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04.14 Flying Below the Radar: Making Local Progress in Spite of National Dysfunction

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.



First published in The Huffington Post on April 14, 2016.


If you haven't read James Fallows' chronicle of local progress in The Atlantic, do yourself a favor and click over to read it when you're done here.

In it, Fallows writes about his small-plane travels to four dozen small cities throughout the U.S. Through his journey, we discover an alternate narrative of America, one celebrating the power of local determination, democracy and problem solving.

Nationally, we are utterly incapable of collaboration, compromise or making any progress on solving problems. The very rare exceptions only make the dominant pattern more visible.

Yet in cities big and small, where most people live and work, the ability of residents and officials to solve problems has not abated and may actually have picked up.

I would add this observation to Fallows' encouraging chronicle: There are two distinct strategies and styles evident in many local success stories. One is a more technocratic, top-down, data-driven, often tech-enabled approach. The other is more deliberative and democratic, centered on civic engagement and community empowerment. Both have their strengths and can help address different classes of problems or different aspects of the same problem.

Top-down, technocratic problem solving can be good for technical problems. For example, it can identify where the potholes are, and how to speed up response time to a 911 call.

In New York, for instance, the former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was a master of technocratic, top-down problem solving, and for many types of problems that worked very well-- but not for all. It created an efficient 311 system that serves citizens well, and strengthened New York's anti-terrorism capabilities. But technocratic attempts to improve schools and police-community relations through corporate approaches of measurement and accountability fell flat and, in many instances, were counterproductive.

There are no purely technocratic fixes for many problems cities face, including poverty, inequality, educational disparities or diminishing opportunity. Such "wicked problems" (as the literature sometimes calls them) prove amazingly resistant to purely top-down solutions.

Instead, such problems require ongoing attention from many disparate actors, durable public support so experiments can prove themselves and blossom into policies and practices that drive progress, and tough choices among competing priorities about how we want to live.

Solutions to such problems can be data-informed but not data-determined because they are, to a very great extent, matters of values, priorities and the trade-offs we are willing to accept as a community. Do the pros outweigh the cons of a much higher minimum wage? Are we willing to experiment to find out? Should we permit bigger buildings in historic neighborhoods if doing so will make rents more affordable? If not, what measures should we take instead? Are we willing to provide the resources to ensure that all schools have adequate and safe facilities and well-trained teachers, or not? If so, how?

This is fertile ground for deliberative democratic work, and in fact that's the only approach that will bear fruit in the long term. In his most compelling examples of renewal and progress, Fallows feature cities where many different groups of people -- experts and non-experts, officials and everyday residents, conservatives and liberals -- work together on solutions.

As technocratic approaches reach their limit, we have the opportunity to help cities make progress on their more wicked problems. We can do so by engaging and empowering communities, building the public will needed to sustain sound policy, developing strong lines of communication, and by celebrating our successes rather than wallowing in our failures.

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04.14 Fixing Politics by Strengthening Networks for Engagement

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER




David Brooks argues that strong community networks are essential for successful politics. Photo: Ryan Johnson via Flickr

As David Brooks pointed out in his column on How to Fix Politics, our political system has reached a perilous state of dysfunction and distrust, and it is unlikely that any solutions to this crisis will come from the political parties or their presidential candidates.

Brooks is also right that the partisanship and incivility that plague our politics are not just due to poor manners or bad process skills. They are based in much deeper structural flaws in how leaders and communities engage each other around important issues and resulting strains in the relationship between citizens and government.

Brooks argues that strong community networks are essential for successful politics, and uses a 1981 quote from one of our founders, Daniel Yankelovich, to illustrate how long the weakening of those networks has been going on. If were going to salvage our politics, Brooks says, well have to nurture the thick local membership web that politics rests within.

This kind of argument is often dismissed as a sentimental notion, or a lament over our lack of civic virtue, but it shouldnt be. There are specific proposals and measures that can accomplish it.

Strengthening networks for engagement should be one of our top public priorities, and there are in fact a number of concrete ways to move forward on it. Much of our work at Public Agenda centers on these challenges, and we are part of a field of other organizations and leaders from neighborhood organizers to innovative public officials who have pioneered more productive formats and structures for democratic politics.

