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New “Healthier Democracies” initiative will bring learning about democratic innovation to the U.S.

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New “Healthier Democracies” initiative will bring learning about democratic innovation to the U.S.

Public Agenda, a non-partisan research and public engagement organization based in New York City, has received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for “Healthier Democracies,” an initiative that will explore practical lessons from other countries that could help Americans improve their democratic systems and restore trust in government.

The Healthier Democracies project will gather promising global examples of democratic innovation and community engagement, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and identify practices and reforms that might work in the United States. Researchers will examine how those communities dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic as a way of understanding how well their systems can solve critical public problems. The project will help us understand how to establish more equitable, deliberative and collaborative relationships between citizens and governments.   

“Increasingly, people all over the world are asking how we can make democracy work in new and better ways,” says Matt Leighninger, Vice President for Engagement at Public Agenda. “They are frustrated by political systems in which public participation is limited to voting, institutions are unresponsive to community needs, and fundamental priorities (like health, education and economic opportunity) go unaddressed. Through this project, we want to look beyond our borders for ideas and inspiration to continue to strengthen our own democracy.”

Healthier Democracies will be advised by a group of American public officials and civic leaders, who will help guide the research and ensure dissemination of the lessons learned and tools developed from the project. The research will produce fifteen global case studies – ten local examples and five state or provincial examples. Public Agenda will apply a comprehensive methodology to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each example and produce narratives to bring light to the innovations, how they work and what lessons we can draw from them in the U.S. context. 

The data gathered from these examples will spotlight the strength of social networks in that place, point to trust-building strategies, levels of support for volunteerism and how much influence people have on the public decisions that affect their lives. It will examine how equitable these reforms are, both in terms of who participates and how the outcomes affect different groups of people. 

Even before the pandemic, Americans were looking for change and innovation in their democracy. Public Agenda’s Yankelovich Democracy Monitor research found that Americans respond enthusiastically to new democratic practices and reforms, especially ones that give citizens a greater voice in the decisions that affect their lives.

The most significant challenge is that few people understand how to bring about this kind of engagement and they lack the tools and resources. The ultimate goal of Healthier Democracies is to bridge this gap in knowledge and inspiration.

About Public Agenda

Public Agenda is a nonpartisan research and public engagement organization dedicated to a healthy, just and effective democracy. We support informed citizens, engaged communities and responsive public institutions. We elevate diverse voices, build common ground and foster progress on issues of concern to the American public. These include K-12 education, higher education, health care, economic opportunity and democracy reform. Find Public Agenda online at, and on social media at FB@publicagenda/Twitter@publicagenda/Instagram@publicagenda_.

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