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No Easy Way Out: What Leaders Can Learn from Citizens on the National Debt

by Allison Rizzolo

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

As our nation's leaders continue to struggle to build common ground on the best ways to approach the nation's debt problem, perhaps they can take a cue from the public.

Over the course of last year, everyday citizens from all ages and walks of life gathered around the country to talk about tackling the debt. The forums were hosted by the nonpartisan National Issues Forums (NIF), a longtime partner of Public Agenda. Participants' insights are captured in the new NIF report, "No Easy Way Out: Citizens Talk about Tackling the Debt ," written by Public Agenda's Jean Johnson.

Participants in the forums looked at multiple possibilities for addressing the debt, as well as the pros and cons of these approaches. In many respects, the report contains good news for leaders hoping to find common ground on this difficult topic. Forum participants spoke of a number of common themes, including:

  • They, and other citizens, are ready for serious, civil talks about the debt.
  • They also understand that solving the problem won't be easy and will require broad acceptance of change and sacrifice.
  • Very few participants brought nonnegotiable items to the table. Most understood that moving forward will require at least some changes they may not like personally.

NIF believes, and we agree, that leaders who understand the concerns and questions of these typical Americans will be better prepared to develop solutions accepted as fair and effective by the public at large.
To this end, Jean traveled to DC last week, with colleagues from NIF, to brief national policymakers on the report's findings. She spoke to staff from House Speaker Boehner's office, top officials in the Treasury Department and staff from both the Republican and Democratic Policy Committees.

Policymakers welcomed the report findings and seemed eager for more of this sort of feedback from the public, which they often saw as richer and more nuanced that what they get from standard polling. "I thought there was a genuine hunger among these leaders for the kinds of deliberative insights from the public that emerge in the NIF forums and the engagement work of Public Agenda," said Jean.

The report also found that people need additional opportunities to grapple with the issue of the debt and the need to address the long-term stability of Social Security and Medicare in nonpartisan, non-advocacy settings. While the citizen discussion in forums—which typically run about two hours—were remarkable, it’s also true that many of the forum participants themselves wanted to learn more, think more, and continue their deliberations. Unfortunately, there are not many settings like this readily available in today's public arena.

The question then is: How do we take the deliberative model of NIF and Public Agenda and expand it to a broader audience? Are there ways to provide more of these dialogues? Are there trusted, neutral voices that can guide such exchanges?

One way to start is in your own community, school or organization. A discussion guide like Public Agenda's "The Federal Budget: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" (free of charge) or NIF's "A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills?" can provide the framework for a productive dialogue on the choices we face when it comes to our country's economic future.

As "No Easy Way Out" demonstrates, under the right conditions, everyday citizens can build common ground, and practical solutions are within reach. We just have to work to find them.



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