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06.28 Building Coalitions and Networks: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 2

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

Successful public participation is often built on the foundation of strong relationships among leaders and citizens.

Finding and connecting with other potential participation leaders, and strengthening those relationships in coalitions and networks, is an important step in planning and sustaining public participation.

In this post, we describe skills for coalition-building, including finding and building online networks. Next week, we’ll continue the topic of coalition building, examining how to develop cultural competence and work with young people.

Coalition Building.

Whether it occurs as part of a short-term initiative or a long-term plan, public participation should be championed, convened and supported by a diverse coalition of groups and organizations. There are several basic steps in building a coalition:

  • Identify diverse groups. Coalitions are better when they are diverse, in part because coalition members can be critical for recruiting participants. Participation leaders should think broadly about different kinds of diversity, including racial and ethnic backgrounds, age, education, income, religion, political affiliation, occupation and neighborhood. They should also strive to incorporate people and groups with differing viewpoints, those who have an immediate personal stake in the issue, and those who are connected to the issue professionally. It is also important to include people and groups that historically have been left out of decision making and public life. Reaching out to leaders, organizations, and networks in those populations can be helpful in that task. As participation leaders begin talking with potential coalition members, they should continually ask: “Who is not yet at the table that ought to be invited?”

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06.24 Engaging Ideas - 6/24

Friday, June 24th, 2016 | Public Agenda

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


Dot-Govs Get a Much-Needed Facelift (Governing)
Several big cities are decluttering and redesigning their government websites to make them easier to use.

How to spend tax money? Ask the taxpayers! (Charlotte Observer)
Increasing citizen engagement and connection between government and residents is clearly something we should strive for, say Christopher Gergen, CEO of Forward Impact and a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University and Stephen Martin, deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro.


AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute Trains Fellows in Creating Dialogue on Climate Change (AAAS)
Climate scientists chosen to participate in public-engagement training at the first-ever AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute (LLI) spoke with reporters from National Public Radio, ClimateWire, and Science, and they took part in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session that generated more than 3,000 “upvotes” from online followers. During a 6-10 June training program, the 15 AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute fellows also engaged in interactive sessions on the science of science communication, public attitudes about climate change, how Americans consume science news, best practices in leveraging social media, and the fundamentals of engaging policymakers in science-based dialogue. As part of their weeklong orientation, they worked with a media trainer and each other to develop and refine key messages about their climate change research, and they began to develop public-engagement plans to be implemented at each of their institutions.

K-12 Education

Where Are All the Principals of Color? (The Atlantic)
As the public-school population continues to grow more diverse, the percentage of nonwhite school leaders has remained relatively stagnant. “In districts where race, equity, and access to school leadership are discussed and addressed, such conversations set the stage for principals of color to succeed,” writes Melinda D. Anderson.

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06.23 Health Care Deja Vu

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

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

With health care, it's déjà vu all over again as we see another great example of short-sighted policymaking due to the misguided tactic of keeping the public in the dark.

Public Agenda veterans remember the early 90s, when the Democratic Clinton Administration developed its health policy behind closed doors without bothering to prepare, let alone, engage the public on what was to come. At the time, we predicted it would run into a wall consisting of the bricks of partisan Congressional resistance and the mortar of public confusion and cynicism. And it did. The don't-look-behind-the-curtain policy process currently employed by Senate Republicans promises a similar result.

Something may be shoved through via sloganeering, parliamentary maneuvering, executive action or leadership bargaining, but the public is likely to push back hard if the result doesn't produce policies that reflect people's priorities and address their concerns. Anger and cynicism are even more likely if they and their representatives never had a chance to weigh in as the process unfolds. A policy produced from such weak democratic process and anemic public understanding and support is likely to produce strong blowback.

At Public Agenda, we work to inform and engage the public about the issues that affect their lives, and to bridge the gaps between leaders and the public. We do this through our Citizens Solutions Guides, such as this one on health care, that help people understand different policy directions. We do it through research such as our report on health care price transparency. And we do this through our public and community engagement support services, for instance, with ReThink Health's Ventures project. We'll be working alongside this group to help set goals for the kinds of engagement they want to initiate, support and sustain in their health systems and communities.

Next month, we'll add to the national health care conversation with our anticipated research on public perceptions of quality and value. As newsletter subscribers, you'll receive the report and findings as soon as it is released.

Thank you for your support in our work to ensure the public's thinking, concerns, values and voice are at the forefront of decision-making.


