Friday, May 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
Reprinted from The Huffington Post
Part of leadership is conveying an air of optimism and confidence. Any management book, any memoir by a general, politician or basketball coach will tell you that. But what does it mean when leaders are more optimistic than the people they're supposed to be leading?
That's certainly been the situation in Washington over the past year. As part of a project to track attitudes about the national debt, Public Agenda has been using a Harris Interactive survey to examine the views of "Beltway influencers" -- which include executive and legislative staff, media, and executives in nonprofits and interest groups who shape policy. And these policymakers are significantly more confident that the country is "moving in the right direction," as opposed to being "seriously off on the wrong track," than the general public.
About half of the leaders we've surveyed since March 2010 say the country's moving in the right direction (48 percent said this in our most recent round of research, completed in April).
By contrast, 70 percent of the public told the CBS/New York Times survey in April that America is on the wrong track: a more than 20-point gap. What's more, this gap has widened: in February and October 2010, the CBS/Times survey (which uses the same wording as Harris) showed about six in 10 saying the nation's "seriously off on the wrong track."
The right direction/wrong track formulation has been around for decades now, and one reason why pollsters love it is that it's a gut-check question. You don't need to follow the news closely to answer it. Even the image is powerful and clear: is the country going off the rails or not?
Americans have always seen themselves as an optimistic nation. We've had generation gaps, credibility gaps, all kinds of divides between how leaders and experts look at problems compared to the public at large. But an optimism gap is something fundamental. There are multiple signs that the nation is in an uneasy mood, and has been for a while. The CBS/Times survey hasn't found a majority of the public saying we're moving in the right direction since 2003. Just last week, Gallup reported that fewer than half of Americans say young people today will have a better life than their parents, the first time that's happened in 30 years.
One possible reason is that the public sees a slipping of fortunes in their lives that they haven't seen before. In another Public Agenda survey, we found a significant number of Americans, even the four in 10 who say they're "struggling a lot" in the current economy, are more concerned about sliding down the ladder in the long term than about getting by today. They're more worried about paying for college and having a secure retirement than about paying the rent or mortgage in the short term. They also say that doing something about higher education costs, job training and preserving Social Security and Medicare would help them more than short-term fixes.
Another explanation may be about the leaders. President Obama likes to say "we are the people we have been waiting for," and people in Washington may take this to heart. Whatever their partisan differences, people believe they're inside the Beltway for a reason. They believe their policies are right and will work -- and if their party has been elected to office, they believe the public is behind them. This is just as true of Obama supporters as it is for the Tea Partiers. So if your side holds the reins of power -- and in a divided government both parties can make that claim -- then you've got reason for optimism. You might win. The world you're trying to create may still come to pass.
Plus, at least the Washington elites are at the table, and they generally understand the choices they face. That isn't always true of the public -- and that's not entirely the public's fault.
The problem is that the obsessive maneuvering, the bitter rhetoric, the obscure parliamentary tactics that are all part of "winning" the Beltway game don't look like progress to the public. They look confusing, off-putting, and not particularly relevant to what's worrying most Americans. At any given moment, it's very difficult for the average American who isn't obsessed with politics to figure out how any of this debate will really improve their lives. They don't get much help in sorting through the options before them, or the challenges the country faces. They're not sure whether a better world is on the way, because the way politicians and the media operate make it difficult to choose between different visions, or even see if what they're being offered is a better world at all.
That, in the end, may be the real threat in the optimism gap. It's another sign of a broader disconnect between leaders and the public. Leaders who can't make the public share their sense of optimism and promise may be managing the country, but they're not leading it. And unless those inside the Beltway do a better job of conveying why what they're doing matters -- why there's grounds for optimism -- then it's hard to see how that inside-the-Beltway sense of progress will carry over into outside the Beltway support.
Thursday, May 5th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
The difficult questions that still surround America’s role in the Muslim world are a prime example of the need to help the public up their “learning curve” on complex issues, write Public Agenda’s co-founder Dan Yankelovich and President Will Friedman in their new book, Toward Wiser Public Judgment. Muslim extremists have always been a small fraction of the Muslim population, most of whom reject violence. But for years, “Muslim extremists have successfully made us scapegoats for the failure of so many Muslim nations to build their own just and prosperous societies,” they write.
Meanwhile, Americans have been wrestling with their views about a religion and culture that many admit they don’t understand. Surveys show the public dissatisfied with the war in Iraq for years, and growing more doubtful about Afghanistan. And surveys also show most Americans think we’ve put too much emphasis on military solutions, rather than diplomatic ones, in dealing with terrorism.
