More thinking, less premature action for
better community problem solving
of Minnesota’s Public Policy Process
Interview January 22, 2016
John Adams, Steve
Anderson, Heather Bandeen, David Broden, Audrey Clay (phone),
Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Paul Gilje, Lars Johnson, Randy Johnson
(phone), Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz, Paul Ostrow,
Bill Rudelius, and Clarence Shallbetter
Higher quality actions on
community problems are more likely if decision makers avoid
short cuts to action and give more attention to analysis,
clarification, and optional solutions, according to Ted Kolderie.
Kolderie criticized leaders who,
anxious to move quickly, dismiss more discussion as unnecessary.
"Thinking is good," he said.
Among his other thoughts on producing
Individuals and groups whose income and job security is
dependent upon the outcome shouldn't have a dominant position
in developing proposals.
The media should cover more of the substance of community
problems than their politics.
Foundations should commission studies that address causes
of problems, not just symptoms.
Private and governmental sectors should encourage
innovation by giving employees freedom to try new things on
Biography. Ted Kolderie is
co-founder and senior fellow at Education|Evolving. He has
worked on system questions and legislative policy in several
areas of public life, including urban and metropolitan affairs
and public finance, through the 1960s and '70s. He is most
recognized nationally for his work on K-12 education policy and
innovation, which he has focused on since the early 1980s. Ted
was instrumental in the design and passage of the nation's first
charter school law in Minnesota in 1991, and has since worked on
the design and improvement of charter legislation in over
A graduate of Carleton College and of
the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton
University, Ted was previously a reporter and editorial writer
for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, executive director of the
Twin Cities Citizens League, and a senior fellow at the
University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public
Today's interview is
one of several the Civic Caucus is conducting to review the
effectiveness of Minnesota's institutions of public policy, that
is, its foundations, university schools, think tanks, media, and
civic groups, including the Civic Caucus.
Ted Kolderie, today's interviewee, has
concluded that Minnesota's leadership among the 50 states in
successfully addressing community problems is, to a considerable
degree, a product of the good work of its institutions of public
policy. A recent Citizens League
highlighted Kolderie's position, often referred to as
Minnesota's effort to accommodate its geographic position as a
A policy "circle" helps to
explain the role of organizations involved in public policy. Kolderie
began by distributing a chart identifying key steps in the
public policy process: (1) events occur and "issues" are
identified, (2) problem analysis takes place, (3) issue
clarification follows, (4) policy proposals are then developed,
(5) public debate occurs, (6) policy action takes place, and (7)
the action creates new 'events' which become apparent --
starting a new cycle of policy discussion and policy-making.
(7) Resultant New Event
(2) Problem Analysis
(6) Policy Action
(3) Issue Clarification
(5) Public Debate
(4) Policy Development
Civic Caucus work appears concentrated
in steps 2, 3, and 4, he said.
Too many short cuts harm good policy
development. Too often, Kolderie said, public sector leaders
are prone to believe that once the step (1) "issues" discussion
begins they can move directly to step (6) policy action,
skipping over steps (2) problem analysis, (3) issue
clarification, (4) policy development, and (5) public debate.
That means largely ignoring the "thinking part", as he called
these often-skipped steps, during which the nature of a problem
can be thoroughly examined, along with possible solutions.
Regrettably, he said, the tendency to
shortcut the system is widespread, and at high levels of
influence in the state. To illustrate, he noted that a highly
respected business and civic leader, upon the formation of a new
organization, complained that there's entirely too much thinking
going on and that, instead, "we've got to get it done". A
well-versed individual in business turned quietly to an
associate and asked, "What is 'it'?"
An advantage of stressing the
importance of studying before solving, is
illustrated by a major arts organization in Minnesota in which
leaders originally saw no possible way out of their particular
problem except to have endless subsidy, or the project coming
apart.. But upon intensive reappraisal the organization came to
see that one major element of the situation could be re-thought.
That opened the way to an innovative solution resulting in a
"Getting it done" should not take
precedence over thorough analysis first, Kolderie said.
Look critically at roles
"stakeholders" should play. Kolderie went on to outline the
role that groups with a financial or program interest in the
outcome of a study should play in its preparation. If such
interest groups dominate a study, the outcome isn't likely to
include ideas contrary to what those groups want, or outside the
He recalled a controversy in the
mid-1970s over financing hospitals in the Twin Cities metro
area. A Citizens League committee compared the hospital
situation here with that of Seattle-Tacoma, a metro area almost
identical economically and demographically but with a hospital
plant half the size of ours and no visible difference in overall
health status. The committee's finding that the Twin Cities was
carrying excess hospital bed capacity came to the attention of
board members of major Twin Cities area hospital systems. The
chair of a board of one of the largest hospitals called a
meeting of hospital board chairs. Hospital administrators,
anxious to attend, too, were politely informed that the meeting
would be for board chairs only, not staff. The result was
creation of The Hospital Trustees Council, which led a move,
with support of the State Legislature, to reduce excess bed
supply, a move that never would have resulted from a task force
of hospital executives, he said.
