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09.03 When Exploring the Issues Means Exploring the Real Choices, Students Engage

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

Life on campus this fall will be very different from last year, when a forthcoming election enlivened debate from the dining hall to the lecture hall. But in an off year for national politics, how can you build your students' interest in critical public issues?

Engaging students on public issues is not an easy task, and no wonder. It's hard for most to connect with theoretical policy, especially when they see their political system as inept, broken, or otherwise unworthy of trust. For students enmeshed in social lives, academics, a job and, often, family responsibilities, talking about policy can seem even more hopeless. While many students may simply consider such matters as wholly theoretical abstractions far removed from the reality of their daily lives, we know they are not. Policy has the ability to change the answer to questions like: Will I have a job in my field when I graduate? Has technology forever changed the landscape of employment? What does the Affordable Care Act mean for me when I turn 26?

We've found that there are ways to make policy decisions come alive for students (as well as other members of the public). Together with the Kettering Foundation, Public Agenda developed the Choicework approach. Rooted in the theories of our co-founder, Dan Yankelovich, Choicework can be truly transformative for a few reasons. In the same way that storytelling can bring a news article, research or cause to life, Choicework roots policy approaches in finite and human choices, using accessible language and grounding the choices in essential values that people really connect with.

Choicework can make policy come to life. The point is not to choose one and only one approach; rather, by emphasizing the inherent choices and stakes in the issue at hand brings policy to life, Choicework helps students connect to it and envision how policy plays out in their own lives and the lives of others, and visualize other approaches and broaden the discussion.

Here's an example of Choicework, from our Citizens' Solutions Guide on Immigration:

In addition to Immigration, Public Agenda has published Citizen Solutions Guides on Jobs & The Economy, Healthcare, Education, The Federal Budget, and Energy. All of our CSG’s include introductory overviews of the topic, key facts, links to online supporting documentation, and illustrative charts and graphs.

Interested in experimenting with this approach in your classroom? Our nonpartisan Citizens' Solutions Guides on some of our nation’s most hotly contested issues make great discussion starters in the lecture hall and are free to download. We’d love to hear your stories putting Choicework to use. Let us know how it works out!


08.20 The College Completion Labyrinth

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo

The majority of transfer students from community college (62 percent) will go on to receive a bachelor's degree within 6 years. Students who have already received a two-year credential before transferring have an even better shot, with 72 percent going on to complete a bachelor's in 6 years. This data comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a report released last week.

While there is certainly room for improvement, this is hopeful news. For many young Americans, community college represents one of the few remaining pathways to the American Dream, and these colleges serve nearly half of the nation's undergraduate population.

The students tracked for the study had transferred without taking time off, meaning they likely had more momentum than the typical student, according to researchers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Momentum – helping students maintain it and supporting them when it flags—is a critical component of student success. After all, while students in this study had decent success rates, for more than half of the country's community college students, in 6 years, they will not have completed a two-year degree or transferred to a four-year college.

Many students face hurdles in their personal lives that make completion difficult: they work full-time, they're caring for a family, they commute, they attend school part-time. But the ways in which some community colleges operate present many unnecessary barriers that prevent students from reaching their goals.

Most of us tend to think about the path through community college as something like this:

But here's what the community college experience is really like for most students:

Graphics courtesy of Greg Stoup, Rob Johnstone, and Priyadarshini Chaplot of The RP Group.

The complexity of a student’s pathway through an associate’s degree or transfer sheds light on why so few community college students make it to the end of their programs. Yet this flaw in the system is structurally fixable. There are policies and practices that straighten the completion maze and improve and support student momentum.

We've been working with leading, innovative community colleges to identify and implement practices that help students better find their way. We've also spoken to community college students from across the country to hear what they say would help them more easily navigate enrollment, completion and transfer. The ideas they raise include:

  • Programs with well-defined pathways and clear goals.
  • Advisors, counselors, and faculty members who offer support and guidance that is accurate, accessible, and tailored to students’ educational and career goals.
  • More inter-departmental collaboration and better channels of communication on campus, so students can better find the information and services they need.
  • Exposure to career possibilities.
  • Developmental education offered in a way that helps students succeed.