06.23 On Gun Control, Special Interests vs the Public Interest

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

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

At Public Agenda we believe that a healthy democracy requires an engaged public.

Only an engaged public can make the hard journey from superficial, knee-jerk public opinion to responsible, widely-shared public judgment. This more stable public judgment provides a sound foundation for public policy.

But while it's true that public judgment tends to influence public policy, too often the politics of the moment deny the public's will and bend it instead to the will of special interests.

Such is the case with guns in contemporary America. For many years, a substantial majority of Americans has shown stable support for increasing background checks and related measures to limit the ability of dangerous individuals to obtain guns.

Yet this widespread public judgment is subverted, time and again, by a passionate minority and a well-organized and funded interest group that views even modest measures as an existential threat. When this happens, public judgment isn't enough. It must translate into public action to bring about needed change.

In the wake of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, it felt as though the political dynamics of gun control were changing. A 15-hour filibuster and legislative proposals from both Democrats and Republicans gave rare hope to the large majority of Americans who support common-sense measures to make it more difficult for some individuals to buy guns.

The public opinion support was there: Polling data shows that strong majorities of Americans, regardless of their political leanings, favor just the sort of legislation being considered this week. Indeed, long-standing support for increased background checks and measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals has only grown stronger given the ties of recent mass shooting to potential terrorist influence:

  • In a CNN poll last week, following the Orlando shooting, 92% of American said they want expanded background checks, 87% supported a ban for felons or people with mental health problems and 85% said they would ban people on federal watch lists from buying guns. Among Republicans, 90% said they favor preventing people on the terror watch list or no-fly list from buying a gun. That number is at 85% for Democrats.
  • In a Quinnipiac University poll from December, conducted after the San Bernardino attack, 83% of registered voters supported banning gun purchases for people on the government's terrorist watch list. This measure had support from 89% of Democrats, 77% of Republicans, and 80% of voters in gun-owning households. In a Gallup poll, also from December, 71% percent of adults said a ban on gun sales to people on the federal no-fly list would be "very" or "somewhat" effective in the U.S. campaign against terrorism.

The legislation proposed by the the Senate and the House this week isn't perfect. But the proposals offer an important starting point for a meaningful bill that would limit the ability of dangerous and violent individuals to access guns. Yet once again, the legislative process has been stymied by the NRA's pressure on a Congress that routinely places partisanship over pragmatic problem solving.

To be clear, I'm not arguing that the NRA is wrong on all counts. Whether law-abiding Americans have some kind of right to own some kind of guns is not my focus. Rather, I am arguing that the public's judgment that some limitations are appropriate is receiving too little response from our elected representatives.

The NRA's effectiveness is bolstered by what Pew Research labels an activism gap on gun policy. According to their 2013 survey, people who prioritize gun rights over gun control are far more likely to be politically involved. They are four or five times more likely to contribute money to advocacy groups, contact public officials, sign petitions and express their views on social media.

So while public opinion polls reliably indicate a majority of Americans supports the gun control measures put forth by Democrats and Republicans this week, public officials were more forcefully influenced by the active minority and the organized, narrowly focused interest group that opposed them.

This is why deeper, more robust public participation and engagement is so crucial on some issues, beyond what pollsters register as people's preferences. A passive majority often cannot prevail against an active and organized minority.

If you believe that the most powerful interest group should prevail, then that's fine. But if you think that a long-standing powerful majority should have influence, then change must come. And for this to come to pass, the majority will need to become a more active force in public affairs.

The sheer volume of mass shootings has reached such a crescendo that people appear to be at the breaking point, and a number of politicians, Democrats and Republicans, have begun to take a stand on gun control measures. But if some politicians are standing up, it's important for the public to do so as well. This means translating the support they show in opinion surveys into political behaviors like voting and speaking out to counter the political attacks that are sure to come. If you want your representatives to stand up, it's time to speak up.


06.22 Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation: Part 1

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo and MATT LEIGHNINGER

When it comes to local governing, we’re living in a time of great potential and democratic creativity. While the federal government may seem isolated from the needs and concerns of citizens, local officials are experimenting with new ways to encourage deeper and more robust public participation.

This is happening for good reason. Both leaders and residents are frustrated with traditional methods of public engagement, which often exclude the historically disenfranchised and discourage thoughtful consideration of problems and potential solutions.

So local officials are looking for new ways to hold public meetings. They’re integrating apps and other technologies that provide different ways for residents to weigh in with their concerns and insights. And they’re experimenting with innovative processes like participatory budgeting.