There are two kinds of communication that need to be happening for those networks to strengthen and grow. One kind, as Brooks references, is thick engagement that is intensive, informed and deliberative. In these kinds of settings, people are able to share their experiences, learn more about public problems, consider a range of solutions or policy options and decide how they want to act.


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04.12 Americans Don't Associate Price with Quality in Health Care

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo



Does your insurance company provide a website or other resource for you to look up health care prices? If so, they're part of a growing trend. More and more government agencies, insurance companies and nonprofit organizations have developed tools to help patients navigate the complicated and often opaque health care price system.

As these resources proliferate, some health care experts worry that, if patients assume price is associated with quality, they'll avoid low-price care. After all, it's only reasonable to believe that price and quality are related. Yet while health care prices vary widely throughout the country, there is no evidence that higher prices are associated with higher quality or better health outcomes.

A new analysis of our 2015 survey data on price transparency provides good news for those troubled experts: most Americans do not associate the price of health care with the quality of that care. , conducted by Public Agenda's David Schleifer and Carolin Hagelskamp together with Kathryn Phillips of the University of California, San Francisco, was published in the April issue of Health Affairs, a top health policy journal.

In the analysis, we found that a majority of Americans (ranging from 58-71 percent depending on how the questions were framed) do not think health care cost and quality are associated. Fewer than one-quarter (21-24 percent) perceive an association, while 8-16 percent are unsure.


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04.08 Engaging Ideas - 4/8

Friday, April 8th, 2016 | Public Agenda





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


Democracy

2 political scientists have found a key reason Republicans and Democrats see politics so differently (Vox)

Republicans' distrust of the mainstream media creates an asymmetry in how the parties approach the media. Democrats rely on the mainstream media both to get out their message and to cover events. Republicans generally distrust mainstream outlets and so have set up a parallel ecosystem to get their message out. The result is Republicans rely on a media that is more likely to echo their partisan biases, and Democrats rely on media that does not pick a side and at least claims to be objective and empirical (whether or not it lives up to that promise).


Engagement

No, Wait, Short Conversations Really Can Reduce Prejudice (The Atlantic)

A new study redeems a remarkably successful canvassing approach that was rocked by scientific fraud last year.


K-12 Education

The Testing Bill of Rights (Politico's Morning Education Newsletter)

The Center for American Progress and other groups unveiled a "Testing Bill of Rights" late last month with the goal of collecting 10,000 signatures in a month, but Wednesday CAP announced that it has already collected 11,000 signatures - a third of which stem from New York state, where the opt-out movement is prevalent. The bill of rights is meant to find a middle ground on the issue, denouncing over-testing but advocating that high-quality tests are important for improving instruction and measuring student learning. See the bill here.

Iowa Academic Chief Plays Dual Role (EdWeek)

Jaclyn Zubrzycki writes: In this 1,500-student district between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, there's typically little delay when someone has an idea about how technology might help improve academics. That's because the district's chief academic officer and chief technology officer are one and the same. And that person is Townsley.


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04.07 Bold Solutions to Housing Affordability in NYC

Thursday, April 7th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo



Public Agenda is kicking off new work to elevate the public's voice in housing policy


From left to right: Patricia Swann of The New York Community Trust; WNYC Radio Host, Brian Lehrer; Public Agenda President, Will Friedman; NYC Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development, Vicki Been; and New York University's Steven Pedigo.

If you live in New York, it's easy to believe the sky is falling when it comes to housing costs. You're not alone: say the high cost of housing is a serious problem in the region.

Still, cities across the world look to New York as they struggle with their own housing needs. As the city's Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development Vicki Been noted this week, she's received "many requests" for information about Mayor de Blasio's ten-year affordable housing plan from cities looking to meet their affordable housing challenges.

Been spoke at a

While other cities may look to Mayor de Blasio's affordable housing plan for inspiration, Been noted that New York is falling far behind on its housing supply compared to cities of similar density. This shortage, together with other variables that increase housing costs in the city, threatens to erode what the panelists agreed makes New York so great: its intermingling of different types of people. "Economically diverse neighborhoods are healthier neighborhoods," said Been.