Another example Kolderie cited was
that of creation of the Metropolitan Council, made up of
citizens from districts of equal population, a recommendation
from a Citizens League committee that wasn't dominated by
interest groups. The outcome would have been radically different
had interest groups developed the proposal. Those groups had
plenty of input as the proposal was debated in the Legislature.
Education change, a field in which
Kolderie is heavily involved, is as difficult as it is, partly
because the discussion is so influenced by those inside the
system who resist proposed changes, he said.
Well-reasoned proposals require
understanding of how systems work. Another short-cut in
developing proposals according to Kolderie is that too often in
studies today participants incorrectly assume they have adequate
advance understanding of an area under study and, in the
process, skip over learning in depth about how a system works,
whether in health, education, housing, transportation,
government structure or any other field. Such understanding
needs to be, and can be, developed by interested citizens,
rather than relying only on experts who have vested interests in
Changes in the media haven't helped. Kolderie
recalled that when he started as a reporter with the Minneapolis
Tribune in the 1950s, the owner and publisher said he viewed
their reporters almost as the equivalent of college professors.
Reporters had a reputation for knowing intimately the subjects
they covered. He recalled as examples Victor Cohn, medical
science reporter, and Sam Romer, labor reporter. Kolderie
himself, assigned to as North Dakota correspondent in the early
1950s, gained respect for his knowledge of the emerging oil
industry in that state.
Today, he said, the media are vastly
more interested in covering the politics of issues (which
political party is winning or losing, how individual voters are
affected) than in the substance of the policy involved. The
politics of issues is about the choices being offered. That is
different from the substance of the policy itself.
A hopeful sign, he said, had been the
Public Insight Network of Minnesota Public Radio, to help its
journalists cover news in greater depth. But he's less than
convinced by a sampling of issues listed on the Public Insight
Wilder's "Compass" is a start in the
right direction, but more analysis needed. The Wilder
Foundation has done a good job in describing what is happening
in many areas of public policy, but it stops short of helping
people understand how systems work, Kolderie said.
Do some journalists ignore broader
questions? To illustrate his concern over how journalists
report on major issues, Kolderie recalled a meeting he had with
an editor about the safety problems in rail cars transporting
crude oil through the state. Kolderie said he asked the editor
about the relationship between rail car shipment and pipelines.
"I don't know anything about pipelines," the editor replied.
On questions of transit investment,
Kolderie is puzzled why journalists don't ask transit planners,
in regard to expanded service proposals, "what is the cost per
new rider attracted?"
There is a tendency to ignore the
debate before the vote. Kolderie said it is unfortunate that
the media do not report more of the discussion on issues before
a governmental body takes a vote. He related a conversation he
had with a journalist who had informed an editor about a
discussion on a pending motion before a city council. The editor
said not to bother with a story about the debate, just "Let me
know when something happens." Kolderie contends that when there
is no reporting of the debate before the vote is taken,
something important has happened in the democratic policy
process. Readers should know what happens before the vote is
taken. He noted, by contrast, how closely the late journalist
Peter Vanderpoel reported the discussion, the thinking, of
public officials and groups in 1967 leading up to the creation
of the Metropolitan Council.
Bill Kling recognized the importance
of a commitment to better journalism. Kolderie noted that
Bill Kling, former head of Minnesota Public Radio, in a
upon his retirement called for 100 more journalists in the major
General Mills' pioneering effort in
assisted living is another example of innovative leadership on
public problems. Kolderie singled out Altcare, a joint
venture between General Mills and the Wilder Foundation, that in
1983 began to conceive, design and develop living arrangements
for the frail elderly, those between complete independence and
institutionalization. Assisted living facilities have since
spread rapidly here and around the country. Verne Johnson,
founding chair of the Civic Caucus, and Steve Rothschild,
founder of Twin Cities Rise!, led the Altcare effort for General
There is a critical role of
foundations in public affairs. Foundations have long been
leaders on analyzing and developing proposals on significant
issues facing Minnesota and the nation, Kolderie said. But he
believes foundations in Minnesota need to be challenged to do
better. He is concerned that perhaps innovative proposals for
change aren't always coming from foundation-financed projects.
They are well aware of the areas that need attention, but
innovative redesign proposals aren't showing up very often.
