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08.11 In Their Own Words: Public Officials on Participatory Budgeting

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 | Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D.

The Public Agenda research team is spending the summer digging deep into 66 interviews we conducted with elected officials across the United States. We’ve been speaking with these officials since early 2015 regarding their views of and experiences with participatory budgeting (PB).

Through these interviews, we’ve gathered rich insights into on what motivates officials to take on PB and what it means to experiment with this innovative form of public engagement.

We spoke not only to officials who brought PB to their communities, but also to many who either decided that PB was not for them or who had heard about PB but not yet considered it for their jurisdictions. In short, we had frank conversations with PB advocates and skeptics!

We will publish a report on this research in the fall. In the meantime, we want to share some of the most inspiring and provoking one-liners we found in our data regarding what PB means to these public officials.

These quotes – from officials representing eight cities across the U.S. – highlight what a multi-facetted democratic process PB can be, as well as the many ways it may impact people, communities and government.

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08.09 Providing Information and Options: Sequencing Discussions and Writing Discussion Materials

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 8

Last week, we discussed issue framing, which helps leaders present information and describe options to participants. This week, we explore how to best sequence discussions and write discussion materials that foster productive, interest-based dialogue.

As we noted last week, these three skills foster participation efforts that give citizens more of what they want (problem solving, civility and community) and treat them like adults in the process.

Sequencing Discussions

Many participation processes require some kind of agenda or guide that establishes a helpful, flexible structure for addressing a particular issue or problem.

The formats vary by length: some of these processes bring participants together for only an hour or two, while others include a number of sessions that take place over the course of an entire day or multiple meetings spread over several weeks. For the most part, these processes require facilitation, a skill we’ll discuss later in this series.

From years of experimentation, a successful sequence has emerged for these kinds of guides and the discussions they support:

  1. An initial discussion or session that helps the facilitator get the group started, guides the group through the process of setting ground rules, provides discussion questions aimed at eliciting the personal experiences of participants, and sometimes includes scenarios or cases to help the group relate the issue to their own lives.
  2. One or more middle discussions that help the group explore the main arguments being made about the issue. The middle sessions are organized around more far-reaching questions such as: “What are the root causes of the problem?” or “What should our goals be?” Middle sessions often contain an outline of the main viewpoints about the issue, written in plain, jargon-free language. These views could include expert opinions or the main proposals of policymakers. They might also reflect the main answers being given to the question, voiced by citizens, experts and officials alike.

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08.05 Engaging Ideas - 8/5

Friday, August 5th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues including democracy, public engagement, opportunity, education and health care.


There is a way democracies can create better-informed voters—but you’re probably not going to like it (Quartz)
Recent scholarship on voting laws suggests that requiring citizens to vote would not only up turnout—it might also help boost overall political awareness.

How political idealism leads us astray (Vox)
In a profound and persuasive new book, The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society, the political philosopher Gerald Gaus shows that visions of political perfection are bound to lead us astray. Gaus’s argument is forbiddingly technical, but it’s not merely academic. It matters a great deal to the way we think about practical policy advocacy and presidential elections. And if your political identity is built around a dream of an ideally just society, Gaus’s argument is shattering.

Public Opinion

How Today’s Political Polling Works (Harvard Business Review)
There’s no complete agreement about what factors should weighted: if a poll has a low proportion of Democrats, or Republicans, should weighting be used to correct for it? Decisions like this give some pollsters the opportunity to push their results one way or the other, for partisan purposes, or to avoid being too far from what other polls are saying. As polling averages have become more prevalent, some pollsters have become nervous about putting out results that are too far from that average, leading them to weight strategically to get their data back towards the mean, or, in some cases, to choose not to release results that look weird. As a result, the polls, in the aggregate, can miss shifts in public opinion.

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08.04 Finding Health Care Prices Remains Frustrating

Thursday, August 4th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

Arriving at her dermatologist’s office last week, my friend Emily discovered her health insurance network had changed. The doctor she'd visited for many years was no longer in network.

Naturally concerned about how much the appointment would cost her, she asked the receptionist. The receptionist didn’t know but offered to call Emily’s insurance company. The insurance company told her that part of her appointment would not be covered by her deductible, but they couldn’t tell her how much that would cost. All Emily knew was that an appointment that should have cost a co-pay of $20 would likely cost her $400, perhaps more. Emily said thanks and left.