Another thing we heard frequently from students was, "I should have known." The students we have spoken to are quick to blame themselves for not being able to reach the end of the completion maze. Unfortunately, their experiences reinforce the misperception many hear their whole life: that they're not college ready; that college isn't for them.

We owe it to students to fix the flaws in our higher education system. The stories, concerns, and recommendations raised by current and former students serve as useful and powerful points of departure as we explore how to help more students complete a degree.

To find out more about what students have to say regarding their community college experience – what helps and hinders their progress – read our Student Voices report and watch this short video.


08.16 How To Boost Teacher Voice In Policy

Friday, August 16th, 2013 | Allison Rizzolo and Ellen Behrstock-Sherratt

Reprinted from Education Week - August 16, 2013

In just a couple of months, the Badass Teachers Association, a new teacher-advocacy group dedicated to productive discourse that improves the teaching profession, has made a deep impression on the education reform community and seen its ranks explode. Its members-only Facebook group now numbers more than 20,000. If this isn’t a sign that teachers are aching to have their voices heard, we’re not sure what is. But to truly have an impact on education policy, advocating for a seat at the table is just step one in a long, arduous, yet essential path.

Given their proximity to the issues, teachers should be leading discussions with their colleagues on education reform. They should also be engaging with other key stakeholders, including principals, superintendents, and parents, in robust explorations about possible approaches.

Asserting one’s voice among the powerful elite of advocates, lobbyists, policymakers, foundations, and others may seem like a daunting challenge. Yet getting a seat at the table is not the only challenge teachers will face: Working with colleagues, administrators, parents, and policymakers to address complex, divisive issues like teacher performance and struggling schools will be monumentally hard work.

Many teachers are already engaging their colleagues and informing policy, and they’re doing it very well. In working with those who have forged the way on productive engagement, we’ve witnessed and encountered many of the challenges that arise after gaining entry into the conversation. Anticipating such challenges, and knowing some practices for overcoming them, can facilitate better engagement that results in policies that truly benefit teaching and learning.

First, it’s critical to ensure that the perspectives of all teachers are included. The push to include teachers in policy design and implementation is not new. Teachers’ unions historically have served as (sometimes the only) mouthpiece for teachers in policy. In the past five years, a number of grassroots teacher-voice organizations have sprouted, including Educators 4 Excellence, Teach Plus, and VIVA Teachers. The new Badass Teachers Association casts the net even wider.

Yet for all the talk of “teacher voice,” we must bear in mind that teachers in fact have many different voices, perspectives, and concerns—and these all deserve a place at the table. As the Center for American Progress put it in a report released in June: “Teacher voice is not monolithic.”

Many teachers can probably already think of a few colleagues in their school or district who are ready to jump at the chance to discuss topics like teacher evaluation and common-core implementation. Yet the best, most sustainable policy is designed when all perspectives are included.

Last month at a meeting of state teachers of the year, Philip Bigler, the 1998 national teacher of the year, said: “When I was a regular classroom teacher, nobody wanted my opinion. ... Once I became the national teacher of the year, everyone wanted to speak to me and assumed I was an expert on everything. But even when I was a regular classroom teacher, I still had a lot to say.”

Teacher-leaders and advocates offer huge benefits to the field, but we must be mindful to include the “regular classroom teacher” in the conversation as well.

To achieve diverse, inclusive teacher participation in policy development and implementation, teachers will need to reach out to those among their colleagues who may not have had a stake in the policy debate before and to those who hold opinions different from their own.

Teachers and others must also navigate tough, emotional conversations. Issues like teacher evaluation and preparation, performance-based compensation, instruction, and classroom management are often deeply personal, emotionally fraught, politically heated, and, in some respects, mind-bogglingly complex. Leading conversations around them is a challenging role to embrace, and even participating in them may seem like a bad idea. What’s to prevent the discussion from stagnating into exhausting complaints or unraveling into cynical arguments?

