develop new model for collectively solving public problems
Civic CaucusReview of Minnesota's Civic Process Interview
November 6, 2015
Adams, Steve Anderson, Dave Broden (vice chair), Paul Gilje
(executive director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper (associate
director), Sean Kershaw, Dan Loritz (chair), Bill Rudelius, Dana
Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter. By phone:
role a strong civic infrastructure has played in Minnesota is
vital to our past and future success, according to Citizens
League Executive Director Sean Kershaw. Our ability to
collectively solve problems has mattered. But he points out that
the world has changed dramatically since the heyday of
public-policy organizations like the Citizens League more than a
generation ago. That was a unique time of post-war stability and
economic growth, without a lot of inequality or political
says, we have a proliferation of interest groups; issues with
global implications and connections; unprecedented changes in
technology; greater time competition; and substantial changes
in economic activity and competition. Problems are more
complex than they were in the past; it's not as simple as
going to the Legislature or any one institution to resolve
changes, policy approaches and solutions that worked in the
old model don't necessarily work anymore, Kershaw concludes.
We need to rebuild a new civic imagination and capacity to
address the problems we currently face and that fit well with
how the world is working now. We aren't doing well today in
resolving public problems, he asserts, in part because we
haven't let go of the past paradigm.
there is no lack of interesting ideas out there about dealing
with public problems, but we seem to be unable to implement
the good ideas that do come up. To change that, he believes we
must recognize that every person and every institution have a
role in policymaking, including both generalists and formal
stakeholders. People who are affected by a public problem must
be involved in the whole process of defining the problem,
designing solutions to it and advancing the proposed
groups looking for long-term solutions to public problems are
just beginning to emerge through the efforts of Millennials,
Kershaw says these groups are not yet moving the needle. He
calls on groups like the Civic Caucus to help support the
development of a public mindset in this younger generation,
while cautioning that Millennials might express that mindset
very differently from the way people expressed it 30 years ago.
2003, Sean Kershaw became the sixth Citizens League executive
director in its 60-plus-year history. He had been a member of
the Citizens League Board of Directors since 1996 and co-chaired
the League's 50th anniversary report, Doing the Common Good Better.
describes his life's work as building the institutions
necessary to "make policy public." He is passionate about
active citizenship, civic organizing and good public policy.
He is a founding member of the Active Citizens School for
Young Adults, a young-adult civic leadership program, and is
currently working on nonprofit civic leadership efforts
through the Minnesota Active Citizenship Initiative.
joining the Citizens League, Kershaw was deputy director of
the City of St. Paul's Department of Planning and Economic
Development, where he worked for 11 years. During his tenure,
he chaired then-Mayor Norm Coleman's e-Government initiative
and coordinated Coleman's information technology, chartered
school and education initiatives. He also worked as community
outreach coordinator on the Mayor's Y2K initiative.
coming to Minnesota, Kershaw was planning coordinator for the
Public Housing Authority in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He
has a B.A. degree in sociology from Pennsylvania's Haverford
interview with Sean Kershaw is part of a new focus for the
Civic Caucus: reviewing the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future civic process for developing proposals and
action to anticipate, define and resolve major public
problems. The Caucus developed this new focus during three
internal discussion sessions, held on Sept.
Oct. 2, 2015. While it undertakes this review of the civic
process, the Caucus will also continue interviews exploring
the topic of human capital in Minnesota.
There are "givens" in the discussion of civic
infrastructure that most people agree are true. The
Citizens League's Sean Kershaw outlined what he called
three major areas of broad agreement about Minnesota's
The concept of civic infrastructure is broadly
Kershaw said he uses two definitions for civic
infrastructure: (1) the capacity to govern for the
common good in a democracy; and (2) the public
decision-making processes, methods and reward systems in
a democracy that provide the foundation to govern for
the common good in the tension between democratic ideals
and the real social, economic and environmental
2. The role
that our civic infrastructure has played in Minnesota is
vital to our past and future success.
Kershaw said former Citizens League Executive Director
Ted Kolderie has done a "phenomenal job" of connecting
our success to the civic infrastructure Minnesota
developed over the years. "Our ability to collectively
solve problems has mattered and this has been modeled by
the Civic Caucus and the Citizens League," Kershaw said.
He noted that the Citizens League's heyday occurred
during a unique time in Minnesota and in the country:
post-war stability and economic growth. We grew
economically without a lot of inequality, he said. It
was also a time of a relative lack of political
3. The world
has changed significantly.
The scale of things has changed dramatically in a
generation, Kershaw asserted. He noted several examples:
(1) The number of interest groups has grown
substantially. (2) Almost every issue now has global
implications and connections, so what happens in
Minnesota is only part of the solution. (3) There has
been an unprecedented change in technology. (4) Time
competition is greater with both spouses in households
working, and working longer hours. (5) Economic activity
and competition have changed. "The scale of almost
everything has changed dramatically since that time of
our peak success," he said.
Kershaw pointed out that the ability to isolate
ourselves has also changed significantly. "I can pick
and choose the sources I want to get my news from and
isolate my worldview around them," he said.
