Good thinking requires settings that
resources and political freedom
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview January 13, 2017
John Adams, Janis Clay
(executive director), Pat Davies, Paul Gilje, Ron Jacobs, Randy
Johnson, Ted Kolderie, Dan Loritz, Paul Ostrow (chair), Bill
Rudelius, Dana Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter.
By phone: Lars Esdal.
According to Ted Kolderie of
Education|Evolving, Minnesota's success has come largely from the
ability to adapt public systems and create innovative new public
institutions. This requires good thinking, good ideas, good analysis
and good proposals. He says we are suffering today from a
deterioration of this civic process. There is inadequate attention
to the question of how to get from problems to goals. Finding the
"why" and finding the "how" are very important, Kolderie states.
Often the why of the problems and the how of the solutions lie in
the structure of the system.
A strong, local civic process will be
essential to carry out the thinking needed, he says. Good thinking
occurs in "settings," which he defines as an opportunity for
organizations and individuals, by themselves or with others, to have
the time, the resources and the political freedom to ask unpopular
questions, to think about problems and to make unconventional
Kolderie cites several examples of
successful Minnesota settings, such as the Citizens League and its
study committee process, and a national setting, the Carnegie
Corporation commissioning Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s to do a study
about race relations in the United States.
Minnesota has had a strong, local civic
process in the past and could do this well again in the future, he
Ted Kolderie is co-founder
and senior associate at Education|Evolving, a Minnesota-based,
nonprofit, nonpartisan policy analysis, design and advocacy
organization focused on improving American public education. 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 1970s.
He is most recognized nationally for his
work on K-12 education policy and innovation, which he has focused
on since the early 1980s. Kolderie was instrumental in the design
and passage of the nation's first charter school law in Minnesota in
1991, and he has since worked on the design and improvement of
charter legislation in more than 17 states.
A graduate of Carleton College and of the
Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton University,
Kolderie 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 Affairs.
September 2015, the Civic Caucus has been undertaking a review of
the quality of Minnesota's past,
present and future public-policy process for anticipating, defining
and resolving major community problems. On Nov. 27, 2016, the Caucus
issued its report based on that review, Looking Back,
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.The
Civic Caucus interviewed Ted Kolderie of Education|Evolving to hear
his reactions to the report and to get his perspectives on what
constitutes a successful policy process. Kolderie probes these
issues in his latest book, Thinking Out the How.
Minnesota's success--and the Twins Cities success as a
city-state--has come largely from the ability to adapt its
institutions and to create new institutions that fit changes that
are underway. Ted Kolderie
said his work reviewing that ability in his new book, Thinking
Out the How, runs parallel to the work of the Civic Caucus over
the past year evaluating the quality of Minnesota's public-policy
process for resolving community problems.
The ability to adapt public systems and
create innovative new public institutions requires good thinking,
good ideas, good analysis and good proposals, he said. "We are today
suffering from a deterioration of this civic process. A lot of our
policy discussion today consists of deploring problems and
reaffirming goals with inadequate attention to the question of how
to get from problems to goals. We have a lot of incremental change
going on. We have a lot of zombie ideas moving through the
Kolderie noted that the Minnesota
Legislature hasn't made any changes to the district structure of
public education since 1991, when it passed the nation's first
charter schools law. "That's as good an example of the lag in the
attention to the institutional structure as anything," he said.
Finding the "why" and finding the "how"
are very important, Kolderie stated. "Often the why of the
problems and the how of the solutions lie in the structure of the
system. Problems have causes and the causes are not immediately
obvious. Understanding them requires good thinking."
The good thinking occurs in "settings."
Kolderie defined a setting as "an opportunity for some
organizations and individuals, by themselves or together with
others, to have the time, the resources and the political freedom to
ask unpopular questions, to think about problems and to make
recommendations that will often lie outside current conventional
notions of what's possible."
In that sense, he said, the Citizens
League was a setting. "It thought about the why of problems and came
up with a number of solutions that could be enacted," he said. He
noted several examples of other successful settings:
Verne Johnson's work on assisted living when at General Mills.