Health care leaders, advocates, researchers and policymakers are trying to limit these sorts of frustrating experiences by improving price transparency in health care. States including Oregon and Florida have passed legislation calling for increased transparency in the prices of health care providers. Insurers are developing tools and websites with price and quality information for customers. For-profit and nonprofit companies and organizations are doing the same.

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08.01 Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

Monday, August 1st, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 7

Getting people to the table is not sufficient for improved public participation. The table must also be set in a way that gives citizens more of what they want (problem solving, civility and community) and treats them like adults in the process. This requires participation leaders to think more deeply about how to provide information and describe options.

Three skill sets – issue framing, sequencing discussions and writing discussion materials – are especially useful to this work. We’ll dedicate this week’s post to the first of these skills – issue framing. Look for a discussion of sequencing and writing next week.

Issue Framing

Photo by Mario Mancuso via Flickr.

In his book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann (1922), a noted writer, reporter, and political commentator, remarked that “The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.” With this comment, Lippmann was getting to the concept of issue framing. Just as how a work of art is framed affects how we see and value it, so too does how an issue is framed affect how we perceive and assess it (for more information on framing, see the Frameworks Institute 2002).

In a political context, issue framing means presenting (or sometimes spinning) an issue in a way that is most likely get the most agreement from others.

In a public participation process, however, issue framing means something quite different. It means presenting an issue in a way that allows people to explore different definitions of the problem, different explanations for why the problem has emerged and different solutions to the problem.

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07.29 Engaging Ideas - 7/29

Friday, July 29th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues including democracy, public engagement, opportunity, education and health care.


However divided you think our politics are, this chart shows that it’s actually way worse (Wonkblog)
A new study tracks an "explosion" of polarized speech in the past 20 years.

Public Policy and the Blame Game (Governing)
Instead of working to solve problems like underfunded pensions, too often we spend our time and energy pointing fingers.

Public Opinion

The great irony about the issue upending U.S. politics (Wonkblog)
Opposition to TPP is the most prominent symbol of anti-free trade sentiment that seems to have upended the 2016 presidential campaign. Yet most Americans actually agree that free trade is a good thing — and support it.


Study: Raising the minimum wage did little for workers’ earnings in Seattle (Wonkblog)
The data on Seattle will be frustrating to both sides of the debate.


Event combines 'Pokemon Go' with civic engagement (Ellwood City Ledger)
Chakayla Hyland has been playing the mobile device-based game, along with her two children and some of her friends, just like millions of other people. She decided to use the game to rally the community to another activity: a neighborhood cleanup. She hopes they'll pick up any litter they find, especially at gyms and stops.

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07.28 Donor Profile: Lisa Belsky

Thursday, July 28th, 2016 | Public Agenda

Public Agenda is fortunate to have committed and engaged donors, and we are truly appreciative of their support. Our goal is to build a community of supporters dedicated to strengthening the democratic process and finding workable solutions to our most pressing national and local concerns.

Lisa Belsky (center) and family

Each month we will highlight a donor and share with you why they support Public Agenda. Meet Lisa Belsky. Lisa is a longtime donor to Public Agenda. Lisa's mother was Deborah Wadsworth, a former president, board member and board chair of Public Agenda. Deborah cared very deeply about Public Agenda and shared that passion with Lisa.

In Deborah's honor, the was created. The fund is designed to identify and address concerns determined by a particular community and create a collaborative nonpartisan space to develop solutions. Lisa is honoring Deborah's legacy as a second-generation Public Agenda supporter.

Will Friedman, President

How did you become familiar with Public Agenda and its work?

My mother, Deborah Wadsworth, introduced me to Public Agenda and its work in the early 1980s. I quickly became an admirer of its mission and programming. A few years later, as a freshman in college with a desire to contribute in the civil sector, I lobbied Public Agenda for an internship and worked for several successive summers, predominantly as a research assistant.

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07.25 Managing Conflict

Monday, July 25th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 6

Although public participation projects rarely include formal conflict resolution processes, a general sense of how to manage conflict can be invaluable for building coalitions and facilitating meetings.

Participation leaders may face deep divisions and histories of conflict between city and county governments, school systems and governments, advocacy groups and federal agencies, developers and neighborhood leaders, elected officials from different political parties, unions and employers, and people of different racial or ethnic groups. They are also likely to face conflicting views about an issue under discussion and what ought to be done about it.

