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Public Agenda was founded in 1975 social scientist and public opinion research pioneer Dan Yankelovich and soon-to-be Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Both were concerned that the issues the public cared the most about were being ignored in the 1976 presidential campaign, and that our democracy would be endangered if the trend continued. 

They decided to form an organization that would work to bridge the gaps between leaders and the public, whose first project involved creating briefing books that alerted presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford to the deep concerns of ordinary citizens, which were drawn upon in the presidential debates.

Since then, we have supported progress on dozens of issues in hundreds of settings. For example, in the 1980s we brought solid, timely research to the Reagan Administration signaling the American public’s openness to a different relationship with the Soviet Union, and we helped educators better understand the needs of employers.

In the 1990s, we published groundbreaking studies on the public’s concerns about K-12 education, and created innovative tools that helped parents, educators, public officials and community partners across the nation work together to improve their local schools and better educate their children.

In the 2000s, we began an ongoing commitment to the nation’s community colleges, the prime avenue of opportunity for many low-income Americans, that has included making vital contributions to the two most ambitious initiatives the nation has ever seen to improve student success: Achieving the Dream and Completion by Design.

In recent years we’ve:

  • Partnered with New York Public Radio to foster public engagement on local priorities
  • Produced cutting-edge public opinion research on health care cost and quality and begun a six-state initiative to create strong systems of public engagement on health policies
  • Helped colleges better serve America’s students via national research as well as on-the-ground efforts in half the nation’s states
  • Supported school boards across Vermont in developing strong policies and practices of community engagement 
  • Created the Hidden Common Ground initiative in partnership with USA Today to demonstrate that Americans can agree on solutions to tough problems and work together for the common good despite their differences
  • Developed ground-breaking strategies to engage scientists and communities surrounding Jamaica Bay, Queens on environmental resilience 

Our Founders


The social scientist Daniel Yankelovich was a pioneer of public opinion research in America, the founder of DYG, Inc., a business research firm specializing in tracking social trends, and a public intellectual with thirteen books to his credit. His publications included Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions (2015) Toward Wiser Public Judgment (co-edited with Will Friedman, 2011), The Magic of Dialogue (1999), Coming to Public Judgment (1991) and Ego and Instinct (with William Barrett 1970). 

Dan grew up in working-class Dorchester, MA before attending Harvard College, Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Sorbonne. He was named by PR Week as one of the ten most influential people of the past century in the arena of public affairs, communications and public relations. Dan was also the recipient of The Parlin Award for pioneering work in marketing research, the Dinerman Award of the World Association of Public Opinion Research, the Outstanding Achievement Award from the New York Chapter of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, and the Roper Center’s Warren J. Mitofsky Award. 

He died in 2017 at age 92. 


Cyrus Vance served as U.S. secretary of state from 1977 to 1980, under President Jimmy Carter, where he was instrumental in negotiating the Panama Canal Treaty and the Camp David peace accord. Earlier, he served as deputy secretary of defense and secretary of the Army under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1969, Mr. Vance was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award. 

At Public Agenda, Vance was the guiding force for the organization's work on arms control and foreign policy during the 1980s. In particular, he was a leader in the groundbreaking project called "The Public, The Soviets and Nuclear Arms," which combined in-depth research on public attitudes on U.S.-Soviet relations with a series of town hall meetings around the country. More than 76,000 people came together in the "Public Summit '88" town hall sessions to discuss options for dealing with the Soviet Union. Public Agenda conducted the project in conjunction with the Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University. 

A graduate of Yale Law School, Mr. Vance served as associate and partner in the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett over five decades until his retirement in January 1998. A former president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, Mr. Vance was a chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, chairman of The Rockefeller Foundation, and vice-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations.