Jeff Zlonis said there are three
big reasons why the report is important
Polarization in the political process has polarized things
in the public-policymaking arena.
2. So much
of the focus now is on the wrong questions. There is a lot
of dealing with symptoms, but not causes. A lot of that
comes from interest groups who are trying to preserve
something without going in depth as to how things could or
should be changed.
at the state and local levels is really where big changes
can be made.
There are several places where the
draft report could be improved. Zlonis made several
critiques, based on the objectives of the report:
definition of the "community sector" is confusing. It might
be important to the foundations and funders to have more
clarity in the definition.
draft does a good job of laying out the key principles and
elements of the Minnesota Process, which are excellent. A
lot of the approach of Public Strategies Group, where Zlonis
was COO and president, has been based on the same principles
and elements. But he wonders if there is too much focus on
the past Citizens League study approach. Perhaps there
should be some comments on how other things came into play,
such as the Minnesota Business Partnership or
at the report's objective of highlighting characteristics of
the current public-policy environment, Zlonis pointed out
that there is a worldwide trend of tribalism now. "This is a
challenge in this environment," he said. "This new
public-policy process, or design, will have to think about
how to recapture the spirit that came from the early
Zlonis then spoke to specific
points included in the draft report:
- He agreed that civics education is lacking in schools,
because standardized testing stresses just math and
reading, not civics.
- He questioned the draft report's assertion that
public-policy activity never has been greater in
Minnesota. "Is that true?" he asked. "I'm not sure that's
true by the percentage of the population involved." Civic
Caucus Chair Dan Loritz responded that there are now 4,000
nonprofits in Minnesota and "they're all doing something,
so the statement might be true in terms of growth of
nonprofits." Zlonis commented that the statement is true
if it refers to the growth in magnitude of power of
advocacy groups and lobbyists versus the broader community
- He questioned how much academic enterprises contribute
to the state and local public-policy scene. "There are not
a lot of practical contributions," he said.
- He liked the draft's list of public-policy concerns
that need to be addressed.
- He agreed with the need to reframe national and
international issues to local action. "It's an opportunity
for state and local government and the community.
- Zlonis praised the draft's summary.
- He supported the recommendation that the foundation
community take leadership of an effort to improve the
quality of proposals for public-policy change being put
forward in Minnesota. "Turning to the foundations makes
sense," he said. "But how is this different from ongoing
support of the Citizens League?"
- Referring to the report's urging that the foundation
community create a special entity to establish principles
for funding studies on community problems, Zlonis said the
Civic Caucus should lay out graphically what it sees as
the relationship between the foundation community and this
new entity. "This should not be prescriptive," he said.
"It should clarify the potential that's there. Foundations
are not interested in being told specifically what to do,
but they like ideas."
- He said the top issues listed in the draft made sense
as rising to the top of the larger list.
Some people believe the past
Citizens League approach was an example of doing things in a
communitarian way. An interviewer made that comment and
said that approach reflected business and civic leaders'
feeling of ownership of the area and of what happens there.
The approach of the Citizens
League in the past was to use study committees to attack
narrowly defined community problems. The committees,
assisted by Citizens League staffers, were made up of
generalist citizens, not people representing special
interests, and generally met for about six or more months.
During the first months of meetings, the committees were in
learning mode and took testimony from people knowledgeable
about the topic, including those representing special
interests. In addition, committee staffers did other
background work and research.
When the committee felt ready, it
began the process of drafting its report by laying out the
findings of the group. Based on those findings, the group
determined the conclusions and then came up with specific,
actionable recommendations. The completed report went to the
Citizens League board for approval. The board debated the
content of the report and sometimes suggested changes or
accepted a minority report drafted by committee members who
disagreed with some or all of the recommendations.
Zlonis responded that the Civic
Caucus draft report could clarify how that approach brought
in varying parts of community who were attracted to the
process at that time. But if people aren't attracted to it
now, what has to be different to attract them?
The interviewer asked what has to
happen today to replace that process. "What has to be done
to generate the same positive outcome?"
"Instead of yearning for what was,
build on that and talk about a new Minnesota Process,"
Zlonis said. "Let's not just go back to what we had, because
the world and the community have changed. What would cause
that same kind of spirit today?"
The interviewer commented on the
old-fashioned, communitarian feeling in Minnesota. "People
who formed the Citizens League took it as obvious that
that's how things should be done around here," he said.
Could foundations be persuaded to
support serious, long-term inquiry into issues, rather than
just supporting treatment of symptoms? An interviewer
asked that question and commented that many foundations
don't like to support research. Instead, they look at one
year at a time. There's a big push for results. "Are there
roadblocks to getting down the road where we want to go?"
the interviewer asked.
Zlonis agreed that foundations do
tend to move towards treating symptoms, but said there are
examples of foundations looking deeper. He mentioned the
Bush Foundation's efforts to develop leadership in
Minnesota. "They're building a base of people willing to go
out and do something," he said. "There are some long-term
commitments by foundations to doing something. I think
there's potential there; it's just not on the surface."
How can we put together public
policy that will be effectively implemented? An
interviewer asked that question and wondered how to get
people to accept public-policy changes. Zlonis replied that
he's been involved in building support for change before
it's implemented or even written. "You build buy-in," he
said, "by having big swaths of the community and stakeholder
groups participate in the process. You need to listen to the
stakeholder groups as resources. Ask for their input early
in the process and, later, their reaction to design
proposals, going back and forth with the designers."