One step to generating productive conversation is first providing space for an honest and frank exchange of views. Some venting can be helpful, though it’s important not to wallow in complaints and to move on to problem-solving as soon as possible. Identify which differences of opinion will weigh significantly when choosing a path forward, mark them to revisit at a later point, then refocus the conversation on solutions and move on.

Using a skilled, trained, and fair-minded moderator can also keep conversation productive and focused. An effective moderator does not allow his or her opinion to interrupt the flow of the conversation and is comfortable with an open dialogue without a predetermined conclusion. Participants should also be confident in their moderator’s lack of bias. Identifying and supporting effective moderators may take some time investment, but participants will in all likelihood end up having a much more productive conversation.

To move forward, all players will need to establish common ground and determine acceptable compromises. Even when a conversation stays on track and is solutions-focused, how can participants identify common ground? How can they navigate those issues which are—and will in all likelihood remain—in contention? How do they actually pinpoint the solutions that seem workable to everyone and the ones that will most likely end up on the cutting-room floor?

One concrete approach that we’ve seen transform endless debate into robust dialogue and solutions is Choicework, a methodology developed by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation and based on theory and research from the social scientist Daniel Yankelovich.

The premise of Choicework is basic: When people are presented with three or four concrete, real-world approaches to a problem, they have an easier time grounding the discussion as they explore the pros and cons of different paths forward. In using such an approach, a few things commonly happen among discussion participants:

  • They come to accept that there are no easy answers. Tough problems will require considerable thought and possibly a measure of compromise.
  • They begin to empathize with those who hold opposite views. Even if they will never embrace those views themselves, they understand why opponents think the way they do.
  • They realize their own preferred approaches often have trade-offs they may not have acknowledged before.
  • They overcome denial and wishful thinking and gain a clear sense of what’s worth compromising on and what isn’t.

A face-to-face dialogue moderated by a neutral facilitator is usually best, but the key discussion principles can be used in a variety of situations. Generally, in approaching and designing a discussion, it’s beneficial to focus on helping participants grasp the concrete possible approaches and generating empathy and understanding through dialogue. Such an approach is more likely to yield workable solutions and to reach resolution more quickly than alternative avenues.


08.05 25 Years From Now and Still Relying on Fossil Fuels?

Monday, August 5th, 2013 | Scott Bittle and JEAN JOHNSON

Reprinted from The Great Energy Challenge - July 29, 2013

The federal government’s latest international energy projections are out, and there’s no question we’re living in a time of enormous change—and perhaps remarkably little progress.

The International Energy Outlook from the U.S. Energy Information Administration tries to identify the big trends and projections affecting the energy world through 2040. Some of the trends include:

  • The world is getting hungrier and hungrier for energy, but that’s mostly about China, India and the rest of the developing world. Energy consumption in countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (basically the industrialized world) is expected to go up 17 percent by 2040. Consumption in countries outside the OECD is projected to nearly double. (See related interactive map: The Global Electricity Mix.)
  • Renewable energy and nuclear power are projected to be the fastest-growing energy sources, increasing by 2.5 percent per year. Thanks to new sources opened by fracking, natural gas is projected to be the fastest-growing of the fossil fuels, and by 2040 half of all the natural gas produced in the U.S. will be shale gas.
  • Because of improving technology, the world will continue to get more efficient in energy use, and that will have an impact on greenhouse gases.
  • Yet for all that, the EIA projects the world’s overall energy mix won’t change much at all by 2040.

    Yes, renewables and nuclear are the fastest-growing sources. But overall, the percent of energy produced by fossil fuels will only drop from 84 percent today to 78 percent in 2040. Renewables only grow from 11 percent to 15 percent, and nuclear rises from 5 percent to 7 percent. Liquid fuels drop by 6 percent, largely because of rising prices. And despite all the debate about the decline of coal and rise of natural gas, the overall percentage of those two fuels barely changes at all. Given that picture, we still be pumping out plenty of greenhouse gases. EIA is predicting a 46 percent increase in global warming emissions during the study’s time frame.

