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01.17 Rebuilding Trust in the Government

Thursday, January 17th, 2013 | Megan Rose Donovan

After two full years of largely ineffectual work, the 112th Congress finally ended its unproductive streak with the close of 2012. One grand question for the new Congress is how to help the exhausted American public regain confidence in leadership when they have seen leaders essentially plug their ears and yell, “I can’t hear you.”

The public's trust in government has long been eroding. A healthy democracy requires the participation of the public in decision making. Unfortunately, such participation becomes difficult, if not poisonous, when there is not a foundation of trust between those making policy and those affected by it.

Provided they are interested in maintaining a healthy democracy, how can our nation's leaders mend the minds and hearts of the public so their trust in the government can be rebuilt?

We believe many of our nation's leaders genuinely want to do what’s best for the country. But consistent set-backs erode their optimism and motivation. Wary of pitfalls, politicians have only been moved to inaction. We understand why they may be unmotivated, but there are many practical actions they can take to help rebuild the public's trust and get this country back on track when it comes to solving our nation's problems.


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

Thursday, December 13th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

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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11.01 Community Engagement and School Transformation

Thursday, November 1st, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

Closing or turning around a low-performing school is always disruptive, but engaging the community in decision making can help make school transformation less painful and more likely to succeed. Without deep knowledge of the communities that are affected by turnaround and careful attention to engagement and communication practices, even the most earnest leaders hoping to inspire change are likely to see their efforts fail.

Last week, Jyoti Gupta, senior public engagement associate, presented some simple principles for engaging and communicating with the community to nearly 45 of Chicago's education and community leaders. The principles, drawn mainly from Public Agenda's reports "What's Trust Got to Do With It?" and "Community Responses to School Reform in Chicago," help education leaders and the community better work together to transform the most challenging schools into high-performing centers of success. Jyoti's presentation was part of Education Reform Now, Illinois' first annual policy briefing on improving chronically low-performing schools. The forum provided an opportunity for participants to better understand and address school turnaround in Chicago and nationally in a way that is both responsive to community need and solutions oriented.

Both the reports and the presentation help education leaders understand the primary ways communities react to school turnaround efforts and why those efforts can be met with anger and distrust. They also provide actionable steps for working with communities to build trust and plan and implement changes to improve low-performing schools. Some of these steps include:

  • Finding a shared vision: Help the community envision exactly what it looks like when school conditions that empower students and teachers to improve are in place, why those conditions are necessary, and what will be required to get there. Dwelling on negative aspects without giving people a sense of hope can contribute to negative community reactions.
  • Providing information: Community members need the right amount of information at the right time and in an accessible format. They need enough information to be able to understand – and independently judge – the worth and process of a turnaround effort. They need ways to access more information when they want it in a language that makes sense and is useful.
  • Breaking out of the “public hearing” format: While Town Halls or public hearings are familiar to many people, they are often not the most effective way to hear from a diversity of voices, to wrestle with complex issues, or create an environment of problem solving. Instead, engagement in small groups and on a more routine basis can help to build communication and mutual respect, as well as encourage creativity and exchange of multiple viewpoints.



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10.18 Deliberative Democracy and Change Management

Thursday, October 18th, 2012 | Will Friedman, Ph.D. and Alison Kadlec

Every two years, during the conference for the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, practitioners, researchers and advocates of participatory problem solving gather to share new ideas, explore challenges, and learn from each other, all to improve our practice and efforts in our respective fields. At this year's conference, in Seattle on October 12th through the 14th, we had the pleasure of presenting some of Public Agenda's ideas-in-progress to a large and lively group.

During our session, “Deliberative Democracy and Change Management,” we explored the intersection of these two domains. Both deliberative democracy and change management are designed to help people more thoughtfully navigate complex conditions—solving problems and negotiating change—and forge a better path forward.

We believe that each field has something to offer to and learn from the other. Our purpose in the NCDD session was to explore these possibilities and articulate how our work is being enriched by an investigation of the intersections and divergences between the two fields.

