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01.13 Democracy in the 21st Century: Engaging Students to be More Civically-Minded

Friday, January 13th, 2012 | Allison Rizzolo

As Americans nationwide voice concern about the health of our democracy and our ability to work together to solve the problems facing the country, civic learning as a priority in education has plummeted. How can we move it from the periphery of education to the center? What experiences should schools, colleges and universities offer to prepare their students to be productive citizens? How can 21st century learning inspire our nation's young people to be more civically-minded, engaged and ready to lead?

On Tuesday, January 10th, Dr. David Mathews, Public Agenda board member and president of the Kettering Foundation, and Public Agenda's Jean Johnson, who is a board member of the National Issues Forums, traveled to the White House to explore these questions. As participants in "For Democracy's Future: Education Reclaims Our Civic Mission," they joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, other senior Obama Administration officials and higher education, government, business and philanthropy leaders to discuss how to help students take on their roles as citizens and future leaders.

The Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums (NIF), both longtime partners and collaborators of Public Agenda, are doing important and extensive work in the role of higher education in democracy. Kettering is looking at how higher education can prepare young people for their role as citizens, while NIF will publish a citizens’ discussion guide on the mission and future of higher education in the spring. The guide will be used in communities and campuses nationwide as part of the American Commonwealth Project, a co-sponsor of the White House event.

Dr. Mathews, who moderated a panel discussion with a group of students and educators, explored how to define a citizen and what we mean by the word democracy. "We're living in a time when there's a contest over the meaning of democracy," he said. "It's a serious matter, and the key to it… is controlled by the way we understand the role of its citizens."

Ms. Johnson later reported on a breakout session discussing how this moment, one of crisis for the democracy, can also be a moment of opportunity, one where higher education can play an enormous role. But in order to do so, she reported, "we will have to change the expectations we have of higher education, higher education faculty, and students."

Participants in the session came up with a number of recommended capacities and experiences for higher education institutions to foster in order to encourage students to take on their role as citizens and future leaders. Among them:

  • Students and courses should focus more on problem-solving
  • Students should gain the skills and experiences that help them become "agents of change" and learn how to "make an idea happen"
  • Students should "model democratic practices to solve problems," especially in student government
  • Students should have the experience of "participating in dialogue on controversial issues"
  • They should have the skill and experiences that allow them to "form relationships that create imagination"
  • Higher education should develop in students the "hunger to understand how things work so they can weigh in and participate in problem-solving"
  • Students should learn that "listening is as important as having a voice"
  • Higher education can join forces with K-12 education, communities, etc. so that "civic agency becomes a national priority."

"For Democracy's Future" coincided with the release of two reports, one from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, and the other from the Department itself. It also marked the launch of a year of activities to revitalize the democratic purposes and civic mission of American education.

Arne Duncan, Secretary of the Department of Education, and Martha Kanter, Under Secretary of the Department, both spoke at the event. You can listen to their remarks and see other footage from "For Democracy's Future," including panel discussions and breakout session reports, here and here.

How can we, as a nation, make civic and democratic learning for all students a top national priority? Do you have any ideas for how colleges and universities can rise to this challenge? Share them here or on our Facebook wall, or tweet us your ideas.

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12.22 Engaging Your Community: Varied Opportunities for Deliberation and Dialogue

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

The materials that we have helped develop to involve instructors in K-12 and higher education reform are flexible and varied, and administrators, educators and others can use them in a variety of contexts. Creating diverse occasions for dialogue is a key to effectively and authentically engaging stakeholders, and is our next core principle for public engagement.

Create multiple, varied opportunities for deliberation and dialogue

People need to go through a variety of stages to come to terms with an issue, decide what approach they are willing to support and figure out how they can make their own contribution.

A strong engagement initiative will be inclusive as well as iterative, giving people multiple and varied opportunities to learn about, talk about, think about and act on the problem at hand. Community conversations, "study circles," online engagement strategies and media partnerships are a few of the possibilities.

This blog post is part of our series on core principles for effective public engagement.

Read earlier principles of public engagement. If you have any questions, just ask, either here, on our Facebook page, via Twitter or email Allison Rizzolo.

We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.

Also be sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter to receive regular updates on what's going on in the world of public opinion research and public engagement.

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12.19 Engaging Your Community: Overcoming Wishful Thinking and Other Barriers

Monday, December 19th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

When engaging people on a tough public problem like education reform or a region's transportation needs, obstacles and resistance are bound to creep up. Here are a few tips you can use to help them move beyond pipe dreams, recognize and accept trade-offs, and work through obstacles and resistance.

