, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan
Though tech innovations can be helpful in improving communication and engagement, especially when immediacy is necessary, some make the mistake of relying too heavily on technology as a stand in for other communication practices.
Keypads, or “clickers” as they are called in higher education, are certainly no exception to that rule. Using these types of audience response systems alone won’t support better interactions between people, but they do have the potential to immensely improve engagement practices when used appropriately.
"Click to Engage: Using Keypads to Enhance Deliberation," a new paper from Public Agenda's Center for Advances in Public Engagement, supports the work of public engagers seeking to improve their use of keypads in group discussion and engagement.
Here are some ways clickers can complement small group discussion:
- Keypads can reveal who is and who isn’t in the room.
Using keypads to field demographic questions enables discussion participants to understand who is in the room and situate themselves with the group. It also provides an easy way for the discussion facilitators and organizers to look back at the data. Using keypad responses for recording demographics can motivate those hosting the group discussion to improve their recruitment of persons from diverse backgrounds as well.
- Keypads can be conversation starters.
Keypads can be a great way to break the ice among discussion participants. Asking a couple of neutral, even comedic, questions can set a comfortable tone and allow for some low-pressure conversation to begin. Incorporating this sort of ice breaker in the beginning typically generates more inclusive and robust dialogue. Another bonus: such questions help discussion participants get used to the device.
- Keypads can show variance in opinion and illuminate minority views.
With divisive issues, each side may assume it has the strong majority and the opposition is merely an uninformed but vocal minority. Keypads have the power to provide a more accurate count of the splits and give voice to minority views that might not otherwise enter the conversation. This is not fool-proof though, and can have an adverse effect if audience members do not come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Organizers should take care in designing the discussion so that those with minority views do not end up feeling alienated. If a room predominately holds one perspective and only a few disagree, allowing those dissenters to have the floor, if they’re willing, can be a powerful means for exploring divergent viewpoints in a reasonable way.
- Keypads can assist facilitators in allocating remaining time.
Identifying areas of agreement and disagreement through quick polling using the clickers can help a facilitator better allocate precious remaining time. If a topic reveals sharp disagreement, perhaps that topic warrants further, and deeper, discussion. Alternately, participants may not be ready to take on an issue if not enough time remains and the best option is to table it for more research.
The benefits of using a tool like the keypad to engage a diverse room of people far outweigh the drawbacks. Its immediacy and ease of use make it a powerful aide in deeper engagement. But thoughtful preparation, care and attention to design are crucial to using keypads successfully.
For more pointers on how to use this tool, including a breakdown of best practices and strengths and limitations, download our new paper here. For other tips on engagement practices, visit our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. We’d love to hear your successes, words of caution, and other tips regarding the use of keypads send us an email to Michelle Currie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, June 27th, 2013 | Will Friedman, Ph.D. and David Schleifer, Ph.D.
Nurse-practitioners can provide many medical services, especially in primary care and women’s health, and could therefore help fill the doctor shortage gap. Moreover, as provisions of the Affordable Care Act move forward, nurses will be increasingly called upon to improve care coordination, help reduce medical errors and avoidable rehospitalizations, and improve transitions and handoffs.
However, some research suggests that an existing nurse shortage will grow more acute, both because nursing education programs do not have sufficient capacity and because many nurses are reaching retirement. And relying on nurses to deliver care for less money assumes that nurses should be paid less than doctors.
Furthermore, in the 2010 National Survey of Registered Nurses, only one in ten nurses reported having an excellent relationship with a physician (link opens PDF). In fact, since the survey began in 2002, that figure has never been higher than 11%.
During recent deliberative focus groups with members of the public around the country, we heard many participants talk about their experiences with a lack of coordination among doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Such experiences, they felt, had put their health or their families’ health at risk and cost them money. The groups strongly supported helping medical professionals coordinate care.
The task therefore becomes not only to increase the number of doctors and nurses, but also to empower nurses to work effectively and collaboratively alongside other medical professionals. Such an approach can not only help address the need for more medical professionals but also seems relatively acceptable to members of the public.
Want to learn more about public views toward measures to make health care more cost-effective? Keep an eye on this space, or contact Megan at email@example.com and we will email you the findings of our research when they are available.
Friday, June 21st, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi
"Once the light goes on about civic engagement – once you understand what your power is – it never goes out, and that is what we're counting on."