At the most basic level, deliberation is what should occur before a decision has been made and change management is what needs to occur after. This formula, however, only scratches the surface of how the two fields can enrich each other, and as yet there is a dearth of shared knowledge between them.

Deliberative democracy posits that anyone directly affected by an issue—be it, for example, patients, when it comes to health care cost control, or community residents, when it comes to transportation needs—deserves high-quality and meaningful opportunities to learn about and participate in charting a course forward on the issues that affect them. In practice, this work involves people talking together in authentic dialogue and deliberation, usually with facilitators and nonpartisan materials. When done well, deliberative democracy produces better and more sustainable solutions to our most difficult shared problems.

But even well-conceived decisions, derived from authentic dialogue and deliberation, do not implement themselves magically. Deliberation by itself doesn’t result in a map that tells us how to get from making a decision to taking action on that decision. This is where change management, along with the related offshoots of implementation science and improvement science, offer insights and practices that we find exciting and useful.


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10.04 Creating a Better Conversation About the American Dream

Thursday, October 4th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

Candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spoke a lot during the first presidential debate about opportunity, the middle class and dreams. There has been quite a bit of talk this election season about these themes and about the American Dream specifically—who wants it? Whose responsibility is it to help citizens attain it? We, along with the GALEWiLL Center for Opportunity & Progress, have been exploring the public's thinking on the American Dream over the past year, and some of what we found may surprise you.

While campaign rhetoric and media reports often center on a divided electorate, we found a strong consensus of opinion-- across gender, income, race and political lines—on what is "absolutely essential" in achieving the American Dream.

Regardless of political affiliation, the vast majority of our 2000 respondents said that a strong work ethic, values, and a good education were the top three factors contributing to people's ability to achieve the American Dream:


  • Almost 9 in 10 respondents say that a strong work ethic is "absolutely essential" to achieving the Dream (86 percent of Democrats say this; 91 percent of Republicans).
  • Eighty percent identify parents or other adults who teach honesty, responsibility and persistence as "absolutely essential." (83 percent of Democrats say this; 85 percent of Republicans).
  • Seventy-seven percent identify good schools and teachers that ensure that every child has a fair chance to get a good education as "absolutely essential." (89 percent of Democrats say this; 68 percent of Republicans).


On Monday, during an event at the National Press Club, Public Agenda President Will Friedman and Director of Research Carolin Hagelskamp, along with GALEWiLL Center Executive Director Bob McKinnon, presented the survey, which is part of The Invisible Dream: Creating a New Conversation about the American Dream and What It Takes to Achieve It. Following the presentation, a panel moderated by Juan Williams at the National Press Club dug deeper into the results. The panelists included Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution, Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post and Hedrick Smith, author of Who Stole the American Dream?

While Americans seem to agree on the foundation of the American Dream, it seems as though questions we've seen raised during the campaign—questions over the role of government and the quality of our nation's work ethic—also seem to extend into the American electorate. The findings suggest a stark divide in opinion on the level of government support for those pursuing their idea of the American Dream.


  • Forty-two percent of respondents agreed that "achieving the Dream is mainly something people do for themselves—what government and communities do doesn't matter."
  • Thirty-nine percent agreed with the statement "it's crucial for the government and communities to take steps so every child has a fair chance at the American Dream."
  • Nineteen percent said neither statement reflected their views.


During the panel, Sawhill reconciled the public’s divided view of government assistance in pursuit of the American Dream by eliminating an either/or solution. “You need both. You need to work hard and you need to have values, but we don't live in a Horatio Alger society. Having a helping hand from the government should be part of the equation as well," she said.


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09.05 Health Care Reform: Weighing our Choices

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

We still have many difficult challenges to face when it comes to health care in this country, and a new, nonpartisan resource from Public Agenda helps citizens rise to the challenge.

The U.S. spent nearly 20 percent of its GDP on health care last year, almost twice the amount spent by 30+ other countries, even as instances throughout the country have illustrated that higher costs do not necessarily translate into better quality. Even after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is fully enacted, up to 30 million individuals will still be without coverage.