Help people move beyond wishful thinking


The trade-offs that are embedded in any issue that citizens must confront should be brought to the surface. A strong public engagement initiative will look for diverse ways to achieve realism and seriousness (not to be confused with humorlessness) in the public debate and help people move past knee-jerk reactions and wishful thinking. Challenge leaders who pander to people's wishful thinking and provide corrective information once it's become clear the public is "hung up" on a misperception or lacking vital information.


Expect obstacles and resistances


People are used to doing things in a particular way, and it is hard work to grapple with new possibilities. It may even threaten their identities or interests (or perceived interests) to do so. It therefore takes time, and repeated opportunities, for people to really work through problems, absorb information about the trade-offs of different approaches and build common ground.

Read earlier principles of public engagement. If you have any questions, just ask, either here, on our Facebook page, via Twitter or email Allison Rizzolo.

We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.

Also be sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter to receive regular updates on what's going on in the world of public opinion research and public engagement.

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11.14 Engaging Your Community: Use Information Wisely

Monday, November 14th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

While we were conducting the research for our recent study, Don't Count Us Out, members of the public told us that an abundance of technical information can be jarring and confusing, and that they are actually quite skeptical about the accuracy of statistics and measurements. When providing information for a group of people to help them deliberate an issue, it's crucial to weigh the amount, type and timing of that information:


Provide the right type and amount of information at the right time


It is helpful to provide people with carefully selected, essential, nonpartisan information up front in order to help them deliberate more effectively, but it is equally important to avoid overloading people with a "data dump." Concise and thoughtfully presented information is useful, but too much all at once can result in people feeling overwhelmed. It plays to the experts in the room while disempowering the regular citizens. In fact, too much information may actually erode public trust instead of augment it.

Instead, beyond a few salient essentials, people should themselves determine, through their deliberations, the information that will allow them to move deeper into an issue. Enabling people to better determine their informational needs is one of the most important purposes and outcomes of public engagement.

This blog post is part of our series on core principles for effective public engagement.

Read earlier principles of public engagement. If you have any questions, just ask, either here, on our Facebook page, via Twitter or email Allison Rizzolo.

If you are looking for tools for engagement, including information about our Choicework guides and their corresponding videos, as well as case studies in public engagement, check out the public engagement section of this website.

Also be sure to sign up for our biweekly newsletter to receive regular updates on what's going on in the world of public opinion research and public engagement.

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10.26 Engaging Your Community: Framing for Deliberation

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

Is Social Security a failed system in need of replacement or a successful one in need of normal maintenance? Is the public school system the best hope for democracy or a state monopoly immune to reform?

The presentation of information, facts and arguments is not neutral. Different presentations, depending on language and word choice, can have very different impacts and can evoke very different connotations and reactions from our listeners. This presentation provides a context, or a frame, through which people make a value judgments.

How does framing matter in the context of engaging one's community? When working toward authentic engagement, it is important to frame an issue for deliberation, as opposed to persuasion. Framing for deliberation is another core principle for authentic engagement.


Frame issues for deliberation

Framing for deliberation involves clarifying the range of positions surrounding an issue so that citizens can better decide what they want to do. Your charge in engaging your community is not to get your audience to do what you want to do, and it is important you consciously avoid framing to persuade an audience by defining an issue to your advantage.

Framing for deliberation can happen naturally, but in order to encourage this, it is important, again, to speak the language and address the concerns of your community members. Framing an issue for public deliberation requires focusing more on values-related conflicts and broad strategies than on technical details and tactical minutiae, which are more the province of experts. It means, in essence, helping people wrestle with different perspectives and the pros and cons of going down different paths.

Framing for deliberation communicates that there are no easy answers and that many points of view are welcome and essential to the discussion. This technique (which Public Agenda calls "Citizen Choicework") also helps people with very different levels of expertise engage both the issues and one another more effectively than a wide-open discussion with no structure.

Read more about framing or earlier principles of public engagement. If you have any questions, just ask on our Facebook page or via Twitter.

We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.

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10.20 Community Conversations: Working together to improve student success

Thursday, October 20th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

The guest list for a community conversation in Coolidge, Arizona two weeks ago included small business owners, faculty and administration of colleges and universities, students, K-12 teachers and principals, representatives from local community-based organizations and even the chief of police. It was an impressively diverse group gathering to talk to about how to improve the success and completion rates of college and university students in their community.

