Understanding the Public: Lessons from Public Agenda’s Jean Johnson

Since its founding in 1975, Public Agenda has been intimately involved in nonpartisan opinion research and stakeholder engagement. As part of this work, the organization produces a number of reports each year that help translate polling data and deliberations into “research that illuminates people’s views and values.” While many organizations are interested in convening citizens for public deliberations, Public Agenda has taken up the challenge to translate these conversations into reports and to bring those reports to the attention of policymakers. For example, Public Agenda has observed and written about citizen deliberations conducted nationwide in the National Issues Forums (NIF). The most recent report on NIF forums, Divided We Fail: Why It’s Time for a Broader, More Inclusive Conversation on the Future of Higher Education, was the subject of discussions at the U.S. Department of Education, the National Governors Association, and the Committee for Economic Development.

To better understand this work, Jack Becker talked with Jean Johnson, a senior fellow and special advisor for Public Agenda who has worked with the organization since the early 1980s. Johnson’s work has been featured in USA Today, Education Leadership, Education Week, and the Kettering Review, among others. She is a member of the National Issues Forums Institute board and author of several books, most recently, You Can’t Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

Jack Becker: One of the frustrations I hear about deliberative conversations is that while they may succeed in convening citizens together to talk, they often fail to translate those conversations into meaningful insights. What exactly is it we learn during these deliberations that we should communicate to others?   

Jean Johnson: It is evident that deliberative discussions produce a type of useful information that elected officials and others are not able to get from opinion polls. During these discussions people wrestle with tough ideas. In the best circumstances, Public Agenda is able to take what people talk about in deliberative discussions, summarize it, and take it to policymakers and sit down with them to help them understand how citizens are thinking about an issue. For many elected officials, this is useful information to help them grasp what citizens’ questions are and what their values are on a particular issue, and in many cases we find that citizens are more measured in their views than polls suggest.

Communicating this information is a major challenge for Public Agenda, however. Where lobbying groups and advocacy groups have a solution to public problems that they can put into three points, what comes out in deliberation is not as clear-cut. What we often hear is subtler, such as questions people have about an issue. These are not slogans and zingers or simple solutions.

The other challenge is that for a lot of people in the press and in leadership, deliberation is unfamiliar territory.  From my own experience, journalists are often less familiar with the tone and gradations of public thinking than policymakers, many of whom are out in their own district talking to citizens. In many cases, they actually do have a feel for issues and the kind of insights Public Agenda shares with them makes sense. Journalists, however, are often more used to dealing with elected officials and experts and polling data, so I think the deliberative movement needs to work hard to organize more face-to-face discussion with local policymakers and the press.

Carolyn Lukensmeyer, in the most recent volume of the Journal of Public Deliberation, identified the same two groups (decision makers and media) as important constituents of the deliberative movement. She argued we must, “broadly educate elected leaders and other public officials about the value of deliberation and how to do it” and “engage with and support the media in regaining its central role in a well-functioning democracy.” Why is it difficult to do these two tasks?

Clearly there are a couple of challenges to communicating what we learn from deliberative forums with others. One is that deliberation does not often produce a single, simple policy solution—it’s more often a set of questions, a hierarchy of values and options. Another challenge is that sometimes we are captured by our own rhetoric. That is, we have developed words that matter and resonate with those of us in the deliberative movement but that are actually pretty obscure and confusing to people outside our arena. Sometimes the challenge with policymakers is that they simply want to know what people think: What’s realistic? What can I do? What do you want? Another major challenge is that policymakers might find forums useful and valuable, but they operate in a much different political environment. For example, they may have elections coming up and have to deal with the daily pressure of hearing from passionate advocates. Considering what emerges from a deliberative discussion among citizens may seem like a lower priority in the heat of an election battle.

How should we approach these challenges?

We need to educate policymakers and the media about the value of deliberative discussions. It is very hard for both these groups to think about deliberation abstractly. The entry point has generally been talking about problems that media and elected officials are already thinking about and wrestling with. It’s difficult to get this group of people to spend much time on the big picture question: how do we create a high-functioning democracy, and how does deliberation fit in?