These questions of cost, accessibility and quality make the American health care system an incredibly complex problem with no easy solution. Meanwhile, neither presidential candidate has acknowledged the tradeoffs inherent in his health care reform plan.

"Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide," provides voters with a firm understanding of the tradeoffs in order to create a more rational dialogue about health care reform. The guide helps citizens confront the reality of the situation, overcome wishful thinking, and thoughtfully choose the candidate that best reflects their values.

The release of this new voter guide includes an accompanying infographic, which you can download and print here.

It's clear that we still have a lot of hard decisions to make when it comes to fixing our nation's health care system:


  • Employer contributions to health care have doubled in the last decade.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 Americans reported serious financial problems due to family medical bills in 2010.
  • Medicare enrollment will balloon from 47 million to 85 million in the next 25 years.


Going far beyond typical voter guides, "Health Care: A Citizens' Solutions Guide" not only helps citizens navigate the complex issues underlying our confusing health care system, it also carefully analyzes three legitimate policy approaches, along with arguments for and against each. This evenhanded analysis empowers voters to carefully weigh the consequences they're willing to accept and approach Election Day having properly examined our health care options.

Are you concerned about the nation’s health care future? We invite you to take some time to absorb a few aspects of the issue in the infographic to the left and share it with others. Let us know what you think. Join the conversation and tweet us at @PublicAgenda.

Download the PDF Version of the Infographic

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08.30 Shaping Our Future: A National Dialogue on the Future of Higher Education

Thursday, August 30th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

There's no question that the U.S. is at a crossroads when it comes to the future of higher education, and we've written about, studied and visualized the challenges many times already. Overcoming these challenges could help strengthen our nation's democracy, contributing to America's culture, economy and civic participation.

But to determine the best way to tackle these challenges—overwhelming student debt, poor completion rates, threats to our leadership in science and technology, dismal civic education—we can't restrict the conversation to just leaders in education, politics and business. Everyday citizens—students, faculty, community members and others, including you—have a lot of important input. And it’s crucial for all of us to consider the choices and trade-offs we face in creating the kind of higher education system we want.

To this end, a new initiative from National Issues Forums and the American Commonwealth Partnership aims to bring citizens to the table to discuss how higher education can help us create the society we want.

"Shaping Our Future," launching next week, is a year-long national dialogue on the future of higher education. The initiative, which grew out of an earlier examination about the role of education in democracy, aims to give more Americans the chance to consider the challenges and choices we face in higher education, as well as the distinctive role they play in helping the country advance economically and socially.

The initiative kicks at 9 a.m. ET on September 4th, with a discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, featuring, among others:


  • Martha Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education;
  • Muriel Howard, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities;
  • Bernie Ronan, chair, The Democracy Commitment;
  • Kaylesh Ramu, president, Student Government Association, University of Maryland Baltimore County.


The discussion will be livestreamed, and you can watch it here.

Following the launch, in hundreds of communities around the nation, students, faculty and other citizens will come together over the following year to weigh different approaches to our higher education problems and seek common ground for action. Carleton College, Florida A & M, Franklin Pierce, Morehouse College, San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego, Spelman College, The Citadel, and the University of New Mexico are just a few of the institutions that will be hosting these conversations.

The forums will explore questions such as how higher education can best work to ensure a highly skilled workforce to maintain the nation’s economic strength and competitiveness; promote equity by providing opportunities for all Americans; strengthen values such as responsibility, integrity, and respect for others; and develop skills to seek common ground or work through differences in a civil manner.

A citizen’s discussion guide, video discussion starter, moderator’s guide and other materials can be downloaded free of charge at the National Issues Forums website. Anyone interested in convening a forum should contact NIF president Bill Muse at bmuse@nifi.org or Harry Boyte, the national coordinator for ACP at boyte001@umn.edu.

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07.20 #EDFIX: Amplifying Teacher Voice on Education Reform

Friday, July 20th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Far too often, even the most well-intentioned education policies fall short due to a lack of consideration for the views of teachers. Last Thursday, a new platform launched to help amplify teacher voice in education reform. #EdFix, a Twitter-hosted chat, aims to provide a space for teachers to talk about how they can help fix the education system and play a role in addressing the many sticky issues involved in doing so.