    There are important differences in what’s happening in developed nations versus emerging ones. For example, even though the EIA is projecting a small 1 percent drop in the share of coal used by 2040, it expects a dramatic increase in coal consumption between now and 2020, most of it coming from the developing countries that need cheap forms of energy to house and feed their growing populations and to industrialize.

    Projections aren’t karmic. They depend on taking current trends and best estimates of what will happen if those trends continue. But it’s a fair question: if there’s so much activity around new energy sources, then why don’t the projections look different? Why don’t the changes have more traction?

    The answer may lie in the fact that we haven’t, globally speaking, really reached consensus on the fundamentals: What kind of energy sources should we be using? What economic changes are we willing to make to back up those choices? What are developed nations willing to do to help poorer countries improve their citizens’ lives without depending so heavily on fossil fuels? Those of us living in the developed world have already reaped the benefits of industrialization based on cheap coal. It’s not surprising that developing nations would be tempted to follow the same path—and harder for us to preach to nations that are still building their economies. (See related story: “Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan.”)

    The fact is that the changes we’re making on energy are working on the margins, and that’s why the long-term projections only show marginal shifts. If you want big shifts, you have to start making big changes—and that means persuading the public that those changes are worth making. (See related story: “Climate Change Impact on Energy: Five Proposed Safeguards.”)


    07.19 How to Spot Good Teaching -- Maybe It's Time for a Broader Discussion

    Friday, July 19th, 2013 | JEAN JOHNSON

    Reprinted from Huffington Post - July 16, 2013

    How do you know when a teacher is doing a good job? Are schools doing enough to insure that we have effective teachers and that we're supporting them? These questions are on the table in school districts nationwide as debates over teacher evaluation policies heat up. Most Americans say they have confidence in public school teachers, but most also think teacher preparation programs need more rigorous entrance requirements, and about half want student test scores counted as part of a teacher's job evaluation.

    In fact, studies of parents, teachers, principals, students and the broader public -- research conducted by my organization, Public Agenda, and the Kettering Foundation, Ed Sector and other independent groups -- suggest it's time for a more inclusive and nuanced conversation about what good teaching is and how we judge, nurture and support it.

    Nearly everyone has had at least one or two spectacular teachers along the way. Most of us can also think of a teacher or two who was monotonous and uninspiring, maybe even callous and cold-hearted. But the crux of the teacher quality debate today is whether we have a teaching corps that successfully helps students develop the skills and habits of mind to become educated, competent adults -- adults who can build careers and fulfilling lives, adults who will be good neighbors and citizens.

    So, what really counts in teaching? What are the best practices? What kind of training and support will actually produce the teaching corps our kids deserve?

    Unfortunately, the research isn't as clear as you might think. Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Jal Mehta suggests that we don't actually have a well-developed understanding of how to train, evaluate and support effective teaching. He believes the field lacks a "widely agreed-upon knowledge base." Moreover, he points out that " training is brief" compared to other professions, and "the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields."

    The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation must have reached much the same conclusion when it launched a multi-year project videotaping thousands of classroom teachers in action to "better understand what great teaching looks like, and the types of measures that can provide a fair assessment of teaching aimed at helping every teacher be their best."

    Sometimes the political debate seems to center almost exclusively on the idea of judging teachers based on student test scores. Teacher surveys show that most see a place for standardized testing in education, but most also consider student engagement in class a better measure of their own performance. An analysis by Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation suggests that most parents see low test scores as a red flag that something is wrong, but many also question whether good test scores by themselves actually show that children are learning and thriving.