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04.05 Building Democratic Skills for City Leaders Through Lessons Learned Post-Katrina

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 | NICOLE CABRAL



City managers have a unique power to shape the future of their municipalities. They are responsible not only for day-to-day administrative operations of their cities, but also for engaging their citizens. In many situations, they essentially run their cities, even more so than the mayor. As cities face opportunities or challenges that drive them to reinvent or rebuild, city managers are crucial liaisons for engaging the public in these efforts.

In February, I delivered a workshop on Democratic Skills for Public Leaders to a group of 50 city and county managers. The workshop was the opening session of the Association for Pennsylvania Municipal Management's Executive Development Conference in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. We tailored the workshop to the specific needs of city managers, focusing on tools and techniques they can employ to strengthen the participation infrastructure in their cities.

It can be daunting for a city leader to choose the most effective platform to reach their constituents. City leaders have a vast range of civic engagement tools at their disposal, including phone calls, newsletters, email, town hall meetings, social media and many others.

Many participants were incorporating both technological and face-to-face tools to engage their constituents. During the workshop, I focused on how they could most effectively coordinate and combine face-to-face engagement with civic technology as they design engagement processes for their communities.

We first discussed successful cases where innovators used both face-to-face and technological tools to engage citizens, including Portsmouth Listens and Participatory Budgeting. After, the group broke into small groups to design a comprehensive engagement strategy using a combination of engagement methods. To make the exercise feel more real and grounded, we used an exercise based on past engagement work in the U.S. Gulf Coast.


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04.01 Engaging Ideas - 4/1

Friday, April 1st, 2016 | Public Agenda





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


Democracy

Uninformed Voters Are a Problem. This May Be a Solution. (Governing)

A new award-winning website from two Chicago women aims to better educate voters about downballot races, which people often know little (if anything) about.

Do We Actually Want Higher Youth Voter Turnout? (Stanford Social Innovation Review)

Young people can be more engaged in politics, but major institutions must actually want that to happen. Abby Kiesa and Peter Levine write: "We found that about one quarter of high school teachers of civics and government were leery of teaching about the election in 2012 because they feared backlash from local adults. Better preparation for future teachers and professional development for current teachers would help allay their concerns, and, in turn, help them allay public fears."

What I Learned When an Angry Mob Destroyed My Public Meeting (Metroquest)

When things go wrong in public engagement, they can go spectacularly wrong. The result isnt just frustration for project leaders. It can spell costly delays, failed or overturned planning efforts, or the loss of public support for politicians and government agencies. Introducing the Fiasco Files a lighthearted opportunity to look back on those times when things went sideways.


Restoring Opportunity

Should Economic Development Focus on People or Places? (Governing)

Cities tend to favor building stadiums and convention centers over investing in education or human services. It's an understandable but troublesome trend.

How Americas Mayors Are Taking the Lead on Income Inequality (Governing)

They're doing what they can on this challenging issue, but they think it's a problem Washington and state governments should solve.


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03.31 To Keep Cities Affordable, Affordable Housing Is One Solution of Many

Thursday, March 31st, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo




Photo: Chris Goldberg | Flickr

Earlier this month, the New York City Council approved two major parts of Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to build and preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over the next ten years.

Increasing the inventory of housing for lower- and middle-income residents is one very important approach for addressing housing costs in New York and other cities across the country. But such efforts alone will not alleviate the housing affordability problem fully. Nor are they likely to ease the immense anxiety many feel as they ponder, can I afford to live here?

We must expand the conversation on affordable housing and explore additional solutions and approaches that support affordable cities for residents of all incomes. Next Monday, we plan to do just that, during Bold Solutions to Housing Affordability, a free event open to the public.

Our discussion, moderated by WNYC's Brian Lehrer, will include New York City's Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development Vicki Been, NYU's Steven Pedigo, Director of Creative Cities & Civic Innovation, and New York Community Trust's Patricia Swann, senior program officer for community development.

This event kicks off an effort to better understand: what are the approaches to housing affordability that New York residents are willing to support? While our discussion will be hosted in New York City and focus on solutions for the metro area, like Mayor de Blasio's affordable housing plan, we will examine other approaches to housing affordability that have been tried and implemented around the world. We will also explore how issues like transportation, social mobility and opportunity affect housing affordability.