Public Agenda has had some interesting partnerships with media, typically working with someone who sees a particular issue as urgent and difficult for his or her community. A number of individuals in the media are attracted to the idea of stimulating more deliberative discussions, but they are in a very challenging business environment. Newspapers are really fighting just to be in business in the immediate future, and there is considerable turnover among editors and reporters.  When media are so focused on “breaking news” and opinion journalism, the kind of explanatory journalism required to explore the outcomes of deliberation doesn’t often fit in there.

You author Beyond the Polls, a Public Agenda blog in partnership with the National Issues Forums and the Kettering Foundation that takes a deeper look at what Americans are thinking about public issues. Can you put this project into context on a current issue?

Policymakers and journalists are so familiar with polling as a way to find out what Americans are thinking. We’re saying there’s something more—that leaders can develop a deeper and subtler understanding of public thinking if they look at what’s behind individual polls results. We’re also warning policymakers that they can’t simply take polls at face value. This is the point to Beyond the Polls. We start with what the polls are saying, and then take it to another level.

A post that’s gotten a lot of attention has been the one on Common Core. This was an issue that was broadly supported by leaders—governors, business leaders, and number of very thoughtful education experts. But they didn’t go through an inclusive process in developing the Common Core, so when the changes prompted by the reform actually began to surface in schools and districts, they started to get pushback. People had questions. Points of view that hadn’t been considered before, at least not publically, came in. To me, Common Core is a case in point in how important it is to build deliberative democracy into reform and to have those deliberative discussions as a policy develops, not to count on messaging and public relations after the fact.

Higher education has been a perennial subject for the Kettering Foundation, National Issues Forums Institute, and Public Agenda. Certainly, the national news media focuses attention on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) when talking about higher education. The NIF network ran forums across the country last year using the Shaping Our Future issue book. Public Agenda listened in on many of those conversations and reported on them. What did you learn?

We heard a lot about STEM during the Shaping Our Future forums held throughout 2012 and 2013. The vast majority of participants in the NIF forums really did believe that STEM and similar fields are the future of the economy. There was also a strong sentiment that education for STEM really needs to start much earlier than college. At the same time, there was lot of pushback against proposals that seemed to focus on STEM to the exclusion of other fields of study. There was a genuine and passionate sense that other fields are just as important and that scientists, engineers, and other people in tech fields will be more creative and innovative if they study more broadly—including, music, art, and the liberal arts. Participants clearly viewed balance as a crucial part of education.

A lot of people in the forums raised another important question: Do we have an economy in which the success of STEM fields will be shared across the country? This relates closely to broad public concerns about the future of the middle class and the income gap we see in the U.S. Not all workers are benefiting from a growing economy fueled by STEM-related fields. So people had plenty of questions about the economy: What does the income gap mean? What do we owe people who work hard in blue-collar jobs? What do we owe the shrinking middle class? What kind of life should be provided for people who can’t work? How should we award entrepreneurship?

I guess the one thing we haven’t talked about is the current state of public discourse. I can’t find many people who say it’s healthy. In fact, quite the opposite: most think of public discourse as filled with divisiveness and partisanship. How would you characterize public discourse today?

The characterization I’ve been thinking about recently is that we’re becoming a “knee-jerk” nation. There is something in our political culture today that encourages people to give knee-jerk responses. Deliberation is about thoughtfulness, and yet the media and political culture seems to reward the moment of fame to the person with the sharpest and quickest reaction. For example, we have “breaking news,” we have tweeting, we have online blogs; they are all feeding this model. There’s nothing wrong with having a knee-jerk reaction, but that can’t be the sum total. This is what’s most heartening about the issues forums: they attract people who want to have a more thoughtful conversation. Maybe forums are an antidote to the pervasiveness of the knee-jerk reaction.

Jack Becker is a former Kettering Foundation research assistant. He currently works for Denver Public Schools Office of Family and Community Engagement. He can be reached at jackabecker@gmail.com. Follow him on twitter: @jackabecker