    What other kinds of questions should we include in teacher effectiveness discussions? Here are some nominees:

  • Is "good teaching" really the same for all students? Or, are some teachers more effective with some students than others? Suppose, for example, that one teacher excels in helping students who struggle, while another stands out working with more advanced students? Parents sometimes say that a particular teacher is just "right" for their child―that there's a special chemistry between them that helps the child blossom. If this is the case, how do we account for it in our schools?
  • Should teachers play a much larger role in defining and evaluating good teaching? Most teachers say that in their building, the teachers could pretty much agree on who the great teachers are. Nearly half also say they know a teacher who is "clearly ineffective and shouldn't be in the classroom," so teachers definitely make distinctions. A new book from Public Agenda and the American Institutes for Research encourages school districts to bring teachers to the table in this discussion and offers guidance for administrators and teachers on how to do it. Based on our research, teachers generally have useful, practical advice on the kinds of assessments that will fairly and effectively promote their growth as professionals.
  • Does it matter what students think? One thought-provoking insight from the Gates research on teacher effectiveness is the degree to which students themselves can be astute judges of good teaching. Some education experts have shown that students generally like classes that spark their curiosity and generally dislike those featuring repetitive exercises that are easy to do. In Public Agenda surveys, most students report that they have had at least one teacher who succeeded in getting them to enjoy a subject they hadn't liked before. To my mind, that's great teaching. How do we identify and encourage this type of impact?
  • What should we look for beyond the ability to teach academics? When adults talk about their favorite teacher, they don't necessary stress the teacher's prowess in teaching skills. Instead, they may talk about a teacher's sense of humor or a teacher's kindness. They may talk about what their teacher taught them about persistence or honesty or courage. What about teachers who help students battle shyness or those who reach out to help if there's trouble at home?
  • So much of today's teacher quality discussion centers on finding reliable ways to measure how effective a teacher is in teaching skills and how to apply those measures to teachers across the board. Given our limited understanding of the art and science of teaching, this is work that needs to be done.

    But in our drive to delineate what we mean by "effective" teaching and to hold schools and teachers accountable, we shouldn't overlook the human dimensions of the job. They may not be as easy to measure, but that doesn't mean they don't matter to kids and schools.


    07.11 Senate Compromise on Immigration Reform

    Thursday, July 11th, 2013 | Danielle Stouck

    With a final vote of 68 to 32, a bipartisan group of Senators passed a groundbreaking immigration reform bill late last month. The bill aims to clear the way for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants to embark on a pathway to citizenship while enforcing tougher border security measures.

    The future of the Bill in the House remains to be seen. However, in the Senate, the American people witnessed a rare political moment defined not by familiar stalemates and bickering but by solutions-oriented compromise.

    How did immigration reform, a divisive and highly controversial topic, become an example of bipartisanship and collaborative decision-making in the Senate? And can we build on this forward momentum so that Congress can continue moving from arguments to dialogue and solutions that work for the American people?

    The country has not seen comprehensive immigration reform in over a decade, even as the American public has called out for it. The legislature has taken up comprehensive immigration reform bills in the past. However, these have never made it to see a president’s signature, often due to partisan bickering.

    Then, in January, the “Gang of Eight”—four Democratic and four Republican Senators including Senators Schumer, McCain, Durbin, Graham, Menendez, Rubio, Bennet and Flake—offered a bipartisan blueprint for immigration reform.

    The blueprint begins, “We recognize that our immigration system is broken.” This opening statement does not focus on past legislation or place any blame on any particular branch of government or specific legislative bloc. Rather, it illustrates a commitment to progress. The blueprint goes on to list four basic legislative pillars agreed upon by the bipartisan group, which became the building blocks for the bill.

    Bipartisan groups, such as the so-called Super Committee, have tried and failed to effectively address divisive issues such as the debt crisis and the fiscal cliff. What was different about the Gang of Eight?

    The eight Senators agreed to focus on four major issues of contention from the beginning, despite an overwhelming 300 proposed amendments (fully 200 of which were actually debated). While we can only speculate on the intentions of the Gang, this narrow focus seems to signal that the Senators understood that practical solutions require restraint and compromise.

    Furthermore, each side conceded to the other on at least one main point. The "pathway to citizenship" supported by the Democrats is contingent on an increase in border security and a crackdown on visa overstay, sticking points for Republicans.

    In the words of Senator Schumer, “The other seven members of the Gang of Eight, we have come to become friends. We have argued with each other, we have bonded with each other, but most of all we are united in this effort to make our nation better by fixing our broken immigration system.”

