Increase visibility and impact by
partnering on public-policy studies
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview February 10, 2017
John Adams, Janis Clay
(executive director), Paul Gilje, Randy Johnson, Dana Schroeder
(associate director), Clarence Shallbetter, Tom Triplett. By phone:
Dan Loritz, Paul Ostrow (chair).
Nonprofit consultant Tom Triplett
discusses how the Civic Caucus can get people to take note of and
listen to its work. He bases his remarks on a review of the Nov. 27,
2016, Civic Caucus report, Looking Back,
Thinking Ahead: Strengthening Minnesota's Public-Policy Process.
The report made
recommendations on how to improve the public-policy study process in
order to come up with creative solutions to Minnesota's problems.
To increase the impact of its work,
Triplett suggests two main techniques for the Civic Caucus: (1) that
it undertake public-policy studies at the invitation of a
policymaker or someone in a leadership role, whether at the state or
local level; and/or (2) that it partner with another entity that
already has high visibility on the topic being studied. He proposes
several categories of potential partners.
The Civic Caucus recommended working with
the Minnesota foundation community to improve the public-policy
study process. Triplett advises the Civic Caucus to identify an
issue and try to tie it to the interest of a particular foundation.
He says that could increase the visibility of the Caucus and
generate some funding for the project.
He encourages the Civic Caucus to have a
list of critical issues facing Minnesota when deciding which issue
to take on next. He advises choosing a focused issue that no other
organization is looking at and then finding a partner who will
either fund a study of the issue or actually undertake the study
itself. The study would be done using the "Minnesota Process"
recommended in the Caucus report: using nonpartisan,
non-special-interest generalists; looking at the fundamentals on a
focused specific concern; being open to learning first; sharing
knowledge with others; and issuing specific, informative, readable,
defendable final reports.
Tom Triplett is principal of
Triplett Consulting LLC, a Minnesota-based enterprise that helps
nonprofits nationwide become more financially sustainable. He is
also a Minnesota-licensed attorney with substantial experience with
nonprofit and government finance and structure issues.
Prior to his role at Triplett Consulting
LLC, he was a principal consultant at Fieldstone Alliance, a 501(c)3
nonprofit based in St. Paul. His prior nonprofit work experience
includes serving as CEO or interim CEO of five Minnesota nonprofits:
the James J. Hill Reference Library, the College of Visual Arts, the
Minnesota Business Partnership (comprised of the CEOs of the state's
largest corporations), the Minnesota Project (a
community-development nonprofit), and the St. Paul Convention and
Visitors Bureau. He also was an attorney with two of the state's
largest law firms.
Triplett has extensive experience in the
public sector. He is a former commissioner of the Minnesota state
departments of Finance, Planning and Revenue. He was also policy
director for a mayor of St. Paul, interim vice-chancellor for
finance of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and deputy
counsel to the Minnesota Attorney General.
He is a current or former board member of
more than a dozen nonprofits, including a variety of education,
environmental, community development and arts organizations.
After completing two terms on the Washington County Housing and
Redevelopment Authority, he was named the state's outstanding local
HRA commissioner in 2016
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 nonprofit consultant Tom Triplett to hear
his reaction to the report and to get his ideas on how to implement
The Civic Caucus has interviewed Triplett
twice before: once on
(The Minnesota Process is described on pp.
8-12 of the report, which spells out the characteristics of that
process, which has served the state well in the past in
developing creative solutions to community
problems: using nonpartisan, non-special-interest generalists;
looking at the fundamentals on a focused, specific concern; being
open to learning first; resisting shortcuts; thinking ahead;
listening to all sides; sharing knowledge with others; and issuing
specific, informative, readable, defendable final reports.)
Hopefully, Triplett said, the Civic Caucus
could develop ways to communicate so that people will pay attention
and listen to its work. He suggested two main techniques:
Do studies at the invitation of a
policymaker or someone in a leadership role-not just at the state
level, but also for city councils and county boards.
Partner with another entity that
already has high visibility on the topic.
What is the policy context in which the
Civic Caucus is operating today? Triplett listed five important
Everybody is issuing reports and
studies, and they're usually biased. There's no shortage of
information out there.