Public Agenda has worked to bring teachers (and lots of other stakeholders) to the table on K-12 education issues for decades. Our most recent effort, Everyone at the Table, a collaboration with American Institutes for Research, houses free resources designed specifically to engage teachers on teacher evaluation.

The absence of teacher voice is especially acute in evaluation reform, and we have seen the fall-out in districts across the country, where top-down evaluation plans have faltered due to unrealistic expectations or elements that are ineffectual or even controversial.

In our effort to get teachers to the table on evaluation reform, the kick-off chat for #EdFix focused on the issue. Darren Burris, Boston-based teacher and facilitator for the chat, asked the participating teacher Tweeters to share what worked in their particular evaluation plans and what didn’t, as well as what they wanted to be evaluated on and who they thought should do the evaluation.


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07.19 Are We Ready To Face Our Energy Choices? (Infographic)

Thursday, July 19th, 2012 | Megan Rose Donovan

World energy demand is projected to jump nearly 40% over the next 20 years. How will we meet the need?

Americans know the energy situation is serious, but a gap in understanding our energy options has created a challenge in decision-making. In 2009, a Public Agenda survey found nearly 4 in 10 Americans could not name a fossil fuel and nearly half could not name a renewable energy source.

Regardless of what we know or don’t know, Americans are anxious about our energy situation. Recent public opinion research suggests that about 90 percent are worried about gas prices and half think the U.S. will face a critical energy shortage in the next 5 years.

The good news is that the public doesn’t need to become experts on the matter in order to make informed decisions, though it is important to understand and weigh the tradeoffs.

Public Agenda has released “Energy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide” to serve as an unbiased resource on the choices we must make in order to build effective energy policies. It provides essential facts about energy with generous consideration for three complex and intertwined elements: cost, energy security and environmental impact.

Are you concerned about the nation’s energy future? Are you ready to make your decision? We invite you to take some time to absorb a few aspects of the issue in the infographic to the left and share it with others.

Let us know what you think. Join the conversation and tweet us at @PublicAgenda.

Download the PDF Version of the Infographic

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07.05 Confronting the Challenges on Health Care

Thursday, July 5th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

Whatever side of the health care debate you're on, whether you agree with last week's Supreme Court ruling or not, and for whatever reason, it's hard to argue that our nation's status quo on health care was acceptable, either fiscally or socially. While the Affordable Care Act has been ruled constitutional, it remains unclear whether it will be able to successfully address the numerous challenges that our health care system still faces—challenges of cost, access and quality.

We can't let the Supreme Court ruling cloud the fact that we as a nation still need to have important conversations and make important decisions about health care. As Robert Frank recently opined in the Times, now that we’re on the other side of the court case, there is still a great deal of work to do as health care policy continues to “evolve.”

Among all of the ebbs and flows of the health care debate, and as the issue becomes more and more politicized in the media and within the Beltway, it's more urgent than ever that we have a real national dialogue about the values that we think our health care policies should reflect and how, practically speaking, we are going to make the system effective and sustainable.

How do we lower the cost of health care to our nation's citizens while simultaneously increasing access and assuring the quality of that care for all? That’s a hard circle to square, and we’ll have to negotiate many choices along the way. What tradeoffs will we need to confront and accept as we make those choices? Certainly there will be many as we seek to improve the system within the context of an aging population, a changing landscape of work and employment, unsustainable inflation of healthcare costs and unprecedented fiscal challenges.

Each election season, Public Agenda seeks to provide citizens with nonpartisan resources to help them examine the pros, cons and tradeoffs regarding the solutions to our nation's most pressing problems. We are currently hard at work putting together a Citizens' Solutions Guide on health care in time for this election cycle. It will be ready in mid-August, but until then, check out 2008's health care guide. Let us know: what would help you better understand where the candidates stand on health care and make the judgments you need to make as you head to the polls?

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