"Geographically, we're more isolated than in the past by
race and ethnicity, income, and ideology. Politically,
polarization has become extreme at the national level
and locally among neighborhoods. People tend to surround
themselves with people who agree with them."
problem isn't that social media and television are less
accurate than they were in the past, he said. The
problem is that it's easier than ever for people only to
hear from and talk with those who agree with them,
whether or not they have the facts right. This deadens
political and policy conversations and makes it very
difficult to come to an understanding of the problems we
the near future, demographics will change dramatically,
he said. Over the next 10 years, there will be large
growth in diversity, labor force growth will fall to
almost zero, and the population will become much older
much more quickly than ever in history.
There are also a series of assertions about civic
infrastructure with which people might disagree.
Kershaw made four broad assertions that guide the
Citizens League's work right now, saying people might
not agree with all of them:
are more complex than in the past.
Examples he cited include the achievement gap, medical
care, education, transportation and mental health
reform. "There are many more actors needed to get
something done," Kershaw said. "It's not as simple as
going to the Legislature or going to any one
institution. The problems we face now are just more
complex than they were in the past. The world now is not
hierarchical; it's more like a web with a bunch of
drew a parallel to Minnesota's approach to dealing with
water pollution. In the past, Minnesota was successful
in reducing point-source water pollution through
regulatory means. But now we find that much water
pollution comes from nonpoint sources, such as
agricultural runoff, which requires a totally different
strategy. "More of our problems are like that now,"
point is that policy approaches and solutions that
worked in the old model don't necessarily work anymore,
given the way the world works now, he said.
in a completely new paradigm in terms of how the world
works and what we do about it in public policy.
Kershaw used physics as an example. He explained that at
one time, Sir Isaac Newton could explain things, like
the motion of the planets ,mathematically with what
became known as "Newtonian" or classical mechanics. He
developed mathematical equations to describe the world
around him and to predict things. But over time, people
noticed there were things that his model couldn't
explain or predict, mostly at the subatomic level. Then
Albert Einstein and others developed an entirely new
paradigm or model (called "quantum mechanics") that
could explain and predict things the old model could
not. "One model needed to replace the other in order to
explain the world as people saw it," Kershaw said. The
point was that this was an entirely new way of looking
at the world, not just an improvement on the previous
must do the same thing," Kershaw said. "We need to
rebuild a new civic imagination and capacity to address
the problems we now face and that fit well with how the
world is working now. For example, "we've made politics
into a bad thing, but politics is how we get things
done. And we've made civics only about government and
not about problem solving in a democracy in every
3. We aren't
doing well, in part because we need to let go of the
"As we're moving from one way the world works to
another, we're in that in-between zone," Kershaw said.
"It's like moving from the payphone world to cell phones
to whatever technology comes next. The implications of
not doing well are critical to Minnesota. For a state
that depends on civic infrastructure for our success, we
have to get better at that."
implications of these changes place an enormous amount
of importance on governance, not government. Kershaw
said he was referring to governance everywhere: in
government, in nonprofits, in business. "Most of the
problems we're facing right now can be traced to
governance failures, not just government failures,"
he said. "If we can't implement the policy solutions we
develop, at what point does governance become a policy
Everyone has a role in policymaking, including both
generalists and formal stakeholders. Kershaw
contended that we need to rethink who, how and where
policy happens. Traditionally, people have thought
policy was made by other people, such as government,
experts or elected officials. "But what's critical in
this new paradigm is that everybody has a role in policy
issues," he said. "A policymaker is not someone else,
it's everybody. There has to be a transition from
'policy happens someplace else' to 'policy happens
"Policy doesn't happen just at the government level," he
continued. "If we're thinking about school reform,
transportation reform, or mental health reform, every
institution has a role in it. At some point, you must
include a diverse set of formal stakeholders, as well as
generalists, in that process in order to get to the root
of what's going on."
We need to be
building capacity at all levels and with all types of
individual leaders, Kershaw said. "One of the problems
right now is that we're waiting for big business
leaders and big government leaders to solve things and
they can't on their own. It means a totally new role
for all kinds of institutions: from foundations to
academia to business to nonprofits. All of those
organizations are stuck in this transition, trying to
figure out their new roles. It's not the same as it
was in 1972. The Citizens League is still not having
as great an impact as it once had and
needs to have today."
Kershaw said Minnesota has a legacy of collectively
solving problems that we must switch into the new
paradigm. "We're in a really good place to do it, but we
haven't done it yet," he said. "The struggles we're
dealing with are caused by trying to make an old model
work that can't work, rather than saying 'What would a new
model look like? And how do we support that?'"