Presenting the public with choices – real value-based alternatives for policy – could be enormously helpful in moving the public forward. Setting options side by side enables the public to weigh options, consider alternatives and come to considered judgment about what strategy the United States should follow.
The good news is that there have been huge changes in the Muslim world over the past year. Even before bin Laden’s death, international surveys showed support plummeting for both him and al Qaeda in Muslim countries. In addition, as many commentators have pointed out, al Qaeda hasn’t been a factor in the protests sweeping countries like Egypt and Libya this year. The “Arab spring” has been driven by citizens tired of aging, authoritarian regimes and ready for change.
That suggests events are outstripping the extremists, and the Muslim world may be turning against them. That’s an opportunity for the United States. Since 9/11, we never really grabbed onto the opportunities to engage Americans in building a better relationship with the Muslim world. Now we may have another chance – if we can seize it.
Thursday, May 5th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
The survey found only 44 percent of the general public believe today’s young people will be better off, and there’s even greater doubt among older people (only 36 percent of those aged 50 to 64, for example) and among those who make more than $75,000 a year.
This is an even lower rating than at the height of the Great Recession (59 percent in 2009) or the dark days after 9/11 (71 percent in December 2001).
Our Slip-Sliding Away survey released earlier this year may shed some light on those results. In our survey, we found that four in 10 Americans say they’re struggling “a lot” in the current economy. But the striking thing to us what that even those who are struggling to pay bills in the here and now are more concerned about their long-term security. They’re more worried about being able to retire and pay for their children’s college education than they are about making their current bills.
And when asked what would help struggling people the most, the public leans toward higher education, job training, and preserving Social Security and Medicare – all questions focused on the future.
Based on this, there’s a pervasive worry about permanently sliding down the economic ladder – and this could be reflected in the data about how young people will fare in the future.
Monday, April 25th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
Public Agenda's new Cutting Edge paper on engaging faculty has been getting a lot of attention, and President Will Friedman participated in a panel discussion on the challenge at the Achieving the Dream Strategy Institute in February. You can see video of the session below (it's in two parts). Or, you can follow these links to Part 1 and Part 2 of the session.
Thursday, April 21st, 2011 | Scott Bittle
An AP-Roper survey of 18-to-24 year-olds released this week found that most gave their schools low marks for helping them find the right college, choose a field of study, or come up with ways to pay for their schooling.
Public Agenda research last year, “Can I Get a Little Advice Here?”, found very similar results. Based on a national survey of young adults, ages 22 to 30, we found six in 10 of those who went on to further education gave their high school counselors poor grades for their college advice, and nearly half say they felt like "just a face in the crowd."
What’s more, young people who say they got poor counseling are more likely to say that they would have attended a different school if money were not an issue, by a 46 percent to 35 percent margin. They are also less likely to say that they received a scholarship or financial aid for college; only about 4 in 10 say they got financial help compared with more than half of those who believe that they received better counseling.
There’s a lot of evidence that the nation’s badly overstretched guidance system is a factor in our college completion problem, particularly for students who are the first in their family to go to college and don’t have many other sources of advice. Federal statistics show nearly 6 in 10 public school students are from families where neither parent has completed college. But while there’s consistent feedback from students that the current system isn’t working, more needs to be done to act on that feedback.
Those students’ voices should be heard – and if they’re not, the nation’s efforts to solve the college completion problem could still be derailed.
Thursday, April 14th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
The New York Times reported that student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year, and two-thirds of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with debt in 2008, compared with fewer than half in 1993.
Public Agenda’s research has found the public is increasingly concerned about student debt, with nearly two-thirds saying “students have to borrow too much money to pay for their college education.” That increased 9 percentage points between 2000 and 2009.
But the debate about student debt occurs in a broader context for the public, a context of colliding trends. The number of Americans who say college is “absolutely necessary” for success has increased more than 20 points, from 31 percent as recently as 2000 to 55 percent. At the same time, there’s been a corresponding drop in those who say the vast majority of qualified students have the opportunity to attend college, from 45 percent to 29 percent.
It’s important to note that the public is still very optimistic about a couple of points. Six in 10 parents say it’s “very likely” their child will go to college. Also, 62 percent of the general public believes “almost anyone can get financial help” to go to college.
But another part of the public’s reaction to these trends has been a growing skepticism about how colleges are run. Some 54 percent say colleges could spend less and still maintain a high quality of education. Six in 10 say colleges are “mostly concerned about the bottom line.”