We've all seen examples of
hateful, biased social media "discussions" of public policy,
especially at the local level.
Policymakers have so little time
to dig deep into important policy questions.
The increasing role of money in
politics. There are now million-dollar races for the Minnesota
House. That's just going to grow.
The most effective influencers of
public policy in the state right now, in Triplett's judgment, are
the Minnesota Legislative Auditor and the Star Tribune. When
Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles and his staff say something, it's
almost a guarantee that there will be legislative or rulemaking
action. The Star Tribune is also influential, particularly
with its multi-part series, reporting on topics such as the
Mississippi River, child welfare, prisons and sheltered workshops
for people with disabilities.
Who are the potential "inviters" for a
Civic Caucus study? Triplett mentioned several:
The governor. Triplett said
perhaps the Civic Caucus could suggest to the governor that it do a
study on issues that state government has had trouble resolving over
the years. Examples might be special education or arts
education in the public schools.
A legislative committee chair.
"That's proven effective," Triplett said. Suggest to the chair that
the Civic Caucus use the Minnesota Process and come back next year
with new ideas on an important state issue.
A mayor or city council or county
There are some Minnesota
foundations with the money to do the work. "The major foundations in
the state are becoming ever more focused in their topic areas,"
Triplett said. The Civic Caucus should identify an issue and try to
tie it to the interest of a particular foundation. "That might serve
both to highlight the visibility of the Civic Caucus and to generate
some funding for a project," he said.
Triplett feels strongly that the Civic
Caucus must avoid doing a study where the inviter has already
determined his or her position. "Stay away from that kind of
research for hire," he advised.
With the likely de-funding of many federal
programs with the new administration, Triplett suggested there might
be value in the Civic Caucus examining alternative funding
strategies in fields like environmental protection, public housing
and renewable energy. Again, however, seek out invitations
and/or partners to do the study.
Educate the people who have to make a
decision. An interviewer made that statement and said there is
an annual meeting at the University of Minnesota (U of M) with all
the legislative Transportation Committee members and all the
transportation people at the University. In the past, the
interviewer said, those meetings helped the Minnesota Department of
Transportation (MnDOT) decide to fund transportation research at the
U of M.
Try to get foundation people to understand
that they don't know everything. The interviewer continued with
that statement. "Frequently, foundations think they know the answer
and they want to fund things that support that," he said. "That's
not like a Citizens League committee from the past that would back
up and ask what the cause is."
"There's such an unfortunate power dynamic
that goes on with foundation staff," Triplett responded. "Once
you're in charge of handing out money, your ego tends to get
inflated. But fortunately, that's not true for everybody in the
There's great potential in the Civic
Caucus partnering with others on a study. Triplett said that's
one way of ensuring that people will pay attention to what comes out
of the Civic Caucus. He noted six categories of potential partners:
A group that's already working in
a topic area, such as an immigrant-support nonprofit.
Another high-profile media
outlet, such as the Pioneer Press, MPR or MinnPost.
The biggest opportunity for
partnering is with higher ed institutions. That might include the
Humphrey School of Public Affairs or the Center for Urban and
Regional Affairs (CURA) at the U of M or private colleges, perhaps
by working with the Minnesota Private College Council. "These
institutions have their own way of elevating issues that the Civic
Caucus might not have," Triplett said. "The research capabilities
and student interest make all colleges worth serious consideration
Millennial groups, such as
Triplett described Fourth Generation as a group of millennials
who've come together to develop a new, nontraditional process for
philanthropy. They're interested in social enterprise. He suggested
that the Civic Caucus invite someone from the organization for an
There are hurdles for the Civic Caucus to
overcome. Triplett listed three:
The Civic Caucus could possibly be seen as a new/old Citizens
The lack of age and race diversity in the Civic Caucus
The era of Trump: Why bother with studies? We've already got
How do we get attention after issuing a
report and have an impact? An interviewer asked that question
and noted that CURA has put out numerous reports that seemed to have
had no effect.
Triplett responded that maybe the
gatherings mentioned earlier of legislators and researchers on
transportation issues is a model that would be replicable on other
issues. "It's when you get the policymakers invested in the idea
that 'We have to find a solution to a certain problem and we can't
do it by ourselves,'" he said. "'Can you help out?'"