    Now the immigration reform bill must pass through a skeptical House of Representatives. While many remain pessimistic on this front, we hope this bill can not only help mend our country’s “broken” system but also come to represent civility, bipartisanship and functional governance on Capitol Hill.

    Read more about immigration, its affect on jobs and the economy, authorized vs. unauthorized immigration, potential approaches to reform and other complexities in our Citizens' Solutions Guide on the issue. How would you reform our country's immigration system? Let us know on Twitter, or comment below!


    07.01 4 Ways Clickers Can Improve Group Discussion and Deliberation

    Monday, July 1st, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan

    Though tech innovations can be helpful in improving communication and engagement, especially when immediacy is necessary, some make the mistake of relying too heavily on technology as a stand in for other communication practices.

    Keypads, or “clickers” as they are called in higher education, are certainly no exception to that rule. Using these types of audience response systems alone won’t support better interactions between people, but they do have the potential to immensely improve engagement practices when used appropriately.

    "Click to Engage: Using Keypads to Enhance Deliberation," a new paper from Public Agenda's Center for Advances in Public Engagement, supports the work of public engagers seeking to improve their use of keypads in group discussion and engagement.

    Here are some ways clickers can complement small group discussion:

    1. Keypads can reveal who is and who isn’t in the room.

      Using keypads to field demographic questions enables discussion participants to understand who is in the room and situate themselves with the group. It also provides an easy way for the discussion facilitators and organizers to look back at the data. Using keypad responses for recording demographics can motivate those hosting the group discussion to improve their recruitment of persons from diverse backgrounds as well.

    2. Keypads can be conversation starters.

      Keypads can be a great way to break the ice among discussion participants. Asking a couple of neutral, even comedic, questions can set a comfortable tone and allow for some low-pressure conversation to begin. Incorporating this sort of ice breaker in the beginning typically generates more inclusive and robust dialogue. Another bonus: such questions help discussion participants get used to the device.

    3. Keypads can show variance in opinion and illuminate minority views.

      With divisive issues, each side may assume it has the strong majority and the opposition is merely an uninformed but vocal minority. Keypads have the power to provide a more accurate count of the splits and give voice to minority views that might not otherwise enter the conversation. This is not fool-proof though, and can have an adverse effect if audience members do not come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Organizers should take care in designing the discussion so that those with minority views do not end up feeling alienated. If a room predominately holds one perspective and only a few disagree, allowing those dissenters to have the floor, if they’re willing, can be a powerful means for exploring divergent viewpoints in a reasonable way.

    4. Keypads can assist facilitators in allocating remaining time.

      Identifying areas of agreement and disagreement through quick polling using the clickers can help a facilitator better allocate precious remaining time. If a topic reveals sharp disagreement, perhaps that topic warrants further, and deeper, discussion. Alternately, participants may not be ready to take on an issue if not enough time remains and the best option is to table it for more research.

    The benefits of using a tool like the keypad to engage a diverse room of people far outweigh the drawbacks. Its immediacy and ease of use make it a powerful aide in deeper engagement. But thoughtful preparation, care and attention to design are crucial to using keypads successfully.

    For more pointers on how to use this tool, including a breakdown of best practices and strengths and limitations, download our new paper here. For other tips on engagement practices, visit our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. We’d love to hear your successes, words of caution, and other tips regarding the use of keypads send us an email to Michelle Currie at


    06.28 Revitalizing Democracy, Community by Community

    Friday, June 28th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D.

    Reprinted from The Huffington Post - June 27, 2013

    At the level of national politics, the American democracy is in clear crisis. Rampant gridlock and partisan bickering undermine progress and earn the mistrust and frustration of the populace. Fortunately, a better story is unfolding in many local settings, where public officials and community-based leaders can make a real difference in addressing important issues like public safety, education reform and job creation.

    One of the keys to solving local public problems well is the democratic art of public engagement: creating the means for residents to have a meaningful voice and role in addressing public issues.

    A recent study from my organization on public engagement in California shows that both local public officials and leaders of community-based organizations are looking for new and better ways to engage their communities, because the old ones just aren't cutting it.