Those trends – and those doubts – are going to put increasing pressure on colleges to make the most out of what they’ve got.
Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
Of course, there's also the full version, which you can find here in the first of our Cutting Edge series of working papers. This is all part of Public Agenda's work with Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, where we've developed core principles and promising practices for engaging faculty in changing institutions and closing student achievement gaps.
Thursday, April 7th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
The blogosphere was buzzing this week over an experiment reported at a political science conference. A Utah researcher traveled door-to-door in the last election, offering two different pitches to go out and vote: a well-reasoned argument about democracy, or coupons for things like fried chicken. The coupons, perhaps not surprisingly, won.
At Public Agenda, we actually have evidence that the voting experience is better than fast food. But we also think the problems in our democracy go deeper than what happens on Election Day.
Certainly America’s low voter turnout is a longstanding problem, and troubling on a number of levels. When Public Agenda examined this in our Voting Experience Survey after the 2008 elections, we found that, despite concerns about long lines and problematic voting machines, actually going to the polls was a positive experience for most voters.
The vast majority of the voters we surveyed, 9 in 10, said they had a positive experience and that poll workers did a good job. Very few reported problems with long lines, technical problems or improper practices.
In fact, polling places got good marks compared to other places where people transact business in person. We didn’t ask about chicken specifically, but when it comes to being “very well-organized,” polling places beat out fast-food franchises by a wide margin (79 percent to 35 percent). Polling places were essentially tied with banks, and ahead of other government agencies where people tend to wait in line, like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Voting is often used as a yardstick for civic participation, and it’s important. But it’s also important to remember that the public needs to be engaged in ways beyond just voting. In between elections, we’re still making decisions as a society, and the public should be involved in those decisions, too. We’re facing a series of difficult public problems that are made much more difficult because leaders and the public frame them in different ways, and can’t reach across the divides in how they see them.
We go into elections with a public that isn’t getting much help understanding the choices they face – not the choices between candidates, necessarily, but the choices for actually solving the nation’s problems. We hear a lot more about personalities and character than options and tradeoffs. Character matters, clearly. But so does understanding the problems we face, and the options for dealing with them.
It’s that challenge – laying out the options in a way that people can understand, and helping people climb the “learning curve” they face – that trips the nation up between elections, when the real governing happens. And that’s not a problem that can be solved by voting people out of office. Or free chicken.
Thursday, March 31st, 2011 | Scott Bittle
Energy security is important to the public, and $100 per barrel oil and unrest in the Middle East shows they’re right to be concerned. But over the years we’ve had enormous difficulty moving from debate to decision on this topic. With another energy plan on the table, it’s worth revisiting how the public thinks about this problem.
When Public Agenda conducted its Energy Learning Curve survey, we included a “cluster analysis,” examining the data in terms of how people are grouped naturally based on knowledge and beliefs. On energy, we found the public divided into four groups: the Anxious (40 percent), the Greens (24 percent), the Disengaged (19 percent), and the Climate Change Doubters (17 percent).
Each of the four groups has a distinctive set of values, beliefs or concerns that shape how they approach the energy problem. The key point here is that if leaders are trying to build public support for an energy policy, understanding the public’s motivations is critical. What motivates one group might leave another cold or even repel them. The environmental arguments that resonate with the Greens, for example, would turn off the Doubters.
But there are also opportunities. One of the most intriguing findings is that so many people reach similar conclusions from completely different starting points. For example, both the Anxious and the Greens support alternative energy, but for entirely different reasons. The Anxious are worried about the price and supply of energy, and believe bringing new energy sources on line will help. The Greens, naturally, back them because they’re concerned about global warming and pollution.
Change, particularly when you’re dealing with a subject as complex as energy, requires knitting people with different concerns together. To help the public move up its “learning curve” on this issue, it’s fundamental to understand how people can see a problem through different lenses but still end up at the same place.
Monday, March 28th, 2011 | Scott Bittle
There's nothing more powerful than hearing people talk about their challenges in their own words -- and this video of students discussing the juggling act they face in trying to balance work, family and school is a great example.
The plenary session at the Achieving the Dream Strategy Institute in February featured a panel of students from Ivy Tech Community College and Santa Fe College, moderated by Public Agenda President Will Friedman. If you want to see how students meet this challenge -- one of the biggest when it comes to turning around the nation's college completion rate -- have a look at the video below:
Also, for statistics that back up the stories here, see the survey report, With Their Whole Lives Head of Them (below).