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:
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Friday, January 15th, 2016 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.
Reprinted from Newsday.Com - January 14, 2016
Public opinion research has never been more central to our political process. Polls provide the lifeblood of reporting during our seemingly endless presidential election. Candidates use polls to test messages, positions and attack ads. More polls tell them if they’re succeeding. Polls have even become a deciding factor of who, among the bevy of Republican candidates, gets to debate in prime time.
Interest groups not only use polls to frame high-impact messages, they also often use results (valid or not) as their message as they claim to serve the will of the American people.
But is all this polling good for democracy? Public opinion research can be both a boon for democracy and a bane. It all depends on whether it is done well and how it is used.
On the quality of polling, the industry currently faces difficult methodological challenges. Too many people refuse to participate, have no landline, or both, making poll results less precise and reliable. This “response rate” problem is currently plaguing the profession.
While these methodological challenges are serious, they are technical and will likely be overcome. But several more fundamental problems will also need attention if polling is to serve democracy well.
First, pollsters often fail to distinguish between superficial responses versus those that are more stable. Second, communication about and reporting on results tends to sensationalize or oversell them. Finally, there is the question of whether public opinion can and ought to stand in for the public’s voice in our democracy.
Researchers often do a poor job of distinguishing between superficial, unstable, top-of-the-head responses and deeply felt, thought-through, stable ones. This distinction makes a huge difference for how meaningful and reliable polling results are, as well as their usefulness for the democratic process.
Social scientist and public opinion research pioneer Dan Yankelovich best conceptualized this problem in his classic “Coming to Public Judgment.”
Yankelovich, who is also a co-founder of my organization Public Agenda, observed that the public progresses through stages as it comes to terms with a public issue over time, moving from raw opinion to stable “public judgment.” Public judgment comes about when people have wrestled with an issue, worked through their conflicts about it, and are willing to accept the trade-offs involved in pursuing a solution.
Polls on a topic that people haven’t spent much time thinking about often capture superficial results that can easily change. These results can therefore be misleading. Consider, for example the difference in polling results related to public views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership versus those related to gay marriage. The former is a highly technical, fairly recent policy that few voters have had reason or time to consider or explore. Few could name the trade-offs involved in the trade agreement, never mind articulate their views on them.
Gay marriage is a social issue that most of us have had reason to consider and wrestle with in our daily lives, over the course of many years. If a public official wanted to look to polling for guidance on policy, a poll on gay marriage would yield far more reliable results that provide an accurate reflection on where the public stands than would a poll on the trade agreement.
When exploring the value of polling in democracy, we must also look at the vital question of how information about polling responses is used and communicated. It is highly questionable, for instance, that horse-race reporting early in the primary season, when name-recognition is the main factor fueling poll results, is a democratically meaningful and useful practice. It conflates the fact that people have heard of someone with the notion that they think they’re the best candidates, which is frankly ridiculous. On the other hand, if we again consider gay marriage, polling in recent years has provided a reliable lens on a changing social norm.
Finally, our poll-saturated culture unfortunately tends to position public opinion research results as the voice of the people. They are not. Polls provide a sampling of people’s opinions at a given point in time, useful for gaining a degree of insight into people’s current views and values. They become democratically meaningful only when leaders use results to launch better public conversations and create better-informed public policy rather than savvier communications meant to keep the public at bay.
Polls ought to be used to spur active civic engagement and better working relationships between citizens and candidates or government, rather than be treated as a proxy for those democratic essentials and an excuse to avoid them.
01.15 Engaging Ideas - 1/15
Friday, January 15th, 2016 | Public Agenda
A weekly collection of stories, reports and news to spark consideration on ways to make progress on divisive issues.
This is what makes Republicans and Democrats so different (Vox)
Ezra Klein writes: “Democrats are motivated by specific policy deliverables while Republicans are motivated by broader philosophical principles. But behind this finding is some interesting evidence.”
State of the State? What About the State of Your Block? (The Brian Lehrer Show)
President Obama delivered the State of the Union address, and New Jersey Gov. Christie and New York Gov. Cuomo gave the State of the State earlier this week. But WNYC went hyper-local and asked: What’s the state of the neighborhood? They examine two of the biggest stories around town: A brutal rape and a popular supermarket in jeopardy.
The Innovation the Grantmaking Process Needs (Governing)
The way governments give out money to solve problems is stuck in the past. Here are 10 examples of how to innovate the process from Beth Simone Noveck and Andrew Young at The Government Lab.
How to Fix America's Infrastructure (The Atlantic)
Board Member Philip Howard writes: “these two failures—meager funding and endless process—may actually point the way to a potential grand bargain that could transform the U.S. economy: In exchange for Democrats getting rid of nearly endless red tape, Republicans would agree to raise taxes to modernize America’s infrastructure.”
Monday, January 11th, 2016 | NICOLE CABRAL
We think leadership works best when it helps others hold the reins. With that as a guiding principle, we’ve worked with many types of community leaders across the country and even across the Pacific to build on and improve their skills so they can better engage their constituents.
In November, we partnered with Fiona Cavanagh and Zane Hamm of the Centre for Public Involvement, as well as the forward-thinking city of Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, to kick off a civic engagement training program.
We tailored this program, a series of workshops, to city employees, public servants and nonprofit leaders in the region. The workshops build upon the ongoing work of Matt Leighninger, vice president of public engagement, with the city, and in particular the findings presented in the Strengthening Public Engagement in Edmonton report.
Matt and I (I'm Nicole Hewitt, Public Agenda's senior public engagement associate) traveled to Edmonton to deliver the first workshop on strengthening civic infrastructure. Civic infrastructure refers to the opportunities residents have to participate in decisions, preferably in a wide variety of ways and across broad range of issues.
Monday, December 14th, 2015 | MATT LEIGHNINGER
When people have a say in the decisions that affect their lives, they will be better off economically as well as politically.
This idea has intrigued community development experts, foundation executives, public officials and academic researchers for many years. It has also animated some of the work people and governments are undertaking to address inequality, both in the United States and (especially) in the Global South.
But can a participatory democracy lead to greater economic opportunity? We are just beginning to amass evidence that this idea is true, understand how and why it works, and figure out how to make it happen better and faster.
Over the last two decades we have witnessed a quiet revolution in how governments and other institutions engage the public. Public officials, technologists, engagement practitioners, community organizers and other leaders have developed hundreds of projects, processes, tools and apps that boost engagement.
While they differ in many ways, these strategies and resources have one common thread: they treat citizens like adults rather than the clients (or children) of the state. They give people chances to connect, learn, deliberate, make recommendations, vote on budget or policy decisions, take action to solve public problems or all of the above. The principles behind these practices embody and enable greater political equality.
This wave of experimentation has produced inspiring outcomes in cities all over the world, but it has been particularly productive in Brazil and other parts of the Global South, where engagement has been built into the way that many cities operate. In these places, it is increasingly clear that when people have a legitimate voice in the institutions that govern their communities, and when they have support through various kinds of social and political networks, their economic fortunes improve.