March 17, 2016
Happy St. Patrick's Day!


Flying Below the Radar: Making Local Progress in Spite of National Dysfunction 

If you haven't read James Fallows' chronicle of local progress in The Atlantic, do yourself a favor and click over to read it when you're done here.

In it, Fallows writes about his small-plane travels to four dozen small cities throughout the U.S. Through his journey, we discover an alternate narrative of America, one celebrating the power of local determination, democracy and problem solving.

Nationally, we are utterly incapable of collaboration, compromise or making any progress on solving problems. The very rare exceptions only make the dominant pattern more visible.

In places like Pittsburgh, people are working across differences to reinvigorate their cities.
Credit: Ron Reiring

Yet in cities big and small, where most people live and work, the ability of residents and officials to solve problems has not abated and may actually have picked up.

I would add this observation to Fallows' encouraging chronicle: There are two distinct strategies and styles evident in many local success stories. One is a more technocratic, top-down, data-driven, often tech-enabled approach. The other is more deliberative and democratic, centered on civic engagement and community empowerment. Both have their strengths and can help address different classes of problems or different aspects of the same problem.

Top-down, technocratic problem solving can be good for technical problems. For example, it can identify where the potholes are, and how to speed up response time to a 911 call.

In New York, for instance, the former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a master of technocratic, top-down problem solving, and for many types of problems that worked very well-but not for all. It created an efficient 311 system that serves citizens well, and strengthened New York's anti-terrorism capabilities. But technocratic attempts to improve schools and police-community relations through corporate approaches of measurement and accountability fell flat and, in many instances, were counterproductive.

There are no purely technocratic fixes for many problems cities face, including poverty, inequality, educational disparities or diminishing opportunity. Such "wicked problems" (as the literature sometimes calls them) prove amazingly resistant to purely top-down solutions.

Instead, such problems require ongoing attention from many disparate actors, durable public support so experiments can prove themselves and blossom into policies and practices that drive progress, and tough choices among competing priorities about how we want to live.

Solutions to such problems can be data-informed but not data-determined because they are, to a very great extent, matters of values, priorities and the trade-offs we are willing to accept as a community. Do the pros outweigh the cons of a much higher minimum wage? Are we willing to experiment to find out? Should we permit bigger buildings in historic neighborhoods if doing so will make rents more affordable? If not, what measures should we take instead? Are we willing to provide the resources to ensure that all schools have adequate and safe facilities and well-trained teachers, or not? If so, how?

This is fertile ground for deliberative democratic work, and in fact that's the only approach that will bear fruit in the long term. In his most compelling examples of renewal and progress, Fallows feature cities where many different groups of people - experts and non-experts, officials and everyday residents, conservatives and liberals - work together on solutions.

As technocratic approaches reach their limit, we have the opportunity to help cities make progress on their big problems. We can do so by engaging the public and diverse stakeholders, by working through trade-offs and strengthening public judgment, by developing strong lines of communication and by celebrating our successes rather than wallowing in our failures. 

Will Friedman
President, Public Agenda

In Memoriam: Harold Saunders (1930-2016)

I'm sad to share the news that Hal Saunders, assistant secretary of state in the Carter administration who helped who helped draft the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt in 1978, passed away March 6th. 

Hal served as director of international affairs at the Kettering Foundation. To me, he was the very model of a champion of democracy: committed, thoughtful, modest and bold. I am grateful for having known him and learning from his example. 

New Resources

Evaluation is a critical component of any participatory budgeting (PB) effort. Systematic and formal evaluation can help people who introduce, implement, participate in or otherwise have a stake in PB understand how participatory budgeting is growing, what its reach is, and how it's impacting the community and beyond. Register to download the toolkit which includes 15 metrics for evaluating PB, customizable research instruments (with French and Spanish translations) and an evaluation timeline.

There are more than 500 competency-based education practices in the U.S. today. In the largest-scale survey of institutions designing or implementing these practices, we found that colleges largely agree on the essential elements for a successful program. Implementation, though, is easier said than done. For example, while the majority of those surveyed agreed that meaningful assessments are critically important, just 69 percent said they had fully adopted such assessments.

This report provides a baseline understanding and common language to guide the development of competency-based education programs which seek to assess learners based on what they know and what they can do rather than by the amount of time they spend in class.

There are about 1.7 million students that enroll in community college each year. Of those, 80 percent plan to earn a bachelor's degree. But most never make it. With partners at CCRC, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse, we created a short deck of shareable graphics with statistics on the broken community college to 4-year college transfer process.

This report is part of a larger initiative to help more community college students transfer and complete. Follow the conversation on Twitter with #TacklingTransfer

News and Commentary

Eighty-six percent of people living in New York City and surrounding communities say the high cost of living is a serious problem; 80 percent say the high cost of housing is a serious problem. Tweet your bold solutions with #BoldNYC and join us at the April 4th event moderated by Brian Lehrer.

To help more students complete college, we must boost engagement and heal divisions among faculty, staff and administrators, writes Alison Kadlec, director of higher education & workforce programs. 

Associate Director of Higher Education Erin Knepler examines President Obama's Community College Partnership Tax Credit and the benefits of partnerships between community colleges and local businesses.

Based on Public Agenda research, Allison Rizzolo lays out recommendations to help policymakers, hospitals, insurers and others align health care price transparency tools with the needs of patients and consumers.

PA in the News
(Newsworks, Friday, March 11th, 2016)

(Health Payer Intelligence, Thursday, March 3rd, 2016) 

(UC San Diego News Center, Thursday, March 3rd, 2016)

(The Orange County Register, Sunday, February 28th, 2016)

(RevCycleIntelligence, Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016) 

Date: Monday, April 4, 2016
Time: 6:00-7:30pm Eastern
Location: Scandinavia House, 2nd Floor. 58 Park Ave. (Btwn. 37th & 38th) New York, NY 10016
Moderator: WNYC's Brian Lehrer
Vicki Been, Commissioner, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development
Steven Pedigo, Director & Assistant Clinical Professor, NYU School of Professional Studies, Initiative for Creativity and Innovation in Cities
Patricia Swann, Senior Program Officer, Community Development & the Environment, The New York Community Trust

Date: Wednesday, March 23rd
Time: 2:00-3:00pm Eastern
Featuring: Public Agenda's Communications Director, Allison Rizzolo and Participatory Budgeting Project's Communications Director, David Beasley


Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at

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