publicagenda.org May 30, 2013
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Improving Public Engagement In and Beyond California
Irvine InfographicOne of our main tenets at Public Agenda is that those in power can arrive at better decisions and more sustainable policies when they engage the individuals affected by those decisions and policies. A pair of new reports provides a blueprint for local officials, civic and community leaders, and funders to improve just that. We spoke to over 1400 local officials, some elected and non-elected, and leaders of civic and community-based organizations throughout California. Their insights raise important considerations for California and the nation.  

Both groups feel that traditional formats for public engagement – public hearings, for example— are not working. In fact, two-thirds of public officials said that public hearings don't give voice to the real public, and over half of civic leaders said they exclude broad sections of the public. Low-income individuals, youth, immigrants and ethnic minorities—all groups that are traditionally disenfranchised – are just some of the populations that local officials say they find difficult to engage in this way.

Fortunately, both local officials and civic leaders seem quite interested in new forms of public engagement that purposefully include a broader representation of the public. They believe that more thoughtful, deliberative and inclusive models of public engagement can foster trust, bring out fresh ideas, result in better understanding of public concerns, and lead to better decisions.

Though these models may not be appropriate for all public decisions, they believe that such processes would help a great deal in discussing certain issues, including land use, economic development, finances, and budgets.

Promising and innovative new models already exist, and local officials and civic leaders are both experimenting with them.

One is example is our own Community Conversation model, which community and institutional leaders have implemented with local officials and other decision makers in communities and institutions around the country. Community Conversations have led to sustainable development, stronger education standards, and tax policies supported by the general public.

Another example is Participatory Budgeting, which started in Brazil and has spread to the United States, in cities including New York, Chicago and Vallejo, CA. In Participatory Budgeting, residents brainstorm ways to spend public money, develop proposals for projects, and vote on which projects should receive funding. It enables taxpayers to work directly with local government to make budgetary decisions that affect their lives.

You can make a difference when it comes to improving public engagement. Residents, contact your local officials and ask them to work with your community's organizations to plan a Community Conversation or a Participatory Budgeting initiative. Local officials and civic leaders, talk to each other, share knowledge, and be sure to check out other recommendations for improving community engagement.  Collaboration and strong relationships are key for realizing successful public engagement. And if you've participated in a public engagement event that you think satisfied participants and officials alike, tell your story!
Quality Higher Education for All
Community colleges serve twice as many low-income students as high-income students, far more than at four-year colleges. Meanwhile, funding for community colleges has been stagnant for the past decade, even as per-student funding at private universities has grown.  Two-year colleges often receive fewer resources per student than elementary and secondary schools. Meanwhile, the vast majority of community college students (88 percent) who plan to transfer and complete a four year degree are unable to do so within six years.

Because community colleges are a major avenue for often under-served populations of students to achieve the American Dream, these findings from a Century Foundation report add a greater urgency for us to find a workable means to provide all types of students with accessible, affordable and quality higher education.

Given the implications of community college completion on equal opportunity and on the health of our nation as a whole, how can we navigate this issue, with its many complex, social and economic implications, and focus on the solutions that will improve the success of all students?

While the debate about funding continues, we need to do something to help those 9 out of 10 students who are failing to graduate or transfer right now. Here are some questions we should remember when engaged on this issue:

Who needs to be included in the conversation and what is the best way to go about it?

It may seem like a no-brainer to include the voices of students, full-time and part-time faculty, parents, guidance counselors, community business leaders and others in conversations about improving community college. Yet, far too often, administrators and state policymakers neglect the valuable insights these individuals bring to the issue. Getting these different groups to the table may be a challenge, but many have faced just this challenge and say it was well worth the effort.

What is working, or at least helping, elsewhere?

Issues of resources and funding are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In the meantime, it’s important to heed advice from those who have been best able to wring student success out of limited resources.  We’ve seen the challenges facing community colleges first hand and have written about how to close achievement gaps through practices including faculty engagement and data-driven decision making. We’ve also learned a great deal in K-12 education about how those in leadership roles have created cultures of success to beat the odds in high-poverty schools, and we suspect such leadership qualities can drive success in community colleges as well.

How can those solutions be implemented and spread to many in a sustainable manner?

Finally, we must think about how to bring the initiatives and practices that are successful at individual community colleges to other colleges and make them work. In other words, how can we scale up successful initiatives? To scale up successfully, we will need to anticipate how these changes will occur, as well as recognize that sustaining these changes will require consistency and attention. For an overview of the most common barriers, principles to help take initiatives to scale, and a checklist of critical questions when it comes to scaling up successful strategies, check out our report "Scaling Community College Interventions."

There aren’t any easy answers, miracle remedies, or even enough capital that will allow students to work past every setback in order to succeed, but addressing the critical issue of community college equity in an inclusive and practical way will keep those affected that much closer to achieving their dream.
Public Agenda in the News
Senior Fellow Jean Johnson discussed the meaning of parent involvement in education reform, outlining three different kinds parents described in report on the attitudes of Kansas City parents, on her Huffington Post blog.   

Education website Edutopia also used "Ready, Willing and Able" to advise engagement practices for the next school year, including the tailored approaches needed to effectively utilize parents in school improvement.  

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson looked at carbon emissions by state per capita and explained how the biggest offenders can explain themselves and curb their impact.

Cincinnati.com examined the role of students' needs in improving college completion, citing a stat from our report “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them”: Most dropouts leave college because they have to work and that working while attending college is too difficult.