Understanding the basics of how to manage those differences can go a long way toward improving public participation. Two skills are particularly relevant to managing conflict: understanding positions and interests, and principled negotiation and interest-based problem solving.

Understanding Positions and Interests

Positions are what a person or group wants, or the demand a person or group is making.

Interests are the needs, values or concerns that underlie a position – they are why a person or group wants something.

For any given issue, people generally have only one position but many interests, with some interests being stronger than others. People with conflicting positions often share basic interests, which can form the foundation for constructive discussions and potential solutions.

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07.22 Engaging Ideas - 7/22

Friday, July 22nd, 2016 | Public Agenda

Every week we curate stories and reports on complex issues including democracy, public engagement, education, health care and urban housing.


Participatory Budgeting’s Promise for Democracy (Governing)
More and more communities are trying it, bringing tens of thousands of people into decisions on local spending.

'Politics Has Become Celebrity-Driven': How 2016 Surprised Political Thinkers (NPR)
Over the last month, we asked a group of political scientists and analysts how 2016 is changing how they think: what conventional wisdom is gone now; what surprised them? Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of these answers revolve around the Trump phenomenon, but others say we may have to rethink what voters want — and how to measure those attitudes.


Why everyone is so mad: 99% of post-recession jobs went to those who went to college (Quartz)
A new report might suggest why people are so angry in a world that should be experiencing much less turmoil as it recovers from the Great Recession. Jobs have come back back in post-recession America—but they’re reserved almost exclusively for people who went to college. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce put out an extensive report this week revealing that while the US created 11.6 million new jobs after the recession, 11.5 million of those went to individuals with at least some college education.

Bernie Sanders is right the economy is rigged. He’s dead wrong about why. (Vox)
Sanders thinks Koch and his billionaire comrades did it, more or less. Koch thinks an active, hands-on approach to economic regulation — an approach Sanders strongly favors — has allowed interest groups to capture the regulatory process and rig markets in their favor. Sorry, Bernie fans: Charles Koch is a lot closer to the truth.

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07.21 Testing Democracy's Resilience

Thursday, July 21st, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

Part of our monthly "Progress Report" newsletter. To receive the latest email updates from Public Agenda, click here.

Democracy in America and around the world is under severe strain. Those who value it must mobilize on its behalf. As we move deeper into election season, how can our actions support a healthy democracy rather than further its strain?

A convergence of tough challenges is posing a deepening threat to our democratic values and institutions. These include:

  • Growing economic inequality coupled with diminishing economic opportunity, a poisonous combination.
  • A palpable uptick in politically-charged violence in many forms -- from terrorist acts to violence by the police to violence toward the police.
  • Chronic political dysfunction, despite our mounting problems.
  • New manifestations of our stubborn racial divides.

These challenges are creating a political environment increasingly open to demagoguery, and to rhetoric and policymaking animated by fear and wishful thinking rather than our values and deliberations.

There are still reasons for hope in the resilience and resourcefulness of local communities, as I've argued in a previous column. Indeed, the tragedy in Dallas was compounded by the fact that its forward-thinking police force has been hard at work improving community relations. And the Dallas police chief, David Brown, has demonstrated inspiring and unifying leadership in his response. Many cities are innovating to enhance economic security through, for example, minimum wage and other economic experiments. Likewise, many are working to empower communities through, for example, practices like participatory budgeting.

All of that is good and hopeful, but we would be foolish to put the entire burden of democratic renewal on the backs of cities and states. Without a functional national government playing its part, we are unlikely to make progress fast enough to counter the troubling trends we are seeing. We will also be in constant danger of having local progress undermined via another deep recession, foreign conflict or some other catastrophe.

So let's continue to work locally, where progress seems most possible. But let's also be mindful of the importance of improving our national politics, beginning with the looming election. We should vote with democracy's health in mind, not just our pet issue. We should engage our fellow citizens with civic respect and intellectual seriousness, not the easy disdain and ideological rigidity that our political leaders so often display. We should proceed as activists fighting for democracy itself, not just our political party or interest group, by ensuring that everyone has a voice in our national conversation and opportunities to contribute to the democratic enterprise.

In sounding the alarm, I do not mean to dash hope. America's democratic experiment has proved itself resilient again and again, even the face of the kinds of pressures we see now. Democracy survived the trials of my father's generation, which came of age during the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. It survived the culture clash and political turmoil of the 60s, when I grew up. Our democracy can manage our current crop of problems today, but only if we work for it.


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