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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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01.15 Is All This Polling Even Good for Democracy?

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.

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.

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.”

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01.11 Strengthening Public Engagement in Edmonton, Canada

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.

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12.14 To reduce economic inequality, do we need better democracy?

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.

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12.04 What do you want to see PB research address in 2016?

Friday, December 4th, 2015 | Megan Rose Donovan

As part of their work coordinating research on participatory budgeting processes in the U.S. and Canada, our research and public engagement teams have asked for input on potential tasks for the North American PB Research Board to tackle in the coming year (2015-16).

Below are five suggestions. What would you add or amend? Comment or tweet your suggestions to @PublicAgenda with #PBResearch.

  1. Building capacity for data gathering. This group would focus on the challenges facing local evaluators, such as: the lack of staff and volunteering time; lack of capacity to administer, collect, and enter data from surveys; translation of instruments; increasing survey response rates, and so on.
  2. Making PB data more usable, visible, and powerful. This work would work on ways to improve, facilitate, and institutionalize the collection, storage, and sharing of metrics data from all North American PB sites. There are a number of technological, ethical, logistical, and research challenges to making this happen. The final product would a rich, open data source for local PB evaluators and implementers, other PB researchers, and experts to draw on and share.
  3. Building a better infrastructure to support PB. Around the world, many cities have started doing PB without figuring out what kinds of supports they might need to make PB successful. At the same time, other engagement structures and processes that may already be in place may be far less effective from PB. This group would consider ways to use our research and evaluation efforts to help cities learn about PB, and learn from PB, in order to create a stronger engagement infrastructure.
  4. Organizing the evaluation and research track for the PB Conference in May 2016. This group would develop some interesting and thoughtful ways to present PB evaluations and evaluation data at the May 2016 conference in Boston. The overall goal would be to highlight the efforts, experiences, and insights gained through on-the-ground evaluation.
  5. Designing and supporting a larger research project to estimate the impact of PB in North American communities. This group would review the list of research projects that last year’s board members discussed during the development of the key evaluation metrics as important for further understanding PB in North America but beyond the scope and interest of individual, annual evaluation efforts. This group would focus on one of these project areas, design the study and develop a proposal for funding.


11.19 Dan Yankelovich Honored for Excellence in Public Opinion Research

Thursday, November 19th, 2015 | Will Friedman

On November 10th, our co-founder Dan Yankelovich received the Roper Center's Warren J. Mitofsky Award for Excellence in Public Opinion Research at a dinner in New York City. Will Friedman, who has known Dan for over two decades, introduced Dan, who joined the event via Skype . Below are Will's remarks, lightly edited.

There’s a story about Miles Davis at a White House dinner during the Reagan administration.

Supposedly, one of the guests naively asked him who he was and what he had done to warrant an invitation. Miles is said to have replied "I’ve changed the course of music five or six times. How about you?"

If Miles was a genius in music, Dan Yankelovich is a genius in our field.

Dan has changed the course of our thinking about public opinion, marketing and democracy five or six times. His many seminal insights have enlightened us on such questions as:

  • How public opinion changes
  • How public thinking differs from expert thinking without being inferior to it
  • How to help the public play its essential democratic role
  • How to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods into a unified research strategy
  • And what all of this means for market research, democracy, public policy, and true leadership

Central to his many contributions, Dan has given us a practical and meaningful way to think about the quality of public opinion and the stages that people go through to achieve what he calls public judgment. Public judgment is in contrast to raw, unstable, off-the-cuff reactions, like those we often see in polling.

As he’s shown, the concept of public judgment has gone a long way toward clarifying why some research results are better guides for policymaking than others -- because they are less, in his highly scientific term, "mushy."

Tonight, we honor this pioneering social scientist and esteemed figure in the worlds of polling, marketing, and democratic thought and practice. But note that his reputation was not always so: AAPOR once reviewed Dan's book, Coming to Public Judgment, by asking "Why is Yankelovich being so perverse?"

And, indeed, Dan's ideas have seemed perverse at times to various establishments, in the way the insights of innovative thinkers can.

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10.27 Restoring Opportunity: Perils and Promises for Education

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015 | Allison Rizzolo

From left to right: Public Agenda president Will Friedman, moderator Brian Lehrer, Wendy Puriefoy and Alison Kadlec. Tuesday, October 27, 2015.

Education has long been held as the best means for all people to get ahead and have a good life. As a nation, we haven't always enabled our education system to fulfill its promise as a great opportunity equalizer. Yet for all the challenges we face – challenges that will surely increase in an uncertain future – we have reason for cautious optimism.

In a discussion last week with WNYC's Brian Lehrer, education experts Wendy Puriefoy and Alison Kadlec spoke frankly about the historic challenges facing the public K-12 and higher education systems, including dwindling funding and an unpredictable future.

Still, education is an ideal woven into the fabric of our nation, Puriefoy noted. The American public broadly believes in public schools and agrees that our country must strive to educate everyone at high levels (though we of course disagree on how to do it).

When it comes to putting this ideal into practice, the nation is failing miserably on its promise to deliver a quality education to all students. Among the problems Puriefoy and Kadlec pointed out:

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10.23 How Can We Quantify Democracy?

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 | MATT LEIGHNINGER and Tina Nabatchi



10.15 Police-Community Relations Strained With Groups Where Police Needed Most

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 | Allison Rizzolo

Listen to the related story on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show.

The New York metro area is no stranger to controversy on policing. New York City's stop-and-frisk policy was deemed unconstitutional by a federal appeals court. Its broken windows policy drew sharp criticism and protests following the death of Eric Garner.

Results from our recent survey with WNYC suggest that the communities that may need police the most are also most likely to say their relations with the police are problematic.

Residents who live in New York City are far more likely to say crime is a serious problem where they live, compared to residents living in the surrounding and farther out suburbs. Likewise, black and Hispanic residents throughout the entire New York metro area are more likely than white residents to say crime is a serious problem in their cities and towns.

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