Archives for category: civic engagement

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am at program officer at the Kettering Foundation. Kettering is a research organization that studies ways to make democracy work as it should — meaning to place citizens more at the center of politics rather than on the periphery.

One of the roles I play at Kettering is executive editor of our issue guide series. These are publications we develop that present difficult public issues in frameworks that are designed to spark and support public deliberation. These guides (which we primarily develop in partnership with the National Issues Forums) are used by all sorts of organizations around the nation as well as globally. Our issue guides are some of our most visible publications at Kettering, and for some time we have been trying to make the ways in which we develop them more transparent. A great deal of research goes into them, and we thought that giving some visibility into this research, on an ongoing basis, might be useful to others.

And so we have established a new blog designed to shine light on the kinds of things that go into our thinking as we develop materials to support public deliberation — the research, naming, framing, and more. The blog is called Inside Public Judgment and we will be updating it on a regular basis.

My first post has just been published, which outlines some of the main starting points that seem important to keep in mind when thinking about deliberative politics. Here’s an excerpt:

New Blog at the Kettering Foundation

New Blog at the Kettering Foundation

Some (Not All) Starting Points for Deliberative Politics:

  • One aim of democracy is for citizens to have a stronger hand in controlling their own future.
  • There are a number of “problems of democracy”—things that get in the way of democracy functioning (that is, things that get in the way of people taking control of their future).
  • Politics can be described as a set of practices that can respond to these problems.
  • There are different kinds of problems that face people in communities. Some are technical and can be solved unilaterally (e.g., how to build a new jail), but others are much more difficult because they involve tensions between things held valuable that must be worked through (e.g., what we should do about a growing sense of personal vulnerability in our community).
  • Some of the things we all hold deeply valuable (not the only things) are often in tension: “security,” “fairness,” and “freedom.”
  • We don’t “solve” such problems—we need to negotiate our provisional solutions together, and we do this repeatedly over time. We do this by weighing options for action against what we hold valuable and against likely consequences—this is deliberation.
  • Naming in public terms and framing for deliberation are powerful ways to make it more likely (and possible) for citizens to weigh these things held valuable.

Read the full article here.

I’m pleased to announce that the Case Foundation has released a new report co-authored by me (with Cynthia Gibson) titled To Be Fearless.

The report, commissioned for the Case Foundation’s fifteenth anniversary, is an exploration of what it means for organizations in the social sector to be fearless. It is rooted in five key principles:

  1. Make Big Bets and Make History. Set audacious, not incremental, goals.
  2. Experiment Early and Often. Don’t be afraid to go first.
  3. Make Failure Matter. Failure teaches. learn from it.
  4. Reach Beyond Your Bubble. It’s comfortable to go it alone. But innovation happens at intersections.
  5. Let Urgency Conquer Fear. Don’t overthink and overanalyze. Do.

The To Be Fearless Report lays out the framework for a wide-ranging initiative by the Case Foundation to spark a conversation about fearlessness across the social sector. It was released at an event streamed live on Ustream featuring Jean and Steve Case, Sen. Mark Warner, Walter Isaacson (CEO of the Aspen Institute and Steve Jobs’ biographer), and many notable social sector leaders.

The full report is available for free download at the Case Foundation’s web site.

Steve Case, Jean Case, Walter Isaacson

I recently was asked to recap some of the research I have been fortunate to be a part of as it relates to Americans’ concerns when they think about the future. I’ve had a chance to review focus group findings (and conduct a few of my own) for a number of projects over the past twelve months, and a number of interesting themes have emerged.

I see seven related and interlocking concerns:

Photo by o5com (Flickr)

The “Deal” Is Falling Apart

What used to be the implicit deal between individuals and the future no longer holds true. It used to be that people had a sense of what they had to do in order to guarantee their economic security moving forward. Working hard, developing a trade or going to college, and playing by the rules, would be rewarded by a decent job, a decent living, and a decent retirement. No more. There are no longer any guarantees when it comes to the future.

