February 18, 2016


Only Authentic Community Engagement and Empowerment Can Begin to Restore Flint 

Nothing can make up for what was lost, but it might be the one way to get governing and democracy back on track

The Flint crisis is perhaps the worst example of what can go wrong when people have no voice in the decisions that affect their lives: A generation of children faces the irreversible effects of lead poisoning. Nine people are dead. Trust has vanished. Residents saw their rights and dignity violated. 

There's no question that Michigan officials failed their citizens. It's an extreme example, but this kind of tragedy is the inevitable result when officials govern without listening to and showing respect for the people they were elected to serve. 

To not only address the problem but also to make sure it never happens again, leaders will need to pay as much attention to the health of local democracy as to the immediate health of residents. Restoring trust and democracy will take time, effort and patience on the part of local officials and community members alike. 

In the short term, here are five actions officials should take to lay the groundwork on the long road of righting relationships and fixing democracy:

Listen to residents and meet their immediate needs. Make up for past failures. Provide water, as much as they need, when they need it. Replace pipes. Repay water bills. Set up funds to support the health and education of children affected by the crisis. Give residents the space to be angry. And listen to them and respond when they talk about what else they need. In concert with such ameliorating actions, take ownership of bad decisions and apologize.

As you respond to immediate needs, build durable mechanisms for ongoing and authentic public engagement. Transform city council and other public meetings into meaningful opportunities to interact with residents. Use civic tech to gather information and provide people with additional ways to weigh in on decisions. Empower communities through innovative democratic practices like participatory budgeting, and though more traditional ones, like citizen advisory boards.

Provide timely information and practice transparency. From the beginning, the decisions that led to the current crisis have been riddled with opacity and a lack of accountability. Now is the time to be transparent with residents. Give them the information they need, in a timely manner, in ways they can absorb, and continue that practice beyond the current crisis.

Partner with and empower community leaders whom people trust. With faith in official leadership gone, local officials will need to work with community members who ARE trusted. Identify respected leaders and organizations and build those relationships. But be careful to do so in an authentic, transparent way -- the last thing officials want is for the public to distrust by association the motives of local community members.

Pursue activities that slowly but surely rebuild the broken bond. Create opportunities for positive, problem-solving interactions between residents and officials that address real issues. Over time, these smaller efforts may help officials earn back residents' trust. Visit homes and listen. Organize and attend recreational activities for area children. Deliver meals to elderly or disabled residents. Do well on a million small acts of governance that build the social capital and know-how to tackle bigger and tougher challenges down the line.

Such measures can lead to a Flint where residents have true ownership in decisions that affect their lives and where officials consult with residents as partners in formulating and implementing solutions. What's done is done, but officials and other leaders must do all they can to make sure that this never happens again. They can best do so by taking democracy to heart and pursuing it with passion. 

Will Friedman
President, Public Agenda

New Resources

There are more than 500 competency-based education practices in the U.S. today. In the largest-scale survey of institutions designing or implementing these practices, we found that colleges largely agree on the essential elements for a successful program. Implementation, though, is easier said than done. For example, while the majority of those surveyed agreed that meaningful assessments are critically important, just 69 percent said they had fully adopted such assessments.

This report provides a baseline understanding and common language to guide the development of competency-based education programs which seek to assess learners based on what they know and what they can do rather than by the amount of time they spend in class.

There are about 1.7 million students that enroll in community college each year. Of those, 80 percent plan to earn a bachelor's degree. But most never make it. With partners at CCRC, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse, we created a short deck of shareable graphics with statistics on the broken community college to 4-year college transfer process.

Released last month, this research found that although trustees are well-positioned to help comprehensive universities address challenges -- like advocacy in the face of shrinking budgets -- they are worried about overstepping boundaries and sometimes lack trust necessary to make their thoughts actionable. We think that providing trustees with orientations and peer-learning 
opportunities can help them better engage in these issues.

To keep up with progress made on these issues throughout the year, be sure to join our higher ed email list. You can also keep up by following #TacklingTransfer on Twitter. 

News and Commentary

Will Friedman writes in response to the New York Times' article "Why Spin is Good for Democracy" to say focus-group-tested spin commentary does more to turn people off to politics than to engage them. 

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

Matt Leighninger spent last week in the Philippines with Making All Voice Count to answer the age-old question of how technologies can and should play a role in public decision making.

Nicole Hewitt and Matt designed a workshop to help participants learn techniques for facilitating dialogue to improve engagement of parents, educators, principals, staff and others. Through this exercise, we challenged participants to rethink the common trope of "getting buy-in" for pre-determined decisions or policies. 

To Revive the American Dream, Work Locally, Work Smart, Work Together
The first in a series on our Restoring Opportunity initiative, Will Friedman writes that the best shot for thoughtful democratic problem solving is on the local level. 

PA in the News
(Andrew Sullivan, Medium, Thursday, February 18th, 2016)

(Community College Daily, Wednesday, February 10th, 2016)

(Inside Higher Ed, Monday, February 8th, 2016)

(The Brian Lehrer Show, Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016)
(Mother Jones, Friday, January 22nd, 2016)

Event: Save the Date
Bold Solutions to Housing Affordability 
Date: April 4, 2016
Time: 6:00-7:30pm
Location: New York, NY (exact location TBD)
Moderator: WNYC's Brian Lehrer


Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues. Through nonpartisan research and engagement, it provides people with the insights and support they need to arrive at workable solutions on critical issues, regardless of their differences. Since 1975, Public Agenda has helped foster progress on K-12 and higher education reform, health care, federal and local budgets, energy and immigration. Find Public Agenda online at PublicAgenda.org.

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