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08.18 The Tension Between Preserving a Community and Protecting It

Thursday, August 18th, 2016 | NICOLE CABRAL

A Grand Bayou resident repairs his fishing net.

On a recent hot and humid summer afternoon on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I head west in my rental car on I-10. It is eleven years nearly to the day since Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast. Debris has been removed and many of the levees and floodwalls have been repaired. And houses have been fixed or rebuilt.

Yet residents of the Gulf Coast continue to struggle not only with destructive weather and coastal land loss, but with the tension created between preserving their community and protecting it.

I have returned to the Gulf Coast for the first time since 2010, when I was here with the Institute for Sustainable Communities. After Katrina, we worked with city government and nonprofit leaders, building their capacity to better serve their community and help it to be stronger and more resilient.

In my current position with Public Agenda, I am continuing to work in the region, building public engagement infrastructure. This summer I traveled across the Gulf Coast to see how community leaders are doing since the devastating storm. And I witnessed firsthand the tension created by efforts to build community resiliency in the face of climate change.

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08.15 Managing Discussions, Blog 1 of 3: Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

Monday, August 15th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 9

In public participation, the rubber hits road when citizens begin talking with each other. Ensuring that these interactions work well – for citizens, public officials, public employees and other stakeholders – requires a number of key participation skills centered on managing discussions, including facilitating face-to-face groups, recording, moderating online forums, setting ground rules and giving feedback.

This week, we'll discuss skills for facilitating face-to-face groups. In subsequent weeks, we'll discuss the remaining topics.

Facilitating Face-to-Face Groups

The basic definition of “facilitate” is to make easy or easier. Within the context of public participation, the word facilitate means to lead (and make easier) a group discussion. This is done, for example, by guiding conversations, asking questions, mediating between opposing viewpoints, ensuring that all participants’ views are heard, reflecting and summarizing what is said, following the agenda and keeping time.

The facilitator’s main task is to create a safe environment where each participant feels comfortable expressing ideas and responding to those of others.

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08.12 Engaging Ideas - 8/12

Friday, August 12th, 2016 | Public Agenda

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


Hopelessly Divided? Think Again. (Moyers & Company)
Instead of lamenting our divisions, let’s celebrate what we agree on and find candidates willing to address what's blocking cooperation.

Can Citizen Governance Save Our Republic? (Governing)
Some governments are moving to give citizens more of a direct role in policymaking. It's a promising experiment. According to Public Agenda, 70,000 Americans and Canadians in 22 cities voted last year on how to spend nearly $50 million through participatory budgeting.

The Nerd’s Dream Guide to the U.S. Constitution (The Atlantic)
If you’ve been meaning to do this reading for a while, now really is the time to do it. The more citizens who take seriously their roles as stewards of our fundamental law, the less likely it becomes that the values of due process, equal protection, civic equality, and self-government can be obliterated by the screams of an angry mob.

Public Opinion

How did Marist, Monmouth, Suffolk and Quinnipiac get known for political polling? (Washington Post)
Americans addicted to political polls can get their fix these days from a growing number of colleges and universities that measure the ups and downs of presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in a tumultuous election year. But the leaders in this expansion of academic polling are hardly household names outside of politics. For these schools, polling in a polarized America yields a marketing bonanza akin to what others might reap through college football bowl games or the NCAA basketball tournament. They are building brands through surveys of political battlegrounds.

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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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