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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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07.21 Transforming Public Engagement: Our Very First Strategy Lab

Thursday, July 21st, 2016 | NICOLE CABRAL



These days, most local public officials recognize the value of deeper engagement with their constituents. Yet the conventional formats they have to engage treat citizens like children rather than adults. Take the typical public meeting for example, in which people have two minutes at an open microphone to speak to officials.

A more effective approach is one in which both parties see each other’s insights and concerns as equally valued. How can local officials transform their engagement efforts so they resemble an adult-adult relationship?

This question resonated with participants in a recent workshop I delivered with my colleague Matt Leighninger. The workshop was our very first "Public Engagement Strategy Lab,” an interactive day-long opportunity for leaders to transform and reinvigorate their public engagement efforts. We offered the Public Engagement Strategy Lab in conjunction with the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, as a pre-conference event for the Frontiers of Democracy Conference in Boston.

Moving toward a more equal dynamic between officials and the public is a long slog. One part of the process is transforming the “two minutes at the mic” public meeting standard. We walked participants through the latest tools and techniques in engagement that can reinvigorate public meetings, including online tools as well as face-to-face formats.

Another common challenge local officials often face: the “usual suspects” dominating most public meetings. Conventional engagement often attracts only a small number of extremely strident voices. At the Strategy Lab, we talked about how to bring large, diverse numbers of people to the table.


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07.19 Participatory Budgeting's Promise for Democracy

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016 | Carolin Hagelskamp, Ph.D., MATT LEIGHNINGER, Allison Rizzolo



Reprinted from Governing - July 19, 2016

For local-government officials everywhere, deeper, more meaningful constituent engagement is a major goal -- and a major challenge. Among the many processes, platforms and technology that officials are experimenting with to reach this goal, one in particular has quickly expanded in popularity: participatory budgeting.

Participatory budgeting, or PB, enables residents to directly decide how to spend some of the capital funds in their communities. In this country, PB has grown from a single process in a single ward in Chicago in 2009 to 63 processes in 22 cities. Last year alone, more than 70 million people voted in a PB process, deciding how to spend nearly $50 million.

PB clearly holds great promise. In Brazil, where PB started in the late 1980s, research has shown it has contributed significantly to broader public participation, particularly among the disenfranchised. Over time, in Brazil and other parts of the world, PB has also been associated with improvements in public health, reduced corruption, greater trust in government, higher tax compliance and stronger economic growth.

Certain actions communities took when implementing PB were associated with greater participation among disenfranchised communities.

Could we see similar outcomes in the United States? That determination will require patience, time, research and resources; after all, it took 10 years of PB to have meaningful impacts in Brazil. In partnership with local evaluators and practitioners, Public Agenda has undertaken the first-ever comprehensive analysis of PB in the United States and Canada, analyzing data from 46 jurisdictions that used PB in 2014 and 2015.

Our report describes the growth of this engagement phenomenon and, drawing on lessons learned from jurisdictions that have implemented it, provides guidance to local officials looking to make the most of PB in their communities. The report also describes encouraging findings related to PB's success in boosting engagement among traditionally disenfranchised communities.

According to the results of voter surveys, for example, black residents, low-income residents and women voted via PB processes at levels that either matched or exceeded their representation in local census data in most communities. At the same time, however, there was a wide variation in how successful communities were at bringing out such voters.

While on average 21 percent of PB voters were black, for example, that ranged from under 1 percent in one community to 95 percent in another. Looking at the data in another way, in 46 percent of communities black residents were over-represented among PB voters while they were under-represented in 11 percent of communities. You can look at similar data for income, education, gender and age.

Certain actions communities took when implementing PB were associated with greater participation among disenfranchised communities. Particularly important were collaboration with community-based organizations and person-to-person outreach.

Local governments typically reported collaborating with four community-based organizations to facilitate outreach in PB. The more such partnerships local government reported, the larger the proportion of residents from disenfranchised committees participated among PB voters.

And communities in which PB organizers reported engaging directly with residents on the street, in coffee shops, laundromats, fast-food restaurants, at schools -- pretty much wherever people typically congregate -- saw higher rates of participation from low-income voters and voters of color.

But while most communities brought out large numbers of black, low-income and women residents, the same was not true of Latino residents, who were under-represented among PB voters in 68 percent of communities. One likely reason is that Spanish-language ballots and/or voter surveys (and other outreach materials) may be missing from many voting sites.

What we've learned about PB so far makes clear that, to improve our knowledge of these and other impacts on our communities, local stakeholders must make data collection and evaluation an integral part of the process. This is true regardless of whether they are doing PB for the first time or the sixth time.