    These older approaches, they say, too often lead to gripe sessions, are dominated by people with narrow agendas, and frequently omit large sections of the citizenry, including young people, low-income populations and immigrants. Such problems, of course, are by no means confined to California.

    What's worrisome on the one hand and hopeful on the other is a cycle that I've seen throughout my career in this field: bad engagement begets bad engagement and good engagement begets good engagement.

    Poorly designed public consultations -- public hearings and the like -- lower the expectations of both leaders and citizens. Public meetings that are done for formality's sake only, or worst of all that are rigged, are of course that much worse.

    Even well-intentioned leaders who truly wish to partner with the public can become dejected by the vicious circle of bad engagement. As one superintendent I worked with put it, "I've experienced a lot more public enragement than engagement in my time."

    Citizens, for their part, grow cynical and angry and learn nothing from poorly designed, empty-gesture or cynically rigged public participation exercises. As a consequence, the spiral of mistrust, gridlock and political dysfunction deepens.

    Fortunately, many public officials and civic leaders throughout California are experimenting with more thoughtful, well-designed and inclusive forms of public engagement. Just over half of local public officials (53 percent) say they have participated in an inclusive and deliberative type of public meeting in the past year, and 43 percent of civic leaders say the same.

    More and more examples of well-designed public engagement exist. One of my favorites is Participatory Budgeting, which started in Brazil and has spread to U.S. cities including New York, Chicago and Vallejo, CA. In Participatory Budgeting, residents identify community problems, develop proposals to utilize public money that is set aside for community projects, vet them with municipal agencies, present them to their community, and vote on which projects should receive funding. This voting process actually determines what happens.

    Many other examples of sound, local civic engagement can be found in the writings of Matt Leighninger and at the websites of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, the National League of Cities, and the Center for Advances in Public Engagement at my own organization, Public Agenda.

    Just as bad engagement begets bad engagement, good engagement begets good. Sound and creative practices raise expectations and build communication and trust between the public and public officials. They generate the kind of public support and public-private civic partnerships that get parks cleaned up, bridges repaired, children educated and communities strengthened.

    Through well-designed engagement, public officials come to understand that citizens can play a constructive role in shaping the policies that affect their community. Some of the most satisfying moments of my career have involved watching public officials experience their first truly well-designed and deliberative round of community dialogue. They're amazed at how thoughtful and constructive people can be, given a little information, a few tools and a modicum of the right support.

    The public officials and civic leaders in California and elsewhere who are embracing an ethic of civic participation and developing smart practices for fostering it are generating democratic hope. They open up possibilities for those of us who believe that our democracy can do much better.

    In the words of one elderly resident following a Brooklyn community conversation with African-American, orthodox Jewish and other community members, "we should have done this years ago."

    Follow Will Friedman, Ph.D on Twitter: @wkfriedman


    06.27 Better Collaboration Needed Among Nurses and Physicians

    Thursday, June 27th, 2013 | WILL FRIEDMAN, PH.D. and DAVID SCHLEIFER, PH.D.

    The United States faces a looming physician shortage that threatens to deepen once the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. This is a well-documented issue worried over in policy circles, around the dinner table and within the medical community, and discussed in a recent New York Times Sunday Dialogue. Yet it may be that the physician shortage is just one part of the problem when it comes to the supply of medical professionals in this country.

    Nurse-practitioners can provide many medical services, especially in primary care and women’s health, and could therefore help fill the doctor shortage gap. Moreover, as provisions of the Affordable Care Act move forward, nurses will be increasingly called upon to improve care coordination, help reduce medical errors and avoidable rehospitalizations, and improve transitions and handoffs.

    However, some research suggests that an existing nurse shortage will grow more acute, both because nursing education programs do not have sufficient capacity and because many nurses are reaching retirement. And relying on nurses to deliver care for less money assumes that nurses should be paid less than doctors.

    Furthermore, in the 2010 National Survey of Registered Nurses, only one in ten nurses reported having an excellent relationship with a physician (link opens PDF). In fact, since the survey began in 2002, that figure has never been higher than 11%.