The meeting is part of an initiative, funded by the Lumina Foundation, to increase productivity within US higher education nationwide, particularly among 2- and 4-year public institutions. As part of this effort, Public Agenda is training moderators and recorders for community conversations of this kind in multiple states.


After 2 hours of small group dialogues using our Choicework model as a discussion guide, the participants reconvened to share their thoughts on next steps. Every group agreed that partnerships between K-12 institutions, community colleges and universities will be essential for ensuring readiness and, ultimately, completion for their community's students. We are hopeful that communities across the country are able to capture the energy of dialogues like this one and mobilize to increase the success of students in their community.


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10.18 Engaging Your Community: Core Principles Continued

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

Engaging the public in a genuine and robust manner will be central to moving our nation forward in these challenging times. Last week we described the first of the ten core principles that undergird our public engagement work. This week we bring you two more, both of which speak directly to the frustrations of the public in this moment:

Attend to people's leading concerns

It's a natural response to open up more readily to people who address your concerns, rather than ignoring them in favor of their own. Whether you are a leader in your community, engaging your constituents, or one community member trying to engage others, find out what matters to people, and keep those issues in mind. Especially when there are gaps between the priorities of different groups, people will be most receptive to your concerns if the issues that they feel most concerned about are acknowledged and addressed.

Reach beyond the "usual suspects"

It's easy to bring together and talk to those people who are already powerfully involved in an issue, as well as those who love to sound off in public. Finding ways to include or represent the broader public, especially those whose voices have traditionally been excluded, is a more challenging proposition. This takes special, creative approaches to public outreach, dialogue and engagement. For examples of this in action, check out our list of case studies, as well as Planet Forward-- an innovative, multimedia example of ambitious grassroots engagement.

Look for more principles of public engagement here in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, just ask—either here, in the comments, or on our Facebook page or via Twitter. We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.

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10.14 Occupy Wall Street: Can it become a force for change?

Friday, October 14th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

Our system is broken. While our leaders bicker about inconsequential issues and refuse to have constructive dialogue about the important ones, the voice of the average American is lost entirely.

Members of the public feel frustrated, powerless and dissatisfied over the way issues are being addressed and who has access to that conversation. This frustration has frequently bubbled over into protest the past few years. The latest manifestation of a variety of populist movements, Occupy Wall Street, seems to have caught on as it overflows into other cities.

Some have criticized the Occupy Wall Street movement for being unclear and not iterating actionable solutions. We are most concerned that this populist phenomenon could get unwieldy without a positive vision of a better way to solve problems.

The public, for all of its frustration, IS optimistic. In a recent poll from CNN, 81% of respondents said the government can be fixed. Can the Occupy Wall Street movement become a force for change, rather than degenerating into an oversimplification of the nation's problems or adding to the us-versus-them, name-calling status quo?

An essential part of this will be a clearer vision of an alternate way forward, one that is pragmatic and that doesn't oversimplify the many challenges, economic and otherwise, facing our nation.

Public Agenda believes that a better way exists, one that is less polarizing and that channels conflict into a resolution instead of gridlock. We believe that diversity of opinion is healthy, but that disagreements must not be emphasized so much that shared aims are lost completely, and that pragmatic solutions to the real needs that people are struggling with must take precedence over partisan gamesmanship or ideological purity.

We are optimistic that our country can have productive conversations that include diverse points of view, reach resolution and work together to move forward as a people. Working toward this goal is the challenge of our times.


Photo by Mat McDermott via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

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10.11 Engaging Your Community: Core Principles

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

We are swiftly approaching the heart of another election cycle, and the town halls and open forums have begun. If past election seasons are any guide, at best these will be genuine, though inept attempts at including the public's voice. At worst, they will be a calculated farce. Meanwhile, the government again barely averted a shutdown, and partisan bickering has moved into the territory of twitter hashtags.

What is the failure of events like town halls? As Dan Yankelovich, cofounder of Public Agenda, points out, during these public hearings, in which citizens supposedly express their views, two kinds of “voices” tend to predominate: the angriest and the most organized. The general public, and certainly those who have been traditionally marginalized, are rarely represented in any meaningful fashion.

Authentic public engagement, by contrast, is a highly inclusive problem-solving approach through which regular citizens deliberate and collaborate on complex public problems. While this may sound complicated, and even overwhelming, there are a number of logical and concrete considerations to take into account. Paying attention to them will increase your success in initiating more inclusive dialogue, deliberation and collaboration on tough issues in your community.

