July 16, 2015



Notes from the Field:

Public Engagement in South Australia


When it comes to pioneers of democracy, add South Australia to the list.

The southernmost state in Australia has a long history in democratic innovation. In 1856, the South Australia Constitution was one of the most democratic in the world at the time, granting adult men, including indigenous men, the right to vote by secret ballot. Owning land was not a requirement for being a member of the House of Assembly.

South Australia was also one of the first places in the world to grant women the right to vote, and it was THE first to grant women the right to stand for election to Parliament, in 1895.


Even today, South Australia is at the forefront of democratic innovation. Most recently, Premier Jay Weatherill and his cabinet have undertaken the most ambitious public engagement approach by a state that we have seen. 

Public Agenda President Will Friedman witnessed this approach firsthand, during a visit to Adelaide in late June. Will was invited by the Premier's Office to consult on the state's public engagement strategy and initiatives during the Better Together Showcase.

South Australia is making strides in incorporating public engagement practices into its approach to governance. Still, as with any major change effort, the state faces plenty of obstacles. Some government employees are naturally skeptical about a new way of doing business. For their part, citizens are used to looking at government as the problem solver and are not used to being asked to partner.

In Adelaide, Will met with Premier Weatherill and several members of his cabinet. He also collaborated with members of the South Australia public engagement team, delivering presentations and facilitating workshops, and gave a lecture on "Democracy as if the Public Matters" to several hundred people at the Hawkes Center in Adelaide.

Some of the insights Will shared with the South Australian government include good engagement practices for all policymakers and people looking to foster social change:


Pick the right issues. When seeking to begin or expand a public engagement campaign, it's best to select issues that fall at the intersection of what the public cares about and what the government cares about. It's also important to choose issues that are actionable by many parties, from public officials to community-based organization to individual citizens.


Find the right partnersPartnerships with community-based organizations can change the dynamic around engagement initiatives, especially if there is a history of broken trust between community members and the government. Such partnerships can also boost the participation of hard-to-reach communities and build capacity for community engagement beyond what the government alone may be able to do.  Similarly, collaboration across governmental departments can be a good way to loosen up rigid silos, foster new collaborations across departments and spread engagement capacity across government. 


Interested in hearing more about Will's trip down under? If you're a public engagement practitioner, definitely check out Will's presentation on "Designing Deliberation" here. You can also listen to and view the slides from his public lecture at the Hawkes Center on "Democracy as if the Public Matters." 

More Notes From the Field


Our higher education team is in Cleveland this week facilitating a convening of higher education institutions involved in the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN).

We also just announced a collaborative effort with nonprofit and higher education
organizations to create new resources and opportunities related to competency-based education (CBE). This work will include the largest survey to date of institutions developing CBE programs and a national conference this fall to listen to the challenges and barriers faced by institutions and to help them learn more about what it takes to design high-quality programs that are competency-based.

The Public Agenda/WNYC survey of New York-region residents regarding social issues is in the field! Check out the segment we did with Brian Lehrer to find out more about this project. Sign up here to receive notice when the survey results have been analyzed or become involved in the project.

Our co-founder, Dan Yankelovich, has received the 2015 Warren J. Mitofsky Award
for Excellence in Public Opinion Research from the Roper Center. Congratulations, Dan!

Dan's new book,
Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions, was noted in
MagazineGoverning magazine explored how the book reminds us of the importance of government in an age of disruption and social entrepreneurship.

Our board member, Shirley Malcom, was inducted into the US News STEM Leadership Hall of Fame last month. Congratulations, Shirley!



Key Lessons for the U.S. Department of Education on College Selection


Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Education announced it was scrapping its plan for a federal college ratings system . Instead, the Department is essentially leaving it up to the consumer to make comparisons.


At the end of the summer, the Department will launch a new web-based tool to help inform college decisions. This tool will not include college ratings. Rather, a dozen or so metrics on college performance, from graduation rates to students' earning outcomes, will be made public for prospective students to use and make informed decisions about colleges. 

These metrics are important. They are increasing much needed and valued transparency in the higher education market. And yes, students and families should have all the information possible as they are making college choices. But what are we really expecting students and families to do with these metrics, especially when higher education experts in this country have argued that it is impossible to make fair comparisons

Will the new tool really be relevant? Can it seriously change the way Americans make decisions about college?

Click over to our blog to read some lessons we've learned from research into consumer-choice tools in both higher education and health care. 

PA in the News

Coverage of our report "How Much Will It Cost?" on how Americans use price information.
(The American Journal of Managed Care)
David Schleifer, PhD, senior research associate, writes "equipping receptionists, nurses and doctors with price information tools and training in how to use them may be an important step toward helping patients and families navigate and understand their care." 

(Pioneer Institute)
Surveyors seeking price information were transferred six or seven times looking for someone to provide the price of a service, the report notes.

(Fierce Health Finance)
Elizabeth Mitchell, CEO of the Newtwork for Regional Healthcare Improvement reflects on what physicians have to say about patients asking about prices. 

Coverage of collaboration in higher education through the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN)

(Education Dive) 

(POLITICO Morning Education Newsletter)


Coverage of our work on civic engagement, here and abroad
(Adelaid Independent News)

(The London School of Economics and Political Science Blog) 


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 PublicAgenda.org.

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