Foundations need to challenge their grantees to think through
problems thoroughly. Foundations should insist that grantees
make specific, actionable recommendations, not vague
Later in the meeting Kolderie
questioned whether a foundation's study to help a single entity,
such as one specific school district, should take higher
priority over foundation studies that would get at systemic
problems and real causes of problems that go beyond the symptoms
that might be evident in looking at only one school district.
Does societal mobility hinder people's
identity with where they live? An interviewer noted that
many people today change residences frequently, unlike in the
past where they might be born, live and die in a comparatively
small geographic area. Does this mean, the interviewer wondered,
whether it is more difficult to get people to focus today on the
problems in the areas where they live, because they might not
take a long-term interest in their current community's welfare?
Kolderie replied by noting the
dramatic change in scale of our community institutions. What
used to be thought of as local businesses have increasingly gone
national, which might have reduced the now-national firms'
interest in any one locality. It is hard to identify which
institutions, private or public, now have their principal
interest in the community where they are located. Governments
do; educational institutions do; arts and cultural facilities
do; some foundations do. But of these, only the foundations give
money. The others raise money. Foundations are probably the best
example of "can't move" institutions, he said.
Are high schools granting "counterfeit
diplomas"? An interviewer noted that high school graduates
frequently display an abysmal lack of knowledge of subject
matter, which makes the interviewer wonder if schools are
issuing what amounts to "counterfeit diplomas." As a
consequence, many adults are unable to have enough background to
discuss issues intelligently or even to know what questions to
Are elected representatives at all
levels failing to have open discussions of policy issues before
the vote? An interviewee contended that real debate issues
seems to occur behind closed doors, so the media can't report
what is not available to them. Kolderie replied that when our
civic process was working well, civic organizations played a key
role by inviting elected officials to public meetings where
issues of substance, as well as politics, were discussed. Such
meetings now seem to occur less frequently than in the past, he
Where does the Civic Caucus fit on the
policy process chart? The Civic Caucus seems to fit most in
the problem analysis, issue clarification and policy development
areas, Kolderie said, the very areas that many people think can
Stimulating broader public discussion
beyond meetings can and should be done. Kolderie recalled
that when he was executive director (1967-1980) the Citizens
League shared its minutes and other working papers broadly with
interested parties in the community. Consequently, many more
people of influence beyond the Citizens League were learning
about and discussing the same issues as were the League
committees. Such action had the effect of preparing the larger
community for Citizens League recommendations when its final
reports were issued.
Care must be taken in bringing raw
data into relevant discussion. An interviewer said public
discussion about the implications of raw data often fails to
uncover the real problems. The interviewer cited debate about
wide differences in learning among racial groups. But rather
than just blaming the school, the interviewer contended, the
impact of family background and involvement must be factored in.
It's important to be focused on more
than just "public policy"--An interviewer wondered if too
much importance is being attached to the words "public policy".
The interviewer noted that general subject areas contain within
them the real, focused issues, which should be the topics of
debate. Too many studies seem to highlight the more visible, but
less precise, general areas and ignore the narrow issues that
ultimately must be addressed.
There has been a shift from "what can
be done to help the state?" to "what can be done to help a
specific interest?" Kolderie recalled the business-supported
Upper Midwest Economic Study in the 1960s that led to the Upper
Midwest Council as an illustration of business' civic activity.
Another example was the Project on Corporate Responsibility.
Many changes occur outside "public
policy." At the end of the discussion, Kolderie pointed out
that the graphic shows a policy cycle that ends with
governmental action. Increasingly, he suggested, system-change
is the result of things happening outside of government, the
result of innovative products and services developed outside
government, and not primarily the result of governmental action.
Indeed, we now see public policy basically responding;
legitimizing what people have themselves decided to do
differently. He cited major changes emerging in transportation,
such as computer-matched ride-sharing and the driverless cars,
are likely to result in enormous improvements in mobility for
all people over the next five years. Think, he said, about the
profound changes in social behavior, in social norms. Think
about the civil rights movement. Often, legislation follows
behind changes on the street and in public attitudes.
Enable institutions to improve
themselves, beyond mandated change
. Kolderie drew the
group's attention to his book, The
Split Screen Strategy: How to Turn Education Into a
Self-Improving System. The dominant notion of a great
transformation, politically engineered, is not realized; there
is no concept of a political consensus on radical change. Major
change happens in systems as people on the working level try new
ways to solve problems. The role of leadership is to create a
climate of encouragement for that innovation. In K-12, that
means encouraging schools and teachers to try what they believe
will help the students, whom only they know as individuals.
Just last evening, Kolderie said, he
heard Jim Rickabaugh, former superintendent in Burnsville, MN,
now director of the Institute for Personalized Learning in
Wisconsin, highlight a major move to personalize learning in all
grades, now emerging in districts in Wisconsin, Illinois,
Missouri and southeastern Minnesota.
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,