People affected by a problem should be involved in
defining that problem, designing solutions to it and
advancing the proposed solutions. Kershaw said these
people who directly experience the impact of problems,
as citizens and stakeholders, are almost always left out
of the process of defining the problem, designing
specific public-policy proposals and advancing those
proposals. For example, he asserted that high school
reform proposals never involve teachers or students and
that work on the health gap rarely engages affected
community members in a meaningful way.
does not mean you let the foxes run the chicken coop,"
Kershaw warned. "But stakeholders can be broadly
defined," and diverse groups of stakeholders are rarely
involved together early in the policy process. He said
in the Citizens League's work on energy, the
organization defined any user of energy as a
stakeholder, not just the large energy companies. And
the League engaged low-income communities and
communities of color in its work on health gaps. He said
those stakeholders proposed strategies to solve the gaps
that were entirely different from a lot of upstream
solutions promoted by formal policy groups.
inability to resolve differences and compromise
politically is a problem. "There's no space for
compromising today," Kershaw said. "Everybody needs to
think about their roles differently." School districts,
the business community, nonprofits all need to be part
of the issue-resolving function.
many systems are stuck rewarding the careerism of people
in them and not the outcomes they're supposed to
produce. An interviewer raised the issue of how
careerism and the structure of the rewards in academia
have resulted in professors who turn away from their
role of teaching students, which is supposed to be the
mission of educational institutions. Kershaw agreed and
said almost all systems reward the careerism of the
people in them. He said it's key that people understand
their role in the system as bigger than their careers.
They need to re-imagine their role. This isn't about
people's intentions, but the incentives and rewards, the
policies we've created inside all types of institutions.
model for problem solving in the future is not trying to
find the silver bullet, as it was in the past.
Kershaw said in the past, people trying to resolve
public problems wanted to find the silver bullet to
solve everything. That type of solution could be done at
the top. "But the model in the future is not the silver
bullet," he stressed. "It's rather to try lots of things
and see what works. The new model is built from the
bottom up, not just from the top down. "
problem isn't a lack of ideas. "I don't think it's a
lack of good ideas," Kershaw said. "Instead, it's that
we can't implement the good ideas that come up. If we're
interested in changing things, there needs to be a focus
on advancing the good ideas that are out there. The
proliferation of interest groups means there are lots of
interesting ideas popping up." But he sees insufficient
thinking about how an idea becomes reality. "The old
model is not working to do that."
Kershaw clarified that a different process of developing
the ideas, along the lines he's promoting, would result
in both better ideas to suit the problems we face and
greater capacity to implement these ideas.
Every institution must see its role in public policy.
An interviewer asked whether Minnesota has
institutions of public policy and if we could make a
list of them. Kershaw said in the new model every
institution has a role in public policy and the problem
is when institutions don't see themselves as policy
social services organizations don't have to see
themselves as public-policy providers, they can keep
taking the checks and saying they're trying really hard.
As long as school administrators, teachers and parents
don't think of themselves as public-policy institutions,
they all get away with the current system and change
Millennials are networkers and collaborators, not
traditional joiners. An interviewer asked if there
were any institutions left now that look to the future
and are not just interested in their goals for today.
Kershaw responded that there might not be any of those
institutions left today, but there are new groups just
beginning to emerge through the efforts of Millennials.
"Millennials aren't joiners in the traditional way, but
they're absolutely collaborators," he said. "It's a very
different mindset from past generations. The Millennials
are rebuilding, but they're not yet moving the needle."
courts might not be resolvers, but they're interveners
and can raise issues. An interviewer brought up the
lawsuit several families have filed against the state of
Minnesota for failing to desegregate the schools. He
then asked about the role of the courts in public
policymaking. Kershaw responded that the courts can
intervene and raise issues and are certainly actors, but
they might not be resolvers of problems. In this case,
the state can't be the only one to fix the problem of
of the most important things the Civic Caucus could do
is help support the development of a public mindset in
other generations, even if it's used very differently
from in the past. When an interviewer asked whether
any Millennials are interested in public policy, Kershaw
responded by saying that they absolutely are interested
and called on the Civic Caucus to help support young
people in developing a public mindset. He cautioned,
though, that the mindset might be expressed very
differently from the way it was 30 years ago.
generation of people who built the Citizens League has
done and is doing an unbelievable amount to make
Minnesota successful," he said. "Now how does that
generation support the generation behind them?"
Foundations are stuck in a very fragmented mindset.
In response to an interviewer's question about the role
of foundations, Kershaw said they have a very fragmented
mindset. He said there is new leadership coming into the
local foundation community, but right now the
foundations are too fragmented from each other and in
their approach to the major issues we face. "And it
should be noted that nonprofits are also acting in a
fragmented way on these issues," he said.
consequence of not acting differently politically might
be to drive a whole generation out of politics.
Kershaw said good ideas are out there, but people with
an interest in keeping things as they are get in the way
of those ideas ever being implemented. The extremes in
both parties are trying to drive people out of
participating so their own candidates have a better
chance of winning. "Over time," he said, "that is really
toxic. The Millennials' negativity toward politics is
right on the edge." What young adults are seeing might
very well drive their whole generation away from
Minnesota has more to lose. "I fluctuate between
being enormously hopeful, with the Millennials coming in
and doing things differently but effectively," Kershaw
said, "and being dismayed by destructive examples like
an enormously negative St. Paul City Council race, that
make everybody want to leave politics."
must think in drastic terms" about what this means for
Minnesota, he continued. Minnesota has more to lose in any
weakening of its capacity to solve public problems because
of what we've had in the past. "But we have this history
of Minnesota exceptionalism that we can play off of. We're
in a really good position to do it, but we have to do it
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,