Remembering Dan Yankelovich

Dan Yankelovich, co-founder of Public Agenda, has passed after almost 93 years. His life brimmed with intellectual adventure, real-world accomplishment and service to the nation.

Dan Yankelovich, co-founder of Public Agenda, has passed after almost 93 years. His life brimmed with intellectual adventure, real-world accomplishment and service to the nation. A great American, he never stopped working for a better democracy and his seminal contributions mark a way forward beyond the wayward path on which we now find ourselves as a nation.

I have known Dan for almost 25 years and he meant a tremendous amount to me, as he has to all the Public Agenda veterans who had the opportunity to get to know him. I've never met anyone with such penetrating insights into the big problems and patterns of the times and who was so generative of pragmatic and wise ideas and solutions.

A classic example of Dan’s mind at work was his trenchant response to Robert McNamara’s belief that he could quantify success in Vietnam through body counts. Dan dissected this thinking as only he could. “The first step,” he wrote, “is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes.” Then he goes on:

The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.

Will Friedman, Daniel Yankelovich, Cyrus Vance Jr.

His many seminal insights have enlightened us on the difference between raw public opinion and wiser public judgment; the stages people go through to achieve the latter; the factors that help or hinder them in doing so; and what all of this means for democracy, public policy, social change, research and leadership.

When visiting him in San Diego, he’d offer something to drink, cookies and a sun hat from a collection that had built up over the years. You’d settle into a chair on the peaceful patio behind his house and ideas would pour forth in his gentle Boston accent, remnant of the poor Dorchester kid he once was. He’d discuss under-appreciated trends, wrong-headed solutions, unseen business opportunities or his latest project (“You’re writing another book?”).

Dan worked steadily, even relentlessly, to put his ideas into practice throughout his highly-productive life. He led numerous landmark studies, authored 13 books, advised presidents and founded or cofounded numerous enterprises. I am proud and humbled that in his last book, Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions, published in 2014, he wrote:

Founding the Public Agenda has come to hold a special meaning for me. [It] is dedicated to making our democracy work better through engaging the public in the truly important issues of the times...To my mind, the Public Agenda is just the kind of institution the nation needs to reboot our democracy.

In that same book he also wrote:

It takes more than just voting to make democracy work. It takes a responsible, thoughtful public voice. All Americans should be conscious of how precious—and fragile—our democracy is. Participating in making it a more just and effective problem-solving institution is a privilege, and ought to be a source of immense personal satisfaction.

It is indeed a privilege to work for a more just and effective democracy, and our own special privilege at Public Agenda to build on Dan's fruitful ideas. For us and so many others it is a sad moment, but also one to celebrate a brilliant life. Then it will be time to get back to work, for there is much to do.


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