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02.12 Engaging Ideas - 2/12

Friday, February 12th, 2016 | Public Agenda

A collection of recent stories and reports that sparked consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.


Policymakers Need to Start Taking Social Media Seriously (Governing Magazine)

In gathering public input, governments remain stuck in a world of public hearings and postal mail.

Polling and the Election

Could Pop-up Social Spaces at Polls Increase Voter Turnout? (Smithsonian Magazine)

Placemaking the Vote, one of the finalists in the Knight Cities Challenge, wants people to hang out at their polling places.

Restoring Opportunity

This Is Why You Can’t Afford a House (The Daily Beast)

There’s little argument that inequality, and the depressed prospects for the middle class, will be a dominant issue this year’s election. Yet the most powerful force shaping this reality—the rising cost of housing—has barely emerged as political issue. The connection between growing inequality and rising property prices is fairly direct. Thomas Piketty, the French economist, recently described the extent to which inequality in 20 nations has ramped up in recent decades, erasing the hard earned progress of previous years in the earlier part of the 20th century. After examining Piketty’s groundbreaking research, Matthew Rognlie of MIT concluded (PDF) that much of the observed inequality is from redistribution of housing wealth away from the middle-class.

Women in Company Leadership Tied to Stronger Profits, Study Says (The New York Times)

A review of nearly 22,000 companies found an association between gender diversity in executive positions and increased profitability.

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02.10 Working Together to Sustain Stakeholder Engagement in K-12 Education

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 | NICOLE CABRAL

Flickr: Lars Plougmann

Engaging with your child’s school is often the easiest and most direct way for ordinary citizens to become involved in decisions that affect their communities. Optimally, that engagement is deeper and more sustained. From the local PTA to the municipal board of education, parents, teachers, school administrators and education advocates can and should work together to grapple with difficult and often emotional issues.

School districts often contend with controversial decisions like budgets, school closures and new school construction. As such, it is extremely important for school board leaders to engage the greater community of parents and taxpayers in order to sustain a good working relationship that encourages inclusive decision making. School districts in Western New York are leading on this front.

New York state school districts are supported by Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). BOCES are liaison organizations for New York State’s Department of Education. They partner with districts and provide a variety of shared support services and programs. These services include professional development to foster a culture of shared decision making.

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02.08 One Week in Manila: Democracy, Development, and "Transforming Governance"

Monday, February 8th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

This week, I will join a group of people from around the world meeting in Manila to talk about how to make democracy work in newer, better ways. Convened by Making All Voices Count, a collaborative of the Omidyar Network, the US Agency for International Development, the UK Department for International Development and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the group will include Asian and African democracy advocates, civic technologists and researchers.

In the Manila meeting, the participants will be using the term “transforming governance” to describe the changes they seek. The central question of the gathering is: If we want to ensure that citizens have meaningful roles in shaping public decisions and solving public problems, can technologies play a role in helping them do so?

They are asking a very old question, but with new hypotheses, new tools and new principles in mind. It is increasingly clear that the older democracies of the Global North do not have all the answers: citizens of those countries have increasingly lost faith in their political institutions. Northerners cherish their human rights and free elections, but are clearly looking for something more. Meanwhile, in the Global South, new regimes based on a similar formula of rights and elections have proven fragile and difficult to sustain. And in Brazil, India and other Southern countries, participatory budgeting and other democratic innovations have emerged.

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02.05 Engaging Ideas 2/5

Friday, February 5th, 2016 | Public Agenda

A collection of recent stories and reports that sparked consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.


How Citizens Can Have a Genuine Voice in Policymaking (Governing)

There's a lot that our governments could do beyond giving people three minutes at a public-hearing podium.

Effective Civic Engagement Requires Balanced Viable Plan and Intentionality (Politics 365)

Evidence based civic engagement is a fairly nascent field. In fact, up until 20 years ago, what people now think of as civic engagement for “people of color” was characterized naively as just minority outreach. Therefore, it’s no wonder that many organizations and efforts struggle to identify what an effective civic engagement plan is and by what method to execute one successfully. First, it’s tough to pinpoint a distinct all-encompassing explanation of what civic engagement is. Second, it’s equally as difficult to find an all-inclusive formula for putting together a viable program. Lastly, the moment an approach is successful it’s dismissed as predictable or characterized as a chance occurrence so we can’t learn anything new from those experiences.

Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation in America (Brookings)

Democracy Reinvented is the first comprehensive academic treatment of participatory budgeting in the United States, situating it within a broader trend of civic technology and innovation. The book places participatory budgeting within the larger discussion of the health of U.S. democracy and focuses on the enabling political and institutional conditions. Author and former White House policy adviser Hollie Russon Gilman presents theoretical insights, in-depth case studies, and interviews to offer a compelling alternative to the current citizen disaffection and mistrust of government. She offers policy recommendations on how to tap online tools and other technological and civic innovations to promote more inclusive governance. While most literature tends to focus on institutional changes without solutions, this book suggests practical ways to empower citizens to become change agents and also includes a discussion on the challenges and opportunities that come with using digital tools to re-engage citizens in governance.

Polling and the Election

Did the Iowa Caucus Results Discredit Polls? (The Brian Lehrer Show)

President Will Friedman chatted with Brian and Harry Enten, senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight, and asked whether polling is a meaningful and useful tool in democracy.

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02.02 To Revive the American Dream, Work Locally, Work Smart, Work Together

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

"The middle class is trying—we’re trying to grab and trying to hold on, but it’s hard…The last 20 years we’ve been going sideways. You’re not getting ahead. You’re just going sideways. You’re just trying to keep your head above water."
- Focus group participant, Secaucus, NJ, December 2015

For an increasing number of Americans, disappearing opportunity is a source of anxiety and frustration. They feel unable to find a foothold in the economy and, over time, better their lot in life. They talk about how unaffordable the essentials of middle-class life have become, the eroding American Dream, the stubbornness of poverty, the unfairness of the forces that ensnare people in it, and the growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else.

We've seen this anxiety expressed in our research. In a national survey, 43 percent of Americans told us that "even people with a strong work ethic and good values are becoming increasingly shut out from the American Dream." In a survey with residents of the New York region from last year, just 16 percent said opportunities to get ahead are improving.

People are worried for good reason. Wages for most Americans have been stagnant for decades. Stable, middle-class jobs are becoming a thing of the past. Whereas expanding opportunity creates pathways out of poverty, supports strong communities, moderates inequality, and forges the economic and social foundation upon which democracy can flourish, diminishing and unequal opportunity is a blight on the American Dream and a danger to democracy. In Dan Yankelovich’s words:

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02.01 We Are Less Divided than We Look

Monday, February 1st, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

With the Iowa caucuses tonight, primary season is in full swing. It's easy to get discouraged by the polarized rhetoric of primary season as candidates seek to disqualify their adversaries and mobilize their most passionate—and often extreme—supporters.

This season has been especially divisive, but it's important to remember that this divisiveness does not reflect the American public at large. We are far less divided than we are portrayed to be.

I dismantled the myth of deep polarization among the public in a piece for the Huffington Post last year. In an effort to rein in your feelings of despair, I've shared that piece here. Please let us know what you think in the comments below.


Are we becoming a more polarized people, as a new and important study from the Pew Research Center seems to demonstrate? In spite of the hype surrounding this new research, I argue that the public is not as polarized as a cursory reading of the Pew study would suggest.

Certainly, this research reflects an important problem, but that problem is less about the public and more about our political system.

The vast majority of participants in the research (about 8 in 10) do not actually fit Pew's definition of ideological polarization. Further, as Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina explains in an excellent analysis of the research, the methodology used -- forcing respondents to choose between two dichotomies -- leads to a result that can exaggerate the ideological consistency of respondents.

Fiorina also examines the wider body of public opinion toward specific policy issues. He finds that most Americans are not either/or thinkers. Rather, they see merits in various points of view and are open to compromise.

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01.29 Engaging Ideas - 1/29

Friday, January 29th, 2016 | Public Agenda

A collection of recent stories and reports that sparked consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.


Letter to the Editor: Spin in American Politics, for Better and Worse (The New York Times)

Will Friedman writes in response to “Why Spin is Good for Democracy,” by David Greenberg (Op-Ed, Jan. 15):

It had to happen. Someone is spinning spin by seeking to convince us that the predictable pronouncements of political hacks-for-hire are good for democracy. The obvious inauthenticity of focus-group-tested spin commentary does more to turn people off to politics than to engage them.

Voting rates and satisfaction with the political process have not been rising in America along with the spin machine’s prevalence. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite.

To the extent spin creates “a yearning for a more authentic politics” and leads to political innovations and commitments that increase voting and civic engagement, spin will have served a useful democratic purpose. To the extent it is allowed to masquerade as a true battle of ideas and solutions, it does not.