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03.30 Only Authentic Community Engagement and Empowerment Can Begin to Restore Flint

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.



Reprinted from The Huffington Post - March 30, 2016

Nothing can make up for what was lost, but it might be the one way to get governing and democracy back on track.

The Flint crisis is perhaps the worst example of what can go wrong when people have no voice in the decisions that affect their lives: A generation of children faces the irreversible effects of lead poisoning. Nine people are dead. Trust has vanished. Residents saw their rights and dignity violated.

Theres no question that Michigan officials failed their citizens. Its an extreme example, but this kind of tragedy is the inevitable result when officials govern without listening to and showing respect for the people they were elected to serve.

We felt helpless from the get-go...[We] felt like we had no voice.


- Patty Warner, longtime Flint resident, via Citylab

To not only address the problem but also to make sure it never happens again, leaders will need to pay as much attention to the health of local democracy as to the immediate health of residents. Restoring trust and democracy will take time, effort and patience on the part of local officials and community members alike.

In the short term, here are five actions officials should take to lay the groundwork on the long road of righting relationships and fixing democracy:

Listen to residents and meet their immediate needs. Make up for past failures. Provide water, as much as residents need, when they need it. Replace pipes. Repay water bills. Set up funds to support the health and education of children affected by the crisis. Give residents the space to be angry. And listen to them and respond when they talk about what else they need. In concert with such ameliorating actions, take ownership of bad decisions and apologize.

As you respond to immediate needs, build durable mechanisms for ongoing and authentic public engagement. Transform city council and other public meetings into meaningful opportunities to interact with residents. Use civic tech to gather information and provide people with additional ways to weigh in on decisions. Empower communities through innovative democratic practices like participatory budgeting, and through more traditional ones, like citizen advisory boards.

Provide timely information and practice transparency. From the beginning, the decisions that led to the current crisis have been riddled with opacity and a lack of accountability. Now is the time to be transparent with residents. Give them the information they need, in a timely manner, in ways they can absorb, and continue that practice beyond the current crisis.

Partner with and empower community leaders whom people trust. With faith in official leadership gone, local officials will need to work with community members who ARE trusted. Identify respected leaders and organizations and build those relationships. But be careful to do so in an authentic, transparent way -- the last thing officials want is for the public to distrust by association the motives of local community members.

Pursue activities that slowly but surely rebuild the broken bond. Create opportunities for positive, problem-solving interactions between residents and officials that address real issues. Over time, these smaller efforts may help officials earn back residents trust. Visit homes and listen. Organize and attend recreational activities for area children. Deliver meals to elderly or disabled residents. Do well on a million small acts of governance that build the social capital and know-how to tackle bigger and tougher challenges down the line.

Such measures can lead to a Flint where residents have true ownership in decisions that affect their lives and where officials consult with residents as partners in formulating and implementing solutions. Whats done is done, but officials and other leaders must do all they can to make sure that this never happens again. They can best do so by taking democracy to heart and pursuing it with passion.

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03.29 To Address Gender Equity in the Workforce, We Must Look to Higher Education

Tuesday, March 29th, 2016 | TIFFANI WILLIAMS



Too often, our conversation about gender equity fails to consider the ways in which college-level practices can end up reinforcing gaps and inequalities that persist well into womens working lives. To boost gender equity in workforce representation and compensation, we need a deeper understanding of the ways colleges create and reproduce barriers to equal labor market opportunities.

Historically, women have been underrepresented in education and the workforce for a majority of the last century. However, current trends indicate that trend is shifting.

Women enroll in college, graduate and pursue advanced degrees at higher rates than men. For example, between 2002 and 2012, college enrollment grew from 16.6 million to over 20 million. Much of this growth is attributed to an increasing number of women enrolling in college. The ratio of college graduates that are women versus those that are men is 3 to 2. And when considering women ages 25-34, studies find that women are over 20 percent more likely to complete a college degree and 48 percent more likely to have completed graduate school than men.

Do these numbers tell the entire story of gender equality? Probably not. Labor market outcomes post-graduation reveal interesting differences between men and women and even suggest that large gender gaps still exist.


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