Institutions Are Not Trustworthy

The “deal” referred to above was supported in large part by public institutions (I mean “public” in a broad sense): higher education, large employers, government agencies, community organizations. People no longer trust these institutions to do what they promise. (Even higher education, near the top of the list in terms of how much people find it trustworthy, only garners 35% trust.) Yet these institutions still control many aspects of people’s day-to-day lives. The frustration this generates is palpable.

The Moral Compass Is Askew

People say they are worried that America’s morals are in decline. This is a broad-based worry. People are worried about public leaders acting hypocritically, about business leaders acting out of greed, about fellow community members acting out of selfishness. Because they can’t trust others to behave responsibly, people say they have in large part given up hope that better rules or better enforcement will fix the problem.

America’s Best Days May Be Behind Us

People are plagued with a nagging feeling that our best days are behind us. People say they are aware that in many cases the next generation will be worse off than now. They also worry about America’s place in the world — and have misgivings that other nations (especially China and India) are poised to take over the reins.

Leaders Are Not Up To The Challenge

People express skepticism that the current generation of leaders is really up to the tasks it has before it. The debt ceiling debacle was just another in a long line of failures of leadership. People are dumfounded by leaders who appear to be unable to drive progress of any sort.

We Can’t Work Together

At the same time, people lament that on an “ordinary people” level, we used to be able to work together productively — and they feel we have lost that. People say they are literally afraid of their neighbors and that public life even on the local level has become filled with shouting and anger. They feel people can’t put community ahead of individual.

The Elites Don’t Care, People Are Shut Out

People are really, really disgusted with elites — political, business, academic, and more. People think that elites have an easy life that is guaranteed — for instance, majorities of people in focus groups believe that elected officials get a salary for life and are shuttled around in limousines. They also believe leaders actively rig things so they can have it easier and easier, and that they work against the public’s interest at times on purpose.

It’s not a happy picture. America is in a dark mood, collectively. People are reluctant to express hope and, when they do, it sounds somewhat forced. For example, many adults say they think that today’s youth will be able to get good jobs because they will have technical skills — but scratch at the surface and the optimism vanishes.

The above is based on my analysis of work by a number of good friends (including John Doble, John Creighton, and Steve Farkas) and on some of my own work. I am sure there are other concerns that I do not touch on. I was trying to hit the overriding themes. What would you add?

As they always do, new Facebook changes have brought with them a load of complaints along with some praise. One big complaint is that this new “Ticker” (a realtime stream of all activity by friends, including their interactions with other friends) has a lot of noise in it.

“I don’t care what my friends do with these strangers,” go some complaints. “It is irrelevant to me. It clutters up my stream.”

I have over 1,000 friends on Facebook, so I can sympathize with the desire to have an orderly news stream. However, I find the noise and static to be a small price to pay for what, I believe, is ultimately a public good: serendipity.

One of the pathologies driven in part by our narrow-casted lifestyle is that we never (or only rarely) have any reason to come into contact ideas unlike those we already hold, arts different than those we already like, politics unlike those to which we already adhere, or even people unlike us in any way. Bill Bishop has described this phenomenon in detail in his hugely important work, The Big Sort.

While the Big Sort is not caused solely by Internet effects, the online world enables and acts as an accelerant for some of the problems that it poses for public life. Therefore, I am in general in favor of things that might increase the chance that I will encounter something I would not have otherwise sought out. By slightly opening up the “Facebook firehose” of data, I see interactions between people I don’t necessarily know. Some of those may interest me enough to dig deeper and engage. Some may not.

I feel the upside is good enough for public life that I can put up with the downside of a certain amount of irrelevance and noise.

A report released today by the National Conference on Citizenship, CICLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement), Civic Enterprises, Saguaro Seminar, and the National Constitution Center suggests that “levels of civic engagement in 2006 and 2008 strongly predicted how well states and large metro areas would weather the unemployment crisis of 2006-10.”

