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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.


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 isn’t 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 America’s 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.

There’s no question that Michigan officials failed their citizens. It’s 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. What’s 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.


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 women’s 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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03.23 Wanted: A Vision that Unites and Engages America

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

The presidential primaries have a way of putting the extremes at the center. As the candidates mobilize the small number of partisan donors and activists who determine their fate, the political discourse polarizes even more than usual and leaves behind what little common ground and pragmatism remain in our national politics.

This is, in part, the natural outcome of the problematic design of our electoral system. It is also symptomatic of many troubling trends that are dividing the nation and undermining our ability to solve problems. These include:

  1. The growing gap between leaders and the public: Public trust in government and many other societal institutions remain near historic lows.
  2. Increasing partisan polarization in our national politics: Moderates of either party in Congress have disappeared, partisan rhetoric has hardened, and populist movements on the left and right are rising.
  3. Growing inequality and the hollowing out of the economic middle: Our post-industrial economy is splitting into a small sector of high-wage knowledge occupations and a large one of low-wage and insecure service jobs, as the middle class disappears and inequality deepens.
  4. The fracture of the news media: This makes it all too easy to reinforce our own views and avoid hearing from those who disagree.
  5. The stubborn cleavages of racial discrimination, discord and violence: Racism, the most ancient of American failures, continues to challenge each generation.

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03.21 On Health Care Quality, What Does the Public Think?

Monday, March 21st, 2016 | DAVID SCHLEIFER, PH.D.

Experts have a lot to say about measuring quality in health care. But what qualities matter most to patients like you and me?

What do you think makes for a high-quality doctor? When asked this question, most Americans say they focus on doctor-patient relationships and doctors’ personality, according to a 2014 nationally representative survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

But do people think differently about quality when they're faced with a potentially more serious situation such as joint replacement, diabetes or childbirth? People facing such situations may be interested in personality and relationships. However, they may also want to choose doctors and hospitals who are “the best.” But the best at what exactly? And according to whom?

We've seen a lot of progress on ratings systems that measure and communicate the quality of care that doctors and hospitals provide. Organizations like the Leapfrog Group, for example, have for many years reported on hospital quality and safety. They have found that a person on Medicare has a one in four chance of experiencing injury, harm or death when admitted to a hospital.

Several other non-profit organizations, private companies and state governments also now publicly rate the quality of hospitals and physician groups. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently released core quality measures for treatment in seven areas of health care. These measures are designed to improve consumer decision-making and facilitate value-based payment, among other goals.

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03.21 The Call to Grapple With Housing Affordability

Monday, March 21st, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

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

As a boy growing up in New York City's Upper West Side and West Village neighborhoods in the '60s, I kept my lunch money in my shoe and witnessed a cops and robbers shootout at a Western Union on Broadway.

I returned to live in the Upper West Side four decades later. These days, the neighborhood is safer, sure, but it's absurdly expensive. The high cost of living means the area lacks a true middle class, which I was part of growing up. There is fleetingly little diversity, and none of the street energy I knew playing handball against the pre-war buildings when I was a kid.

The neighborhood I called home is no longer a place where the son of a second-generation professor of American literature at the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy and a third-generation aspiring actress could live. And it's certainly not an affordable place for my aspiring-actress daughter and most other young people without a trust fund or relatively rare job in a high-wage industry.

New York's housing affordability problem has steadily crept outward from Manhattan to encompass the entire region. In fact, in a recent survey we conducted, 80 percent of those residing in the New York metro area said the high cost of housing was one of the area's most serious problems.

New York is not alone. It's among a growing number of economically powerful cities that face a crisis of affordability and inequality. This crisis threatens to choke off the very factors that drive these cities' success.

Cities thrive because diverse, ambitious, talented people intersect in ways that foster innovation and opportunity. City scholar Edward Glaeser puts this case in the strongest possible terms when he writes, "The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization's success and the primary reason why cities exist."

If diverse, talented people cannot afford to come here or stay here to find opportunity and make their mark, cities like New York will lose their vital edge. That's why it's so important, from the perspective of both fairness and smart economics, to make sure great cities tackle the problem of housing affordability.