Resources exist to help communities set goals and collect key data points about their PB implementation, about their participants and about the projects that make it onto the ballot and that eventually receive PB funding. These resources include voter survey templates (also translated into other languages), definitions of key metrics and an evaluation timeline.

Public Agenda is also helping PB communities across the U.S. and Canada to coordinate some of their evaluation and research efforts and to collectively continue to tell a national and binational story of PB and its impact. We have much to learn, but what we already know is that this approach to decision-making holds great promise for our democracy and for the civic health of our communities.

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07.19 Communicating About Participation

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi



Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 5

Participation leaders should consider ways to communicate through the media about participation opportunities, experiences and impacts.

While the media landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade, some basic communication skills are useful whether one is working with traditional media organizations, such as newspapers and television and radio stations, or new media organizations, including hyperlocal and purely online outlets.

These skills include: clear messaging, creating a media plan, feeding the discussion about participation and reporting on results. Below we offer suggestions, many of which are adapted from the Institute for Local Government, for each of these skills.

Clear Messaging about Participation

Since media messages are mainly one-way forms of communication, there are fewer opportunities for questions and answers. Therefore, the message about the participation opportunity has to be simple and clear. It should answer the following questions:

  • What is at stake and why should citizens care?
  • What are the participation goals?
  • What will happen if people choose to participate?


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07.15 Engaging Ideas - 7/15

Friday, July 15th, 2016 | Public Agenda





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


Democracy

After Education, Young Americans Diverge on 2016 Issues (AP)
When it comes to picking a new president, young people in America are united in saying education is what matters most. But there's a wide split in what else will drive their votes, the Associated Press reports. For African-American adults between the ages of 18 and 30, racism is nearly as important as education. For young Hispanics, it's immigration. And for whites and Asian-Americans in the millennial generation, it's economic growth. The results from the new GenForward poll highlight big differences among young Americans who often are viewed as a monolithic group of voters - due in no small part to their overwhelming support for President Barack Obama during his two campaigns for president.

Inside Obama’s radical experiment in national reconciliation (The Washington Post)
It was diversity “by design,” as Obama later told reporters, an unorthodox, four-hour experiment in policymaking through the kind of emotional exchanges that are more often associated with therapeutic encounter sessions than bureaucratic seminars. And according to interviews with about a third of those who participated, it worked. Participants described a wide-ranging, free-flowing conversation facilitated by Obama himself, who began by taking off his suit jacket and rolling up his shirt sleeves. Attendees, even some who had been skeptical of the utility of such a meeting, described an unsparingly frank discussion in which police, protesters, academics and the president debated many of the disagreements playing out across the nation.


Opportunity

An Underutilized Tool for Building Tomorrow’s Workforce (Governing)
Prior learning assessment — awarding college credit for knowledge gained outside the classroom — is a worthwhile idea that's catching on.

5 Takeaways From a Report on Income Mobility (Governing)
New data reveals long-term trends about the under-reported topic.


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07.14 The Urgent Need for Better Dialogue on Crime, Punishment and Education

Thursday, July 14th, 2016 | ALISON KADLEC, PH.D. & ZOE MINTZ



Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring higher education opportunities for prisoners, particularly through Second Chance Pell. As we’ve demonstrated, large gaps exist between research, policy and public attitudes when it comes to correctional education. These gaps suggest a clear need for better public deliberation and decision making on this issue.

Research indicates that providing educational opportunities to prisoners has a significant positive impact on recidivism. Yet traditional public opinion research has found that Americans - particularly white Americans - tend to view punishment, not education, as the proper deterrent for crime. In a 2014 survey from The General Social Survey, when asked “Do you think the courts in this area deal too harshly or not harshly enough with criminals?”, 59 percent of white respondents answered “Not harshly enough.”

At the same time, a growing body of research suggests that when average Americans have the opportunity to deliberate on issues related to crime and punishment, they demonstrate the desire and capacity for more creative, measured and thoughtful cross-partisan problem solving.


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07.12 Recruiting Participants

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi



Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 4

Bringing together large, diverse numbers of people is often critical to the success of public participation.

Participation is more likely to benefit the community as a whole when it involves a broad cross-section of the community. And interactions will be more lively and rewarding when there is a diverse mix of participants. In this case, diversity not only means demographic diversity, but also diversity of views, perspectives, backgrounds and experiences.