But why should you? If we want to solve the complex and urgent problems we face as a nation, we must have more honest, authentic, well-designed dialogue that gives voice to the broader public to counterbalance the partisan ideologues that tend to dominate the airwaves. Rather than relegating people to the sidelines, authentic engagement invites them to join the public dialogue surrounding a problem and provides them the tools to do so productively. As a result, leaders know where the public stands as problem solving progresses, while citizens themselves contribute to solutions through their input, ideas and actions.

In short, authentic and skillful engagement with a broad cross section of community members improves results by:

  • Bringing together multiple points of view in order to inform decisions.

  • Creating legitimacy and a sense of shared responsibility by involving the public and diverse stakeholders early and often in a change process, rather than after decisions have been made.

  • Fostering new allies and collaborations.

  • Stimulating broad awareness and momentum for change.

While broad-based public engagement is not possible or appropriate for every decision, it can be the right move for addressing many kinds of public problems and developing and implementing many important decisions and initiatives—particularly those whose success and long-term sustainability will depend on the support and concerted actions of many varied stakeholders.

Now, where to begin? Whether you are an expert on the policy issues facing your community or simply someone eager to start productive dialogue and actually get things done, there are a number of principles to keep in mind.

Based on our three decades of experience in engaging various publics in important issues, we have formulated ten principles of public engagement in a "primer" on the topic, published by our Center for Advances in Public Engagement. In the coming weeks, we will break these down for you step by step, examining each part of the process individually and in more detail.

First and perhaps foremost among these is:


Begin by listening

Understanding the public's starting point—where they enter the conversation Be alert to the issues that people in your community care about, the language they use to discuss them, and their concerns, aspirations, knowledge base, misperceptions and initial sense of direction with respect to solutions. Doing so will allow you to meet people where they are and engage them in ways that are meaningful in light of their interests, concerns and natural language. It will help you avoid making faulty assumptions about people’s positions or using jargon that, however useful to experts, is counterproductive when it comes to engaging the public.

Look for more principles of public engagement here in the coming weeks. In the meantime, if you have any questions, just ask—either here, in the comments, or on our Facebook page or via Twitter. We also have many more tools to help foster community and public engagement. These include Choicework discussion guides, deliberative discussion starters for flexible use among diverse participants, and their corresponding videos; reports outlining engagement recommendations and principles; and case studies in community and state engagement.

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08.01 Supported Students Graduate: Training For New College Completion Initiative Kicks off in Miami

Monday, August 1st, 2011 | Allison Rizzolo

College completion can be a precarious path for many students, especially those enrolled in community college. Students need support to succeed, and providing this support is the aim of Completion by Design.

This new initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, imagines a world where community college students receive the support, inspiration and challenge they need to succeed. The partners in Completion by Design aim to prevent loss and increase momentum throughout the college process, from before students set foot on campus to the moment they graduate.

To kick off the planning year of Completion by Design, several of our staff members headed to Miami Dade College for an engagement facilitation training session. The event brought together over 70 participants from each of the CbD community colleges. These participants represented colleges in four different states and ranged from faculty and administrators to financial aid associates and student counselors.

At the end of the training, our goal was to send these representatives back to their campuses, ready to facilitate and record productive and engaging meetings on their campuses about the success of their students.

Public Agenda's Will Friedman, Alison Kadlec, Isaac Rowlett and Jyoti Gupta joined our partners at the Center for Civic Participation and the Center for Public Deliberation, and used some of our tested and proven methods to train the participants in basic facilitation skills for small group discussions. The participants took turns role playing and practiced the skills of moderating and recording. After each session, participants, observers and trainers debriefed, assessing themselves and others and offering comments and feedback.

"People at the beginning felt very confident that facilitation was easy," said Isaac. "They run meetings and head up classrooms on a regular basis. Yet what we heard is that they found true facilitation to be much more complex than what they had anticipated, and they were eager to continue to learn more."

Challenges to meaningful, authentic and comprehensive facilitation abound. Ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to speak, remaining neutral, balancing competing perspectives, dealing with time constraints and addressing some deeply and personally important issues are just some of the skills the facilitators worked to develop at this training.

Following the training, the representatives headed back to their campuses prepared to facilitate, throughout the next year, internal discussions with faculty, administration, student services and others about the challenges behind college completion, focusing especially on preventing loss and improving momentum. By encouraging these discussions, community colleges will determine where they are losing students and work to fix these loss points.

"The exciting thing," said Jyoti, "is that the energy around facilitation and the local and campus capacity building this training provided can be applied to any student success effort going forward in the future."

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