This period of democratic creativity has left us with an exceptionally wide array of participation skills, and the number and diversity of these capacities (especially those that rely on technology) continues to grow daily.

Yet most of these processes, tools and technologies have not been seamlessly or even adequately incorporated into the legal, governmental or civic infrastructure for public participation. Instead, as Maria Hadden of the Participatory Budgeting Project asserts, these practices are “civic hacks” developed to bypass our antiquated political systems.

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06.17 Engaging Ideas - 6/17

Friday, June 17th, 2016 | Public Agenda

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


Why the gun control debate gets more intractable every time there's a mass shooting (Vox)

The psychology of why terrorist attacks divide us further instead of bringing us together.

Enhancing citizen participation in city management (Huffington Post)

In Mexico, María Fernanda Carvallo discusses participatory budgeting, which emerged in 2010. Although the participatory budget is a counterweight to the public administration, it is still in the process of strengthening its role. The challenge lies in the overwhelming participation of people with political ties that influence the neighborhood committee. Furthermore, in an ideal model, the public consultation and application of projects would have to take a backseat to the analysis of common needs through community development mechanisms, which later can culminate in a public vote.

3 Ways to Stay Calm When Conversations Get Intense (Harvard Business Review)

Watch for the tipping point. Focus on something physical to regain perspective. Get to empathy and create bridges. Empathy is not about agreement. Nor is it the same as giving in, being passive, or allowing the other person to mistreat you. Recognize as you make more room for emotion that you are actually helping to discharge it. By allowing the other person to vent, you also gain access to other important facts, assumptions, and constraints at play – all critical information for bridging the gap between you and the other person.

K-12 Education

Digital Learning Games Break Into the Mainstream (EdWeek)

The number of teachers in the United States using games in their classrooms has doubled over the past six years, a new nationwide survey shows. The 2015 Speak Up survey findings are the latest in a series of reports released each year by the Irvine, Calif.-based nonprofit organization. The latest report draws from an online questionnaire completed by more than 500,000 students, teachers, other educators, and parents.

Boston Solicits Public for High School Redesign Ideas (EdWeek)

More than 2,000 parents, educators, residents, and students have offered their views on how to reshape the city's high schools.

Louisiana Pushing Industry Externships for Teachers This Summer (EdWeek)

Districts in Louisiana are paying teachers to swap their classrooms for factory floors and office cubicles this summer.

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06.16 Second Chance Pell Grants: Finding Common Ground on Education for Prisoners

Thursday, June 16th, 2016 | Madison Gordon and Erin Knepler

Last summer, the Obama Administration and the U.S. Department of Education launched a pilot program for incarcerated individuals called Second Chance Pell. Through this five-year program, a select number of colleges and universities receive Pell Grant funding to teach courses to currently incarcerated individuals, helping them work toward an associate and/or bachelor’s degree.

Rather than providing Pell Grants directly to prisoners, the colleges receive funds to cover educational costs and provide educational opportunities for incarcerated students. Some colleges offer online educational opportunities to inmates, and others teach face-to-face courses inside prisons. As part of the program, the institutions are also required to collect and monitor data to understand the effectiveness of the pilot.

Second Chance Pell has the potential to improve prospects for current inmates and reduce recidivism. But not everyone agrees with spending public tax dollars on education for inmates, and the issue is politically and emotionally charged.

Prior to the start of Second Chance Pell last summer, incarcerated individuals had not had the option to use Pell to pay for higher education in over 20 years. Back in 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included a provision that denied Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals.

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06.14 What We Can Learn from Engaged Faculty

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 | ALISON KADLEC, PH.D.

Photo by Greg Andersen via Flickr.

Conversations in higher education reform, like those in K-12 reform, seem to be shifting. Particularly in campus-level reform efforts, higher education leaders are increasingly embracing faculty engagement as essential to creating sustainable change. But what does it actually look like when faculty are made true partners in the hard work of change?

Through our work, we have seen many examples of authentic and meaningful faculty engagement. We have also seen many examples of college cultures that are not conducive to deep, shared ownership of efforts to improve student success. But describing what exactly it takes to create healthy cultures for creative collaboration and student-centered innovation is no easy task.

Of course, what institutional leaders do matters. Many leaders feel that they are too busy or are under too much pressure to stop to listen and empower faculty at all levels. But few lasting gains can be made in the absence of distributed leadership.