Diverse participation is a conscious result of recruiting efforts. Valuable recruitment skills to assist in encouraging diversity include mapping the community, creating recruitment plans and conducting one-on-one interviews.

Mapping the Community

There are many ways for participation leaders to map the community or population with which they are working. The most basic and proven approach is simply to list the different networks and groups to which people belong.

Using an actual geographic map can be helpful for learning and remembering where people live, work, study, worship, and play. A map of social media connections can help organizers find the people who connect with, are trusted by, and curate information for others.

All kinds of networks and groups could be represented in such a map, including but not limited to: schools, businesses, faith congregations, service clubs, sports teams, hospitals, immigrant service organizations, fire stations, colleges and universities, restaurants and coffee shops, youth groups, senior citizens’ groups, grocery stores, libraries, newspapers and radio stations, police or sheriff’s departments, unions, newspapers and other media organizations, community organizing groups, neighborhood or homeowners associations, laundromats, barbershops and hair salons, political parties, social service agencies and bookstores.

These lists can be made graphically interesting. For example, the figure below provides an example of a neighborhood-based recruitment map. It also shows that mapping need not be complicated.


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07.08 Engaging Ideas - 7/8

Friday, July 8th, 2016 | Public Agenda





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


Democracy

The people trying to save democracy from itself (The Guardian)
New experiments in democracy around the world are trying to take politics back to ordinary people.


Opportunity

How Anti-Growth Sentiment, Reflected in Zoning Laws, Thwarts Equality (The New York Times)
A growing body of economic literature suggests that anti-growth sentiment, when multiplied across countless unheralded local development battles, is a major factor in creating a stagnant and less equal American economy. It has even to some extent changed how Americans of different incomes view opportunity.


Engagement

Why political participation falls short, and how to fix it (Ford Foundation)
Every election cycle, there’s a lot of talk about how to increase U.S. voter turnout. A new report looks beyond that familiar question and explains what it will take to make participation meaningful—and have a true, lasting impact.

Participatory Budgeting In The 50th Ward? Residents Push For Referendum (DNAinfo)
Some residents in the 50th ward are trying to gather enough signatures for a November referendum to bring participatory budgeting to the community.


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07.06 Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER



Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 3

Last week, we discussed principles and methods for building coalitions and networks that support deeper public participation. We continue that theme this week, focusing specifically on cultural competence and youth engagement.


Photo by Sikarin Thanachaiary via Flickr.

Cultural Competence

To work with a diverse array of coalition members, citizens or other stakeholders, participation leaders need to cultivate the skills of cultural competence.

The Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice defines cultural competence as the “the integration and transformation of knowledge about individuals and groups of people into specific standards, policies, practices, and attitudes used in appropriate cultural settings … thereby producing better outcomes.”

Most trainings and workshops in cultural competence ask people to reflect on their own backgrounds and experiences, and hear more about the backgrounds and experiences of others. These interactions are structured to build awareness and knowledge of cultures and their differences. In some cases, these trainings delve into questions of bias, discrimination and aspects of racism, including white privilege, structural racism and internalized oppression.

These experiences provide safe spaces for people to ask questions and air concerns. Cultural competency trainings also foster the sorts of skills that get people listening to and learning from others.


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07.01 Engaging Ideas - 7/1

Friday, July 1st, 2016 | Public Agenda





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


Democracy

The remarkable parallels between the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump (Washington Post)
The stunning decision by Britons to exit the E.U. — and the underlying sentiments that led to this shocking result — are the stuff that Americans should not only pay attention to but should also understand as motivated by the same emotions that have fueled the equally remarkable rise of presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in our own political system.

Creating Simpler, More Effective Government Services for Everyone (GovLab)
For technology to have its intended effects on the public good, government must recognize that technology “is not something you buy, it’s something you do,” argues Jen Pahlka (founder and executive director of Code for America and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer).   

What it’s like to be a political moderate working in a ridiculously polarized Senate (Vox.com)
The Senate I observed was not the one I’d hoped for, and it didn’t seem orderly. For some pieces of legislation, senators could file virtually unlimited amendments, so that several hundred amendments might be filed for a single bill. And under closely held schedules, one never knew which ones might be called to the floor at any given time. It wasn’t a recipe for serious policymaking.

Do Digital News Feeds Threaten or Enhance Deliberative Democracy? (The Atlantic)
An expression of concern about the algorithms that shape what Americans read before they vote.


Opportunity

A Strong Middle Class Doesn’t Just Happen Naturally (The Atlantic)
In the 20th century, America invested in policies that created widespread prosperity. Can the country do so again?


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