"There's a lot to that," the interviewer
remarked, "because policymakers are just besieged by special
interests, like the Transportation Alliance, the trucking
associations, road builders, transit advocates and bond sellers."
Another interviewer remarked that MnDOT
does think long term and has plans for what needs to happen to
various segments of roads over the next 15 years. "But then they
have to think about the short term, because legislators are badgered
by special interests," he said.
"In the old days, when the Citizens League
used to tackle something, its Program Committee would think about
what was going to be hitting the headlines in two years," the
interviewer continued. "It wasn't solution-oriented, as much as it
was trying to understand the system that was creating the problem
and how to get leverage on the system to solve the problem. That's
the kind of thinking that doesn't occur very much anymore."
He said the Civic Caucus spent over a year
looking at workforce issues. We identified all the obstacles and the
issues and then we issued a report. (See Jan. 25, 2015, Civic Caucus
Why isn't the higher ed system delivering
what the state needs? The interviewer continued. "I know there's
a lot of hand-wringing and frustration about why the higher ed
system isn't delivering what the state feels it needs--whether it's
in citizenship issues or workforce development issues or a lot of
other related issues. Yet, we expect the higher ed system to
deliver. There's a logjam there of some sort. We keep looking for
the next leader to pull us out of the mess."
"It may well be that the Civic Caucus
shouldn't jump into a world-class issue to start with," Triplett
responded. "Looking at Minnesota State as it searches for a new
leader, the Caucus should take on this function of selection of a
leader. How do you find people who have the vision to be a leader?
Instead, these institutions always go straight to the consulting
headhunters, who come up with the same names over and over again."
What about a planning grant for the Civic
Caucus? An interviewer asked Triplett for his thoughts on that
question. Triplett responded that he doesn't think the Civic Caucus
can go to the McKnight Foundation or whomever and simply ask for
money to create a process or hire staff. He said, though, that that
there is potential for arraying the individual interests of the
various foundations in Minnesota against the question, "Can a policy
study help you in achieving your mission?"
Triplett reiterated his earlier point that
the Civic Caucus should not become another research-for-hire
organization. However, if a foundation has a need for unbiased
research on an issue that is both important to it and to the state
as a whole, then the Civic Caucus should pursue that opportunity.
The interviewer said it would be helpful
for us to start thinking about that and get a group to work on it.
Triplett said he would be willing to help.
Does the public-policy process need to be
better defined or do we need a different process for different
issues? An interviewer asked that question and wondered whether
the process you use should grow out of the issue you're trying to
Triplett believes the process should grow
out of the issue you're trying to tackle. For example, he said the
Civic Caucus could be helpful in looking at the issue of whether we
should continue to require that that health-care providers in
Minnesota be nonprofit. "That's an issue unique to Minnesota," he
said. "Maybe that would require a special process to get at."
How do we encourage the Legislature to
look at the big picture or long-term trends? An interviewer
recalled that in the 1970s, the State Planning Agency put on an
annual "Minnesota Futures Conference" before the legislative session
began, which all legislators were required to attend. The
conferences were intended to inform legislators of long-term trends
in the state and encourage legislators to do long-term, big-picture
thinking. The responsibility for the conferences later moved to the
Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota.
Triplett said it would be worth trying to
re-establish something like the Futures Conferences before
legislative sessions. The Civic Caucus would need a partner to take
that up. He said it wouldn't be working on the resolution of a
particular issue, but might encourage more long-term thinking. He
wondered if the Humphrey School could be a partner.
An interviewer responded that the people
at the U of M and Minnesota State behave in a way not aimed at
solving contemporary problems. "The incentives for professors are
not aligned with that mission," he said. "For the most part,
professors are not teaching public policy."
He suggested looking to the private
colleges for people willing to engage in public policy and possibly
join the Civic Caucus interview group. Triplett agreed that it would
be helpful for the Caucus to meet with Paul Cerkvenik, president of
the Minnesota Private College Council, rather than trying to meet
with each college individually.