This is an exciting report. There is a great deal of research that suggests that higher levels of civic engagement are associated with greater “resiliency” by communities.

According to CIRCLE researchers:

The report carefully notes that we cannot tell for sure whether civic engagement lowers unemployment; other explanations are explored. However, the statistical relationships are notably strong and deserve much more attention by economists, policymakers, and the public.

The statistical analysis itself cannot explain why civic engagement may be an important factor in avoiding unemployment, but other research lends support for several hypotheses:

  • Participation in civil society can develop skills, confidence, and habits that make individuals employable and strengthen the networks that help them to find jobs
  • People get jobs through social networks (online and offline)
  • Participation in civil society spreads information relevant to investors and workers
  • Participation in civil society is strongly correlated with trust in other people, and people who trust others are more likely to invest and hire
  • Communities and political jurisdictions with stronger civil societies are more likely to have good governments
  • Civic engagement can encourage people to feel attached to their communities

I am proud of my past association with the National Conference on Citizenship: I was the chief writer and my company, the Mannakee Circle Group, was a partner in the development of last year’s Maryland Civic Health Index.

I created a Prezi that goes through the process I use to frame issues for public deliberation, and filmed a video that walks through it. I thought this might be helpful in talking to colleagues about how I go about doing my work — it is not the only method to frame issues, but it has been working for me.

(It may also help me explain to my friends just what it is I do!)

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The Prezi itself is available for you to play with here.

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This past week, I spent four days at the Kettering Foundation’s Deliberative Democracy Exchange. This is a series of workshops where a number of people working on democratic participation issues come together to share what they are learning and struggling with.

I participated as a member of one 2-day workshop where we discussed what kinds of things ought to go into how we think about training people to moderate or lead deliberative conversations, and what kinds of thinking ought to go into how and what we report about those same conversations.

I also served as a co-leader for another workshop where a number of libraries housing government papers are looking at ways to bring deliberative practices into their work.

One of the highlights of the conference was that my friend Craig Patterson asked me to cut a short video as a part of a series he was working on. He was asking a handful of participants to respond to the question: “How can we come together as a community to rebuild our community?”

Here is my brief response:

As you can see, my main answer is that the way we can come together as a community is to foster a habit of coming together. This takes people who have the habit of holding deliberative conversations. It is not rocket science, but it takes people who have a knack. This is not about there being one particular facilitator or organization who can convene, but of there being people all throughout the community who have experienced what it is like to be a part of a conversation where people respectfully weight the trade offs and drawbacks of differing ideas.

It is accessible to all, it only takes a handful of people to begin to spark it.

I am traveling today, so rather than post a lengthy article, I’d instead like to point you to a friend’s piece from earlier this year.

One of my favorite thinkers on public life (and a good friend and colleague), John Creighton, wrote a wide-ranging essay as the new year turned about the mood of America. He suggests that, in addition to some of the long-standing core concerns that Americans express for security, control, and meaning — we add “balance.”

John makes an excellent case and I urge you to read his entire thoughtful article.

Here’s an excerpt:

The first three qualities – security, control and meaning – tend to develop as a package.  As a person establishes personal and financial security, she also gains a sense of control over her life.  We have expression to reinforce the importance people place on security and control – for instance, “Everyone is a king in his own home.”  Public policy often reinforces these values, too. . . .

In many ways, Americans have come full circle since World War II.  We have enjoyed riches and opportunities unprecedented in history.  Yet, at the end of a long run, we crave the same things people have always wanted: security, control (freedom) and meaning, now, leavened with a healthy dose of balance.

What’s different is that we must learn to achieve these lifestyle aspirations in a context unknown to our parents and grandparents.  The structures of work, learning, socializing and many other aspects of daily life that defined the lives of generations of Americans are quickly fading away.