"He thought out the problem and carried it on beyond the stage of
analysis into design and prototyping," Kolderie said. Here the
setting was a private corporation.
Orville Peterson's work at the League of Municipalities in the
late 1940s. Minneapolis had a population of 520,000 in the 1950
Census. There was no place for young people to live, so expansion
into the suburbs was inevitable. But the suburbs needed a
competent form of city government. The Optional Forms of City
Government Law that the Legislature enacted in 1949 was a
brilliant way of going about it, he said. It didn't impose any one
form of government on the suburbs. Instead, it created the
opportunity for the village council or citizens, by petition, to
bring in Plan A or Plan B. Plan B was the city-manager form of
government, which is what most suburbs chose.
The Interim Commission on Municipal Laws that was created in
the 1950s that produced the Minnesota Municipal Commission.
Judge Jack Davies, when a state senator, was a setting by
himself in looking at fault-based auto insurance and designing a
At the national level, Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish Nobel-laureate
economist, was brought in by the Carnegie Corporation to do a
study about race relations in the United States. The resulting
1,500-page report, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and
Modern Democracy,released in 1944, identified the problem as
"in the mind and heart of the white American." This interpretation
still dominates our discussion about race and politics 70 years
later, Kolderie said.
Kolderie said his conclusion about
settings is that there is no pattern to them, as in these examples.
Recently, there has been some important restructuring within the
condominium community here and the redoing of the cooperative
statute. "There are multiple possibilities for this to occur," he
said, "all the way down to single individuals."
He said there was this freedom when he
worked at the Minneapolis Star and Tribune. There were 16
people working for the editorial pages when he became an editorial
writer. "You had the time and the freedom and the opportunity to say
unpopular things and tell people what they ought to do without them
asking you for the advice," he said.
The financing of "settings." The
Citizens League got its financing from a broad base of individuals
and business firms. In his time as executive director, Kolderie
said, it didn't get any sustaining support from foundations. The
League did get some foundation funding for special projects, such as
its Public Service Options project. Kolderie said the Citizens
League was very independent of its financial base. It didn't get
controlled by the donors.
The job of institution building sometimes
falls to the people inside the institutions. The League of
Municipalities work would fall in this category. "The key thing is
to keep this function alive and to keep an awareness of the
importance of the continual process of institutional adaptation,"
It's no good rolling out ideas without
putting out the ideas for discussion. The willingness of the
media to write about ideas was important, Kolderie said. Today,
the, the media are unable to cover discussion.
Discussion forums are also important. He
cited the Itasca Seminar in the fall of 1988, which led to the
school chartering idea. The Itasca Seminar took a substantive topic
and brought 30 or 40 interested and involved people to a resort in
northern Minnesota for a long weekend. "Does that type of thing
happen anymore?" he asked.
In his new book, Kolderie said, he does
get specific about the problem that needs to be explored and about
the solution that needs to be considered.
He made four assertions by way of
1. The rate of change, even more
than the fact of change itself, is the dominant fact of our time.
Julius A. Stratton, president of M.I.T. from 1959 to 1966, made that
point, Kolderie noted.
2. Affluence is
not the normal now. Marc Levinson's 2016 book, An Extraordinary
Time: The End of the Postwar Boom and the Return of the Ordinary
Economy,asserts that the period we're in now won't be like the
third or fourth quarter of the 20th century. "It's easy to do a lot
of things in a period of growth that are very difficult to do in a
period of non-growth or low growth," Kolderie said.
Schultze, in his Godkin Lecture series at Harvard in 1976, said (a)
the rate of change will create very substantial needs for a large
scope of social responsibilities and (b) we can't forever use
"command-and-control" methods of governing. It will be better to use
incentives. We will need to design the incentives well.
Everett Carll Ladd, Jr.,
then director ofthe Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the
University of Connecticut, was warning Republicans in 1980 that the
is not against the high-service state. It
simply wants it to be effectively and economically administered.
"How can we
design institutions that will meet these two conditions?" Kolderie
Together, these mean we're coming into a
period where there's a need for a basic realigning of the underlying
ideas about public life. Kolderie discussed the ideas of Eric
Goldman, professor of history at Princeton University from 1942 till
1985, about how our basic set of political ideas developed. When
America's national government was being set up, the Jeffersonian
side of the argument was the small-scale, state solution versus the
Hamiltonian argument for a strong national government. The
Jeffersonians feared the Hamiltonian approach would lead to the rich
and powerful dominating government.
In the late 19th century,
Kolderie said, the railroads, trusts and large industrial companies
became increasingly national and beyond the reach of the states. In
the 1909 book The Promise of American Life, author Herbert
Croly, founder of The New Republic, put forward the idea of
using the Hamiltonian state for Jeffersonian ends.
He advocated for a Hamiltonian state that is national in scope and
powerful enough to take on national problems-a "New Nationalism."
But make the Hamiltonian state work democratically, by taking
governing away from the rich and powerful. However, early on,
Kolderie said, there were concerns that inevitably, the rich and
powerful would capture the strong national government.
A strong local civic process will be
essential to carry out the thinking needed.
Minnesota has done this well in the past
and could do this well again in the future, Kolderie said.
He noted the work of Education|Evolving in
thinking through the problems in the education system and proposing
changes. It has been possible then for actions taken in Minnesota to
be replicated around the country.
Kolderie said former Minneapolis Member of
Congress Martin Sabo used to say that it's OK, and possible, to be
liberal and a decentralist at the same time. This runs counter to
the notion today that everything is national. "Listen to the
political discussion," Kolderie said, "and you hear no sense that
there is government beyond the Beltway-that we have a federal
To have a strong local civic process,
Kolderie said, there are these essentials:
1. You need people who are
oriented toward systems thinking.
2. They need the
time and freedom to think and analyze, which requires financing.
3. They need the
freedom to advance ideas outside the conventional consensus.
It really is important today to restore
this capacity to adapt, Kolderie said. The communities, cities and
states that can adapt probably will be the most successful. This is
in today's context of the end of affluence and the rapid rate of
Asked what has changed that affects the
civic process, Kolderie mentioned four factors:
1. The lawyers couldn't
participate anymore, given the change in the law business;
public affairs changed, as the scale of the corporate businesses
grew and the hometown became less important;
3. The media
changed, with a shift in focus starting in the 1970s, when the
newspapers realized that what people really wanted to read were
advice columns. Before that shift, Kolderie said, the beat reporters
told the desk what the news was and wrote largely for the people on
4. The legislative
process changed as the Legislature staffed up and the elected
legislators were advised not to think in terms of more than
incremental change. Ideologies sharpened partisan roles.
The civic process probably is inherently
below the national level.
In response to an interviewer's
question, Kolderie said, "In Washington, it's all interest-group
pressure. If we're going to have this kind of non-interest-group
thinking and discussion and debate, it probably will need to go on
in the states and in the "city-states," at the metropolitan level."
A number of organizations that used to
contribute to the civic process have disappeared.
noted that organizations that used to provide an opportunity for the
thinking and the discussion, such as the breakfast, lunch and dinner
clubs, have largely disappeared. "What the Civic Caucus does is one
of the surviving elements of this part of the civic process," he
John Cowles, Sr., former publisher of the
Minneapolis Star andTribune, believed the newspaper
should be an educational institution. "The newspapers have no charge
to play a civic role; they do not have a utility franchise,"
Kolderie said. "It is a competitive business and with the changes in
information technology, this civic role is almost impossible
financially. Something new will have to be developed."
One effect, Kolderie said, is that the
media now tend to cover not the issues (substantively) but
mainly the politics the issues. "In the past, reporters
learned the beat from covering the people on their beat. When the
papers couldn't afford to have reporters living on the beat, that
educational process disappeared. They have no time to learn
How do we judge if something good is
happening as a result of
the recent Civic
Caucus report on the public-policy process in Minnesota?
An interviewer asked Kolderie three questions: (1) Planning: Who is
the audience for the Civic Caucus report that will make something
happen? (2) Implementation: What is our measure of success to know
that something good is happening? (3) Evaluation: How do we get a
continuing public report card so the public sees the measure of
success is being achieved?