Politics Is a Competing View of Reality “Spin” (The Leonard Lopate Show)

A treasured part of American political history. Politics has always been the realm of half-truths, messaging, and branding. But are voters seeking a spin-free candidate in 2016? And is there even such a thing? In Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency, presidential historian David Greenberg traces the history of highly crafted press conferences, image making and narrative creation in American political news and media.

Don't Wait. Participate. (The Huffington Post)

Larry Schooler writes: "For too long, government has made unrealistic demands of citizens when it comes to their participation. Initially, whole segments of the population could not vote or faced significant obstacles to registration--still an issue in some states. Meanwhile, the only choice many citizens had was to speak for no more than three minutes at a podium--often on live television, after hours of waiting, minutes before a vote. At one city council meeting in Texas, a speaker at a public hearing asked (in a nearly empty chamber at 11 o'clock at night), "Will there be an opportunity to weigh in on this issue? "I believe you're doing so now," replied the mayor. "With any power?" she asked, to applause from fellow citizens and befuddlement from her elected officials."

Tech Titans Fix Democracy in Single White House Dinner (Civicist)

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01.28 Tracking Community College Outcomes Can Help Get More Students to the Finish

Thursday, January 28th, 2016 | Allison Rizzolo

If you've ever made the questionable decision – as I have – to read comments on an article about student debt, you've probably seen a common argument. Why don't students just start at a community college and transfer to a four-year school for their bachelor's? They'll save money and catch up on any preparation they're lacking.

On the surface, this argument makes sense. Two years at a community college, plus two years at a four-year university equals four years to an affordable college degree. Easy.

Unfortunately, a solution to rising student debt, a lack of student preparedness or low completion rates will not be that simple. Two plus two rarely equals four. And a new study proves it.

Out of the 1.7 million students who start at a community college each year, just 14 percent transfer to a four-year school and earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. This finding comes from a ground-breaking report released last week by our friends and partners at the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse. (We worked with these organizations to put together a slidedeck summarizing the report findings. Download the slidedeck here.)

The report examines community college student outcomes in nearly every state in the country. Even in states with the best track records, only about one in five community college students transfer and graduate within six years of enrolling. In states at the bottom of the list, transfer and graduation rates are in the single digits.

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01.22 Engaging Ideas - 1/22

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 | Public Agenda

A weekly collection of stories, reports and news to spark consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.


Of the People (New York Times)
Americans share their hopes, fears and frustrations in interviews from the campaign trail.

Rewriting the Rules of Public Engagement (Governing)
Public meetings can be like purgatory. Cities are showing us there’s a better way.

Public Leadership and the Gift of Time Well Spent (Governing)
Civic innovation can improve the way government works, but it needs a long runway.

America’s Divides Aren’t Just Partisan (The Atlantic)
The Republican coalition doesn’t reflect the growing diversity of the United States, while the Democratic coalition has failed to persuade many Americans to embrace its vision of the future.

How Change Happens (New York Times)
Paul Krugman writes: "Idealism is nice, but it’s not a virtue without tough minded realism." As Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J. Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.

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01.19 Tending the Garden of Civic Tech

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016 | MATT LEIGHNINGER

NPS Photo by Jasmine Horn.

Over the last twenty years, technology has offered many new ways for people to engage with their governments, with organizations and institutions, and with each other. Known collectively as "civic technology," these online tools can help us map public problems, help citizens generate solutions, gather input for government, coordinate volunteer efforts or help neighbors remain connected.

It has been a period of heady innovation, as a thousand flowers bloomed through the efforts of countless people. Now we have reached a key phase in this work, as we begin to transition from simply sowing seeds haphazardly to carefully designing and tending the gardens of civic tech.

The list of civic tech innovations offers plenty of gardening possibilities. These include apps, platforms, SMS-based processes and other tools that allow people to:

  • Rank ideas for solving a problem or improving a community.
  • Provide discrete pieces of data that help identify community issues, improve public services or add to public knowledge.
  • Donate money to a cause or a campaign.
  • Create or sign petitions supporting an idea, a cause or a policy proposal.
  • Create or add to interactive maps that assemble information on community assets and problems.
  • Coordinate volunteer efforts to solve a common problem.
  • Play games that contribute to citizen education, gather public input or contribute in some other way to decision-making and problem-solving.

These tools have been summarized in a number of places, including this list by Caitlyn Davison, this report from the Knight Foundation, and in my book, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy. The table at the bottom of this blog post also includes links for a number of examples.

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