Time, geography, and social norms, for instance, once forced healthy limits upon our consumption. Now it is possible to instantly satisfy nearly any legitimate need and frivolous whim at any time – 24/7/365 (a set of numbers seldom if ever used in this way until the rise of the internet).  The ability to gain instant gratification will not go away.  Instead, we must learn to strike balance in our lives with temptation lurking on our shoulder, incessantly whispering in our ear.

Thanks for an important contribution, John.

Photo by Flickr user 'cliff1066'

This afternoon, in the locker room at my gym, I witnessed a scene I would not see just any old where.

There were two Japanese men, one younger and in his twenties, the other looking mid-fifties or so. They were speaking to one another in a patois of Japanese and English. Mostly Japanese, with a smattering of English words and half-sentences. I did not really pay much attention, and went about my business.

Then I heard the older one say to the other, “each state gets two.” This was followed by more Japanese that I did not understand. My ears pricked up, and I wondered if they were talking about the Senate. Naw, I thought. Why would they be?

But, evidently not only were they talking about the Senate, but the older man appeared to be giving the younger man a lesson in U.S. civics. I clearly heard “minority leader,” “House,” “president,” and more.

I felt both pleased and crestfallen. Pleased, because it is cool to live in the nation’s capital region, where you run across such conversations more often than you’d imagine.

Crestfallen, because I just can’t imagine two American expatriates having a similar conversation in, say, a Japanese bath house.

Friends, I am delighted to announce the imminent release of a project I have been working hard on for the better part of the year. My company (The Mannakee Circle Group) has been lead partner on the first-ever Maryland Civic Health Index. This report was developed as a partnership between The Mannakee Circle Group, the Maryland Commission on Civic Literacy, Common Cause Maryland,  and the National Conference on Citizenship. It was funded in part by the Center for Civic Education.

The Civic Health Index is developed using data from the U.S. Census, and is mandated by the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act of 2009. The National Conference on Citizenship developed a national report, and partnered with a variety of local organizations in developing a number of state and local reports.

I am proud to say I was the chief author of the report. My very good friends at CIRCLE did the core data analysis and I am deeply indebted to them.

In addition to the census data, the Maryland partners convened a number of community conversations throughout the state and culminated this listening effort with a Civic Literacy Summit held on October 23 where workgroups made recommendations for moving forward.

All this is given in detail in the report. I will release a link to the report after it is made public on December 8 in Annapolis. The report can be found here.

Below is the event announcement:

ANNAPOLIS, Md.  – A coalition next week will release the first-ever report on the civic health of Maryland, evaluating in numerous areas how Marylanders work together in society for the common good, and how their level of work and engagement compares to residents of other states.

To evaluate the Free State’s civic health, the first-ever Maryland Civic Health Index looked at indicators that include volunteerism, social connections, voting habits and political engagement, among others. The report sketches a picture of Marylanders engaged in their communities more than residents of many other states. But it also suggests that given its higher than average median income and education levels and proximity to Washington DC, it is not as high as expected.

The report will be released at a press conference, details below.

Press Conference Details

What:   Release of Maryland Civic Health Index 2010

When: Wednesday, Dec. 8, 9 am

Where: Miller Senate Building


  • Judge Robert Bell, Chief Judge, Maryland Court of Appeals
  • Dr. Nancy Grasmick, State Superintendent of Schools
  • Barbara Reynolds, Director, Governor’s Office on Service and Volunterism
  • Senator Allan Kittleman, Chair, Commission on Civic Literacy
  • Marcie Taylor-Thoma, Vice-chair, Commission on Civic Literacy
  • Dr. Stephen Frantzich, Professor of Political Science, USNA
  • Wanda Speede, Maryland Higher Education Commission
  • Brad Rourke, The Mannakee Circle Group, report author
  • Susan Schreiber, Common Cause Maryland

The 31-page report was prepared by the Mannakee Circle Group, the Maryland Commission on Civic Literacy, Common Cause Maryland, and the National Conference on Citizenship. It is based on analysis of state data from the National Conference on Citizenship’s America’s Civic Health Index, and conversations with Marylanders throughout the state in summer and early fall of this year.