Yet institutional leaders are not the sole drivers of institutional culture. In this blog, I want to focus on what we can learn from the traits and beliefs of engaged faculty who work in healthy college environments. These environments are conducive to creative collaboration and genuine shared vision and ownership of comprehensive, innovative efforts to boost student success.

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06.10 Engaging Ideas - 6/10

Friday, June 10th, 2016 | Public Agenda

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


Why inequality is worse for your wallet than a weak economy (Wonkblog)

Two trends have socked American workers over the past three decades. The economy has grown more slowly than it did in the decades after World War II, and the growth we’ve seen has disproportionately boosted the incomes of the very rich. Both trends are important, but in a new paper, a liberal economist argues that one of them was far more consequential for the vast majority of Americans. The economist, Joshua Bivens, is the research and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute. In his paper, he builds two alternate realities of the American economy from 1979 to 2007 (the eve of the Great Recession) to tease out whether slowing growth or widening inequality did more to depress incomes for the bottom 90 percent of U.S. workers.

Living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life (Vox)

We often talk about increasing wealth inequality, with the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer. That's certainly a problem, but something we should be even more concerned about is what is happening to our neighborhoods. There are now more extremely poor neighborhoods and more extremely rich neighborhoods. We're seeing two divergent Americas, one with money, and one without — and the one without is largely black. And the residents of that America are increasingly living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

The world’s most elite conference this year will discuss something called “the precariat” (Quartz)

The what? The “precariat” is a term popularized by British economist Guy Standing, describing a growing class of people who feel insecure in their jobs, communities, and life in general. They are the perpetual part-timers, the minimum-wagers, the temporary foreign workers, the grey-market domestics paid in cash, the techno-impoverished whose piecemeal work has no office and no end, the seniors who struggle with dwindling benefits, the indigenous people who are kept outside, the single mothers without support, the cash labourers who have no savings, the generation for whom a pension and a retirement is neither available nor desired.

K-12 Education

At 25th Anniversary Mark, Author of First Charter School Law Reflects on Movement (EdWeek)

Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of the passing of the first charter school law in the country. Ember Reichgott Junge is the former Democratic state senator who authored the charter school legislation, which was signed into law in Minnesota on June 4th. She says, "I think we missed a couple of things in our original vision. We missed, first of all, that we needed to pay more attention to the authorizers or sponsors and to make sure they were well trained and to understand their role better. Not only are they compliance oriented, which they should be to hold the charter schools accountable, but they also need to be supportive in the sense of helping the school to be creative."

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06.07 From 'Buy-in' to True Collaboration: Advancing Teacher and Family Engagement in K-12 Reform

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

Earlier in my career, I assisted and observed a highly successful school improvement effort in Kansas City, Kansas. The key to progress there seemed to be that reform moved along two parallel, interconnected tracks, both of which integrated meaningful engagement with educators and families.

Inside the school system, teachers, administrators and staff took part in regular, deliberative discussions about how to improve teaching practices, the curriculum and other aspects of how schools function. Meanwhile, parents and other family members were part of regular, deliberative discussions of school improvement options, what they wanted educators to do and how non-educators could help. Information was shared between the two sets of discussions, partly by people who were involved in both.

Three years into the process, test scores and graduation rates had risen dramatically, disciplinary incidents had fallen, and a wide range of extracurricular programs for students had been created by volunteers and community organizations. (For the full story, click here.)

Engaging teachers and families is critical to the success of school improvement efforts, as the CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation admitted recently.

This means more than just getting ‘buy-in’ from teachers and families on changes conceived by education reformers. The people doing the educating and learning should have meaningful roles in assessing how things are going, learning about new reform ideas and deciding whether and how those ideas should be incorporated in the way their schools work. More productive forms of engagement can not only propel innovations, they can have a direct impact on student learning.

Many efforts to engage teachers and families in school improvement unfortunately share a common shortcoming: most have been temporary projects. In engagement efforts in Kansas City, Kansas and elsewhere, meetings and forums were treated as special activities, rather than built into the way that schools and communities function. Meanwhile, most of the regular, official opportunities for engagement in schools – parent-teacher conferences, Parent-Teacher Associations, school board meetings – continue to use the same tired, conventional formats that do not create sufficient deliberation, collaboration or shared learning. (See Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy for a comprehensive assessment of the state of engagement in K-12 education.)

At Public Agenda, we are working with school systems to overcome these challenges, in three main ways:

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