Public Agenda Alert -- Thursday, October 3, 2013
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Public Understanding of Health Care
Obstacles to Higher Education
Engaging Ideas
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We Must Help, Not Hinder, the Public on Understanding Health Care Reform

The argument to delay implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which led to this week's government shutdown, is partly rooted in the assertion that the public does not support the law. Yet public opinion of the health care law is not as simplistic as some members of Congress (of both parties), and even the media, have painted it. Before we continue basing decisions that have real consequences on opinion regarding the Affordable Care Act, it's worth taking a deeper look at how the public is really thinking about this issue. 


Click here to read more about conflicting poll information.


When people lack basic information about a policy, and when they are unable to clearly understand how the benefits and trade-offs of a policy will affect their lives, it's very difficult for them to get past impediments like denial and wishful thinking. And people need to resolve these impediments before we can fairly consider their opinion a clear-minded judgment of a policy or approach.


This confusion is a normal part of what happens when people are working through an issue and figuring out where they stand. Politicians are doing their constituents a disservice by playing political football with this issue when the public is still unresolved. In fact, their game-playing is creating even more hurdles for the public to navigate as they try to develop clear judgment.


Our leaders ought to be helping, not hindering, the public as they grapple with complex issues like health care reform. And there are ways for them to do so. In fact, we have experimented with some approaches to engaging the public on this issue, with encouraging results.


In a forthcoming report from Public Agenda and the Kettering Foundation, we study how citizens think about the challenge of controlling health care costs. In particular, we look at how, when the public has the opportunity to examine choices and think through a few strategic facts - like how our spending and outcomes rank against other countries - they feel more confident about the issue. They are able to work through denial and wishful thinking and reach common ground on the sorts of policies they'd support as well as the policies that concern them.


As we wrote in the last Public Agenda Alert, when given the chance and with the right kind of support, citizens want to engage on long-term solutions to health care spending, and they do so with surprisingly productive results. Instead of bludgeoning the public with political spin and consequential brinksmanship, our leaders should provide more resources and opportunities to help citizens better understand the issue and come to a clear judgment on the approaches they support.

What We Hear: Overcoming Obstacles 

to Higher Education

With only 33.8% of working-age adults possessing a two- or four-year credential, Indiana lags behind the national average of 38.7%. In order to fill millions of jobs requiring a degree or certificate, Indiana's economic future depends on an educated population.


Unfortunately, for too many students, progress through their higher education experience is more a labyrinth than straight path. Students encounter many unnecessary hurdles on the way from enrollment to completion or transfer. 


To help the Indiana Commission for Higher Education better address obstacles that impede students' progress, we held 11 focus groups with students and adviser groups from institutions throughout Indiana. During these focus groups, current students, students who had dropped out, and professional and faculty advisers weighed approaches being considered by the state to help accelerate completion and avoid wasting credits.


The student and advisers that we heard from expressed concern for issues with transfer credits and over-stretched advisers who lack adequate time and information. A couple of ideas for reform they seemed willing to try include focusing on better advising practices and creating a degree road map that moves them along to graduation.


Overall, while students and advisers saw promise in policies and proposals that the state is considering, many also had concerns and open questions that need to be taken seriously. Leaders and policymakers should make conscious efforts to continuously engage students and advisers as they create and implement policies to address student achievement. If their voices aren't considered in plans for change, any reform will surely fall flat.


The following engagement recommendations can ensure higher education reform policies in Indiana, as well as policies across the country, are oriented by the knowledge, values and commitments of those who are subject to them.

  1. Create meaningful opportunities to discuss concerns and implementation obstacles, and then respond to those deliberations.
  2. Treat all stakeholders as partners by including them early, often, and authentically.
  3. Clearly communicate the goals and relationship between efforts to improve students' pathways through higher ed and other initiatives or state priorities. 

Engaging Ideas

What happens when journalists take a more active role in comment sections? Does it foster civil, productive dialogue? A new report from The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas examines these questions as part of the Engaging News Project. 


A Nudge to Poorer Student to Aim High on Colleges

The College Board is sending info on top colleges to every senior with an SAT or PSAT score in the top 15% of test takers and whose family is in the bottom quarter of income distribution. 


Technology is changing the way citizens interact with local government. In this article from Governing Magazine, the impact of technology on citizen engagement is explored, as is nuance surrounding the term "engagement."

Each recipe in this book illustrates an opportunity for neighborhood revitalization with ingredients needed for authentic resident engagement, directions for implementation, and videos showcasing these initiatives in detail.

About Us
Public Agenda is a nonprofit organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate complex, divisive 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

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