    During recent deliberative focus groups with members of the public around the country, we heard many participants talk about their experiences with a lack of coordination among doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Such experiences, they felt, had put their health or their families’ health at risk and cost them money. The groups strongly supported helping medical professionals coordinate care.

    The task therefore becomes not only to increase the number of doctors and nurses, but also to empower nurses to work effectively and collaboratively alongside other medical professionals. Such an approach can not only help address the need for more medical professionals but also seems relatively acceptable to members of the public.

    Want to learn more about public views toward measures to make health care more cost-effective? Keep an eye on this space, or contact Megan at and we will email you the findings of our research when they are available.


    06.21 Civic Leaders: Inspiring Engagement and Empowering Communities

    Friday, June 21st, 2013 | Christopher DiStasi

    "Once the light goes on about civic engagement – once you understand what your power is – it never goes out, and that is what we're counting on."

    Often, people do not believe that they can make a difference when it comes to the decisions that shape their communities. But, when they are shown otherwise, many are ready to jump on the chance to get involved.

    This is what we heard from the heads of twenty California nonprofits that organize and advocate in traditionally disenfranchised communities – immigrant, poor, and minority. We spoke to these civic leaders about their efforts to improve the public’s voice in government for our recent project on civic engagement in California.

    Community members often don’t consider that they can solve the problems they see around them by organizing and engaging with government.

    "They definitely are aware that, for instance, they don’t have a park in their neighborhood. … What they’re not aware of is the systemic change that’s possible. They might think, 'Oh, well, I could drive across town to the park.' That’s how they might think of solving the problem on an individual basis. Because they haven’t had the involvement and the training in thinking systematically."

    Civic leaders tell us that immigrant communities often have preconceived notions about what they cannot do or change based on political cultures in their home countries, along with trepidation about engaging with a foreign system. Meanwhile, native-born individuals often assume that efforts to address local problems through government just don’t go anywhere, and that time is better spent on other pursuits.

    These “myths and taboos” must be confronted to “demystify” engagement before nonprofits can begin teaching community members about the practical side of engaging with government, civic leaders told us.

    Some civic leaders' organizations host small group discussions with locals concerned about a particular issue. Others told us that sharing “small victories” often does the trick.

    "[We] create the space for them to experience change and experience a win. Oftentimes inviting that person … to a community forum with the decision-maker, where the decision-maker agrees to something, or inviting them to a … ribbon-cutting ceremony of a wellness center that we just won at a school in their neighborhood will help move that individual who doesn’t believe that people are willing to listen and that their voice doesn’t matter."

    “Once the Light Goes On” – Generating Leadership Through Engagement

    In engaging people who often assume they are not factored into government decision-making, civic leaders and their organizations bring voices to the table that were not previously there. These voices have valuable perspectives and – perhaps most importantly – are often the only ones who know about or understand the particular problems facing their neighborhoods, towns, cities and communities.

    Perhaps the most common benefit of awakening the civic impulse, a number of leaders told us, is its potential to produce new, dedicated civic and community leaders, and even public officials.

    "[Our organization] has put out literally hundreds of leaders, and they are on city councils. They are on boards and commissions. … We trained them on the importance of civic engagement, on the importance of economic policy and on healthcare policy … and how they could get along with their colleagues and how they work with the city."

    Civic leaders are counting on the power of positive experiences with civic engagement to keep community members involved– and to show them, especially those inspired to lead, that neighborhoods, towns and cities are made better by greater public involvement in government.

    Read more from our interviews with the heads of nonprofits working with traditionally disenfranchised communities, and from our statewide survey of over five hundred civic leaders, in our new report, “Beyond Business As Usual: Leaders of California's Civic Organizations Seek New Ways to Engage the Public in Local Governance.” Also, take a look at our other report on the state of civic engagement in California, “Testing the Waters: California's Local Officials Experiment with New Ways to Engage the Public.” Book of Ra is a great way to experience what fun slot games can be!

    Quotes were recorded from in-depth interviews with leaders of organizations that engage traditionally disenfranchised communities. Read more on the Methodology here.


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