What group might be the most likely to
conduct its work following details of the Minnesota Process? An
interviewer asked that question and explained that the Nov. 27,
2016, Civic Caucus report recommended ways of ensuring a good
process in Minnesota for coming up with creative ideas for doing
something about issues in the future. It settled on what it calls
the Minnesota Process, which has served the state well in the past
in developing those creative solutions. (Characteristics of the
Minnesota Process are listed in these notes at the beginning of the
Triplett responded that he's not sure what
group that would be. The interviewer asked whether some entity,
perhaps the Humphrey School, would undertake a study using the
Minnesota Process if a foundation offered to fund it. Triplett
suggested that the Civic Caucus meet with Bill King, former
president for 12 years of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. He
might have some perspective on the question, Triplett said.
Pick focused issues that nobody else is
looking at. The interviewer said it's important to have a list
of critical issues facing Minnesota when deciding which issue to
take on next. The interviewer named several Minnesota-specific
issues, but Triplett responded that he was nervous about the Civic
Caucus taking on such big issues, even if they are
Minnesota-specific. He advised choosing instead focused issues that
no other organization is looking at.
How do we brand the Civic Caucus? An
interviewer talked about the organization
a national organization with a Minnesota chapter. The mission of the
national organization--comprised of Democrats, Republicans and
independents--is to create within Congress a bloc of elected
officials who combine ideological independence and common sense with
a willingness to reach across the aisle to get things done.
The interviewer said the slogan of the day
should be "Make Democracy Great Again." Those are the
principles of the Civic Caucus, he said. "Democracy is the best form
of government because it's the battle of ideas and compromise and
coming up with the best solutions to problems. The best way to do
that is through a democratic process. I don't think most people
think that anymore. If Washington can't figure it out, maybe
Minnesota can figure it out here."
He asked what the unique role of Civic
Caucus is. "How can we brand this in a way that sustains the Civic
Caucus financially and in terms of its influence?"
Triplett responded that the Civic Caucus
should find one or two small, manageable, important issues and find
a partner who will fund a study of the issues and find the right
people, the generalists, to come to the table and use our process.
The Civic Caucus needs to try a couple of these things, he said.
"In other words," the interviewer
remarked, "we make ourselves relevant by having some successes, big
or small." Triplett agreed.
Another interviewer commented that the
Civic Caucus report didn't envision the Caucus itself necessarily
doing the studies. Instead, the report asked the foundation
community to revive the Minnesota Process by seeking proposals from
groups willing to use that process to study an important issue.
Triplett responded by saying if the Civic
Caucus can find a foundation with a focus area that has a major
unanswered question, the Caucus could tell the foundation it'd be
willing to lead the process, but maybe not do the study itself.
The legislative process is getting broken
down. Triplett said years ago in the legislative process, there
was a long-term, objectively defined list of road projects. "Now
what we're seeing is individual pieces of legislation dealing with
one stretch of road," he said. "The same thing is happening in
public utilities regulation. The legislative process is getting
broken down. If that continues in other areas, it's going to be a
huge, unfortunate shift."
He said another area that is suffering now
is the management of public facilities, such as the new Vikings
stadium. "The Legislature is not thinking conceptually about how the
facilities should be managed," Triplett said. "Instead, they're
thinking about how the members of the Stadium Authority should be
appointed. But there are much more fundamental questions there."
He said perhaps the Civic Caucus should
put together a list of areas where there's friction about policy and
process and structure. The list might help identify questions the
Caucus wants to move on.
Should there be disruptive activity today
through something that's brand new? An interviewer asked that
question after pointing out that Triplett himself has
been involved in several successful
disruptive activities, such as chartered schools and the Minnesota
Project, a study group the interviewer said was somewhat in
competition with the Citizens League.
Triplett responded that he likes the
concept of being disruptive, but not being so far off the mainstream
that people won't pay attention. That's why he thinks it's important
for the Civic Caucus to begin to develop a list of current issues,
then winnow those down and figure out who'd be interested in funding
Triplett said there is a role for the
Civic Caucus to come up with manageable issues where change can be
made. But the Caucus needs to work with a partner to have a
visibility level it normally wouldn't have on its own. It also needs
a funding stream. He also repeated his earlier point that to be
credible, the Civic Caucus must broaden its base of participants to
include more people of color and more young people. "With a few
exceptions, we're too old and too white."
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,