Kolderie said there shouldn't be a lot of
trouble in knowing the success of the report, because most of the
organizational changes should be quite visible.
As to the implementation process, he said,
"I've never found it very possible to lay out a process at the
beginning that runs out all the way to the end." He said it's a
process like climbing a mountain. "You can't see how to get there
when you're approaching the mountain, but you have to start. As you
climb, you see a little more and you really figure it out as you go
along. It's that kind of process."
Kolderie said the planning stage is
important. "It's the thinking about the why and the how," he said,
"and how to adjust the systems to get things working."
The audience initially should be those
that will, or should, carry the responsibility for ensuring the
"settings" exist and operate well, Kolderie said. Those are the
institutions with a long-term stake in the community. That certainly
includes the foundations and philanthropy. Initially, it won't
include many in politics. Ideas outside the consensus will be
minority ideas and these need time to develop. "Absolutely, it is
important to talk to whatever elected officials are willing to think
long-term," he said. "We do a lot less of that today."
Kolderie said former State Senator Jack
Davies talked about the Legislature being a responsive group that
needs proposals brought to it. "It really depends on generating
these good ideas," he said.
To lay all the problems we have today on
politics isn't right.
Kolderie said, "Politics is getting a
bad rap. It's always been personal, to some degree petty,
pressure-filled, full of economic and special-interest pressures,
and partisan. What's changed is that the 'idea' dimension, the
clarification of problems and the presentation of new ideas, has
weakened. So these other characteristics of politics stand out more
The concept of investigative reporting is
That's where you get the prizes, the
attention and the readership, Kolderie stated. He recently said to
Jon McTaggart, CEO of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public
Media, its national programming division, "A lot of public affairs
doesn't involve wrongdoing; it's simply disagreement about what we
ought to be doing."
The Civic Caucus should include both the
thinking part and more consultation with a greater cross-section of
Kolderie gave that reply to an interviewer
who asked how we should respond to Minnesota's changing
demographics, both in race and ethnicity and in aging. For example,
Kolderie noted that Citizens League Executive Director Sean Kershaw
said at a recent League program that in discussions about education
policy, nobody asks the students or listens to them.
Kolderie is concerned that nobody ever
talks about young people trapped in the "terrible institution of
adolescence. The demographers ought to look at young people when
talking about the workforce. By the time they get to their
mid-teens, a lot of young people have a lot of capability. Today,
young people might be the most discriminated against class of people
in our society. Young people are giving us back exactly what we
There is a lot of confusion about
Kolderie responded that way to a question about
the definition of leadership. "People think if you head an
organization, you're a leader, but many in those positions are
balancers," he said. "There is a function of a leader maintaining
the consensus. But before that is the question of the willingness
really to take an organization in a different direction."
Civic Caucus: The Power of Ideas?
Civic Caucus Chair Paul Ostrow commented that the Civic Caucus has
no lobby behind it, no money to distribute, no power in any
traditional sense. "What do we have?" he asked. "Ideas." He said
perhaps we should consider a new tagline, "Civic Caucus: The Power
A continuing inventory of problems and
opportunities in Minnesota would be very helpful.
said he liked the Civic Caucus recommendation that pushes for
someone, perhaps the foundations, to take on that task.
Again: Back to Ladd's concept of the
high-service state being well run.
Kolderie believes it is
a problem that many people strong on social responsibility lack a
strong concern about the need for it to be effective and economical.
And people who are big on "we're spending too much" are deficient in
their notions of social equity. "We need to try to create a new
alignment that combines these two outlooks," he said.
The "who" has become much more prominent
An interviewer commented that Kolderie said years
ago that he refuses to impugn the motive when somebody presents an
idea. "Look first to the idea, not to who's suggesting it," the
interviewer quoted Kolderie. The interviewer then asked if the
failure to get to the "how" today is due to failure to get away from
Kolderie said the "who" probably has
become much more prominent today. "There is a sense of good guys and
bad guys," he said. "Your job is to get the discussion back to the
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 (executive director), Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje, Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz, Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,