Often, people do not believe that they can make a difference when it comes to the decisions that shape their communities. But, when they are shown otherwise, many are ready to jump on the chance to get involved.
This is what we heard from the heads of twenty California nonprofits that organize and advocate in traditionally disenfranchised communities – immigrant, poor, and minority. We spoke to these civic leaders about their efforts to improve the public’s voice in government for our recent project on civic engagement in California.
Community members often don’t consider that they can solve the problems they see around them by organizing and engaging with government.
"They definitely are aware that, for instance, they don’t have a park in their neighborhood. … What they’re not aware of is the systemic change that’s possible. They might think, 'Oh, well, I could drive across town to the park.' That’s how they might think of solving the problem on an individual basis. Because they haven’t had the involvement and the training in thinking systematically."
Civic leaders tell us that immigrant communities often have preconceived notions about what they cannot do or change based on political cultures in their home countries, along with trepidation about engaging with a foreign system. Meanwhile, native-born individuals often assume that efforts to address local problems through government just don’t go anywhere, and that time is better spent on other pursuits.
These “myths and taboos” must be confronted to “demystify” engagement before nonprofits can begin teaching community members about the practical side of engaging with government, civic leaders told us.
Some civic leaders' organizations host small group discussions with locals concerned about a particular issue. Others told us that sharing “small victories” often does the trick.
"[We] create the space for them to experience change and experience a win. Oftentimes inviting that person … to a community forum with the decision-maker, where the decision-maker agrees to something, or inviting them to a … ribbon-cutting ceremony of a wellness center that we just won at a school in their neighborhood will help move that individual who doesn’t believe that people are willing to listen and that their voice doesn’t matter."
“Once the Light Goes On” – Generating Leadership Through Engagement
In engaging people who often assume they are not factored into government decision-making, civic leaders and their organizations bring voices to the table that were not previously there. These voices have valuable perspectives and – perhaps most importantly – are often the only ones who know about or understand the particular problems facing their neighborhoods, towns, cities and communities.
Perhaps the most common benefit of awakening the civic impulse, a number of leaders told us, is its potential to produce new, dedicated civic and community leaders, and even public officials.
"[Our organization] has put out literally hundreds of leaders, and they are on city councils. They are on boards and commissions. … We trained them on the importance of civic engagement, on the importance of economic policy and on healthcare policy … and how they could get along with their colleagues and how they work with the city."
Civic leaders are counting on the power of positive experiences with civic engagement to keep community members involved– and to show them, especially those inspired to lead, that neighborhoods, towns and cities are made better by greater public involvement in government.
Read more from our interviews with the heads of nonprofits working with traditionally disenfranchised communities, and from our statewide survey of over five hundred civic leaders, in our new report, “Beyond Business As Usual: Leaders of California's Civic Organizations Seek New Ways to Engage the Public in Local Governance.” Also, take a look at our other report on the state of civic engagement in California, “Testing the Waters: California's Local Officials Experiment with New Ways to Engage the Public.”
Quotes were recorded from in-depth interviews with leaders of organizations that engage traditionally disenfranchised communities. Read more on the Methodology here.
Monday, May 20th, 2013 | Public Agenda
Want to print this infographic? Click here.
While it's no secret that Americans tend to hold federal policymakers in disregard, they are much more likely to trust their local city or county officials. Local officials are close to home, and local government is often only so far as the next public hearing or city council meeting.
Local officials recognize this connection between their constituents’ trust and government’s proximity to the people. New research in California by Public Agenda suggests that, in communities across America’s most populous state, local officials are interested in engaging citizens in more thoughtful, robust and inclusive ways.
The research includes a survey, interviews and focus groups with local, elected and nonelected public officials throughout California, as well as with leaders of community-based and civic organizations. What these leaders and officials have to say offers important considerations for public engagement in communities around the country.
Nearly 8 in ten California public officials say they're interested in learning about public engagement practices that have worked elsewhere, and 85 percent report that their views toward public engagement have changed since their careers began. Many say they have come to understand and value public engagement more over time.
Yet both local officials and civic leaders see hurdles to improving their efforts to engage residents in public decisions. Sometimes officials and civic leaders-- potential partners in engagement-- disagree about the root of the problems they face.
Regardless, local officials and civic leaders share concern for a disconnect between the public and local decision makers, and desire greater public participation and stronger collaboration. The research suggests some avenues for improvement.