What was the experience of Public
Strategies Group (PSG) with foundation support? In
response to this interviewer question, Zlonis said PSG
worked with a group of Minnesota foundations on the reports
Minnesota's Bottom Line (2009) and Beyond the
Bottom Line (2011). The foundations involved were
theMinneapolis Foundation, Saint Paul Foundation, Minnesota
Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation, Bush Foundation and
Blandin Foundation.Also, he noted that there were a number
of different cases in which PSG worked with foundations all
He said it was hard to generalize
about his group's experience with foundations. In some
cases, such as with the Bottom Line reports,
foundations contracted directly with PSG. In other cases,
foundations gave grants to other organizations that then
contracted with PSG.
An interviewer asked about the
distinctions among private, corporate and individual
foundations. Zlonis responded that community foundations can
lobby, but private foundations cannot. He said corporate
foundations have something they distinctly want.
The interviewer commented that
foundations now often give grants for a particular purpose.
He noted that the Citizens League used to get memberships
for general support from individuals, businesses,
foundations and other organizations. Foundations, for
example, didn't finance particular studies by the League,
like they do today.
Commercial consultants-branches of
accounting firms-go where the money is. "They're hired
guns," Zlonis said, responding to an interviewer's question
about where commercial consultants fit in the picture.
Zlonis said they might do some front-end major policy work
or high-level strategic planning, but they work primarily on
large-scale project implementation.
The interviewer asked whether
commercial consultants dig deep to get to the causes of
community problems. Zlonis said consultants have to push
people to dig deep. "That's hard in a crisis situation," he
Do the current public-policy
processes at the Legislature or at foundations and other
places reward poor behavior and punish good behavior? An
interviewer asked that question. Zlonis responded that a
critique of private, for-profit corporations is that they
pay for short-term performance to show in their quarterly
reports. "If you look at the public sector and how they're
rewarded," Zlonis said, "a lot has to do with staying out of
the news. There are very few media articles on long-term
change efforts and efforts to get at the root causes of
"Maybe the incentives are
for success in the short term," he continued. "How would you
change that? That's a big question. Is it possible?"
Another interviewer commented that
the foundations are going to stay here. "They can think long
term with impunity," he said. "Compared to office-holders
who must run for election every few years, foundations seem
more independent. What are the roadblocks that prevent
long-term thinking from happening?"
Zlonis believes foundations do
long-term thinking to a certain extent. A lot of foundations
have missions that might support deeper approaches to
thinking about issues.
It's important to clearly define
the community sector referred to in the report. Zlonis
said it's important to define the groups the Caucus is
talking about in the draft report. He believes we need to
separate out the government sector from the community
sector. The community sector is comprised of people
concerned with the community interest, an interviewer
Zlonis stated that acting in the
community interest doesn't have to conflict with running a
company and making money. Around 1980, he was hired by the
Dayton-Hudson Foundation to research the question of whether
a company that gives money to the community will do well.
Zlonis found that retail sales improve when the community
improves on certain levels. "Most of us, even looking only
at our private interests, benefit when the community does
well," he said.
He would include advocacy groups
in the community sector, but only when they're working in
the community's interest.
Government sets the rules of the
game in the community we live in and determines what the
marketplace will be. Zlonis responded to an
interviewer's question about transportation financing and
what imposes the cost and who pays for that cost and about
where we expect to see the payoffs from early childhood
"There are huge externalities in
what people do," Zlonis said. "Government works to capture
those so everybody feels there's a fair system of how we pay
for things. How do we do the real deep work to assign those
costs? That ends up being politics."
The way organizations communicate
and operate has changed. An interviewer made that
comment and said those changes will impact public policy.
"We're not looking to the future," he said.
Zlonis agreed that things now
operate outside of historical communication patterns. He
noted that on Twitter, we can immediately get people's
reaction to things.
"I don't know what depth that gives us," he said. "Is it
doomed not be thoughtful or to be just reactive? How can
that be used to dig deeper?'
Big Data evolved in the last 10
years. "There are more data we can analyze," he said. "That
way we can get deeper with information."
Zlonis told the interviewer he was
right to bring up the point. "In the report, it would be
good to acknowledge that you want to build a public-policy
process for the future."
The report's recommendation that
the foundations create a special entity to help improve the
quality of public-policy proposals is a good one. Zlonis
noted, though, that perhaps it wouldn't need to be a new
entity. It could be housed, for example, within the
University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs
or it could be a program within another organization. "Leave
that open and let it develop," he said.
Don't name specific foundations
that should take on implementing our recommendations.
"If the report names specific foundations, they might feel
they're being called out," Zlonis said. "Foundations are not
going to be told what to do. Leave it open in the report and
then go talk to the foundations and 'call them out' in
The community interest is not the
sum of advocacy groups. Zlonis said advocacy groups are
a main part of the active community, but they are not
specifically trying to work for the common good. They're
working for something individual. "The common good is a key
distinction," he said.
Government is a subset of the
larger community. Zlonis said to be clear in the paper,
the Caucus should rewrite the section on government and the
community. He suggested that government and the community
might be shown as side by side, perhaps with government a
subset of the larger community.