At the same time, policies that affect our housing and our neighborhoods also affect our daily lives. The public has a personal stake in housing policy. It should also have a voice.

Over the next year, Public Agenda will conduct research to understand where the public stands in the search for bold solutions to housing affordability in New York. We will share these findings with policy and decision makers so they make choices grounded in and informed by the will of the public. And we will create materials that communities can use to better understand, discuss and act on the issue themselves.

To kick off this project, we hosted a panel discussion in early April with WNYC's Brian Lehrer, NYC Commissioner for Housing Preservation and Development Vicki Been, New York Community Trust's Patricia Swann and New York University's Steven Pedigo. You can read a recap of the event on our blog, where we'll also post regular updates about our progress.

Do you worry about keeping our cities affordable and sustainable engines of innovation and progress for all its residents? You can support Public Agenda's efforts to elevate the public's voice on housing solutions by making a tax deductible donation. Your donation will help us do this work at the scale needed to make a real difference!


03.18 Engaging Ideas - 3/18

Friday, March 18th, 2016 | Public Agenda

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


At SXSW, Obama Calls for More Civic Engagement in Digital Age (

Ronald Barba writes: President Barack Obama made his inaugural appearance at this year’s SXSW to discuss the importance of utilizing today’s digital tools and technological advancements to greatly improve and support civic engagement. Sitting with Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune, the President talked over many topics, including the increasing role of government in streamlining the process for aspiring entrepreneurs, how a private-public partnership between The White House and Silicon Valley is helping to solve our nation’s problems, and even touched upon the civil liberties issues surrounding Apple’s privacy case. More relevant to our election season, though, President Obama called for a better process to engage citizens in the electoral process.

Mediating Political Gridlock (WNYC)

Being a political mediator is no easy gig. Just ask seasoned mediator, Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation and the author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide. He's advised a number of groups, political actors, and corporations on bipartisanship. Listen as Gerzon mediates a conversation between a guns rights enthusiast and an anti-guns skeptic.


The Power of Convening for Social Impact (Standford Social Innovation Review)

Bringing people together in an environment that encourages and facilitates idea exchange is one of the most powerful communications strategies for driving change.

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03.17 It's Voting Week for Participatory Budgeting in NYC

Thursday, March 17th, 2016 | Chloe Rinehart

Photo: Costa Constantinides.

Next week, tens of thousands of New York City residents across 28 neighborhoods will have a voice in improving their community. Starting Saturday, March 26th, residents will go to the voting booths for the city's fifth year of participatory budgeting (PB), a process by which community members have direct decision-making power over local budget decisions.

Voting week is the culmination of many months of hard work, time and collaboration from community volunteers, city and district staff, and community-based organizations. Residents gather at a series of community meetings to present, listen to and collect ideas. Volunteers and city agency staff develop and vet projects. Finally, volunteers design and draft concrete project proposals.

During voting week, NYC residents who live or work in a PB-participating community can choose their preferred projects at a number of different voting stations located throughout their area, including libraries, schools, their council member’s offices and even beer gardens. Residents might also come across a “pop-up” voting table on a busy street corner.

Each voting location has ballots that describe the PB projects proposed for that particular community, with a brief description and cost for each project. Ballots are translated into languages other than English that are typically spoken in the community.

Many NYC residents are eligible to cast their PB vote even if they would not be eligible to vote in municipal elections. Residents as young as 16 (and in some cases 14), residents who were formerly incarcerated, and residents who lack citizenship status are all welcome and encouraged to participate in the vote.

How Research Helped Expand PB in NYC

As we have written previously, PB has expanded exponentially in the U.S. and Canada the past few years. New York City has driven much of that growth, where PB has expanded from 4 participating communities to 28 in 5 years.

The growth and expansion of PB in NYC has not happened in a silo. Research and evaluation led by Alexa Kasdan and Erin Markman of the Community Development Project (CDP) at the Urban Justice Center has played an integral role in development and expansion of PB in NYC.

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