Civic Caucus Internal Discussion - Civic Process

Civic Caucus and other Minnesota civic groups must do better to revitalize the civic process

September 11, 2015


John Adams, Steve Anderson, Dave Broden (vice chair), Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper (associate director), Dan Loritz (chair), Paul Ostrow, Dana Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Jim Olson.


Minnesota's comparative advantage among states because of its long-standing leadership on public policy action is at risk, according to Dan Loritz, chair, Civic Caucus, and Paul Gilje, executive director.

While the state can point to creative action on public finance, education, and government structure, the need for solutions to today's questions, including closing income and education gaps, never has been greater, they say.

This fall the Civic Caucus needs to use its own interview process to learn from people in and outside of Minnesota the status of the state's civic process and civic infrastructure, Loritz and Gilje say. Are enough proposals for civic action being generated? If not, why not?

Interviewees would include groups that initiate proposals and people who need proposals coming to them, such as legislators, members of the media and Minnesota-based foundations. The Civic Caucus will work to develop recommendations on how the process could be strengthened.


As part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the first Civic Caucus interview in 2005, Loritz and Gilje provide a look at the past efforts of the Civic Caucus and its challenges for the future.


Outside groups must bring ideas for solving problems to the Legislature. Civic Caucus Executive Director Paul Gilje started the internal discussion session by referring to a 1972 Minneapolis Star interview with then-DFL Minneapolis State Senator Jack Davies in which Davies said legislators need ideas brought to them by the rest of society that they can vote up or down. He said originating solutions to problems is not a basic function of the Legislature and that major new thrusts in legislation have to come out of civic groups, which he described as "far and away the greatest source of ideas."

A chart developed by Ted Kolderie, when he was executive director of the Citizens League from 1967 to 1980, describes the civic process as moving through various stages. The process, according to Kolderie's chart, proceeds as follows:

Events Data Problem Identification "Issues" Discussion

Problem Analysis Issue Clarification Policy Development

Public Debate Policy Action

Values fit into the process, Kolderie says, at the point where the question is whether someone sees the data as creating an issue, either a problem or an opportunity. He points out that values themselves can change over time.

Gilje used the example of Minnesota's major 1971 change in its school finance system, part of what became known as the Minnesota Miracle, to illustrate Kolderie's concept:

1. Events prior to the change: tax complaints. Some school districts, such as Circle Pines, had low spending, but high taxes; others, like Edina, had high spending, but low taxes.

2. Data: The Citizens League began calculating each year the property taxes on comparably valued houses in different communities, revealing high-tax and low-tax communities and school districts.

3. Problem Identification: That the differences in spending levels and tax levels among school districts was not consistent with the state's call for a uniform system of public schools.

4. Issues Discussion: People like Van Mueller (long-time education professor at the University of Minnesota, who was deeply concerned about education and equity), and Jerry Christenson (Minnesota state planning agency director at the time), along with various civic groups, the media and others, were discussing the issues surrounding school finance and equity.

5. Problem Analysis: The state can't provide for a uniform system of public schools using the local property tax alone.

6. Issue Clarification: The issue wasn't simply how to provide adequate resources to schools. For example, differences in student population, such numbers from families in poverty, needed to be considered.

7. Policy Development: Many proposals were offered both within and outside of the Legislature, including a report from the Citizens League, New Formulas for Revenue Sharing in Minnesota .

8. Public Debate: Candidates for Governor debated the Citizens League report at the League's annual meeting in September 1970.

9. Policy Action: The 1971 Legislature and then-Gov. Wendell Anderson passed landmark legislation changing the state's school finance system.

10. Events following the policy action: Different complaints about taxes and about some school districts not being able to spend what they want to spend.

Where does the Civic Caucus fit today in this cycle? Gilje asserted that the Civic Caucus is heavily involved in problem identification, issues discussion, problem analysis and issue clarification, but not so much in policy development, public debate and policy action.

What is the public affairs context today that prompts the Civic Caucus to conduct its interviews? Gilje suggested several reasons for the Caucus' approach:

  • Not as much thorough media discussion today of nonpolitical, more substantive aspects of public-policy issues;
  • A need for broader discussion of public-policy issues;
  • A need for a nonpartisan approach;
  • Not enough new ideas and proposals and a need to bring more community attention to those already advanced.

Why is this review of the role and future of the Civic Caucus taking place now? Gilje said there are several reasons:

  • The Caucus is celebrating the 10th anniversary of its first interview in 2005.
  • The Caucus is evaluating how much longer to continue its current emphasis on the state of Minnesota's competitiveness and the strength of its human capital.
  • There's a need to evaluate succession plans for Caucus leadership positions.
  • There's a question of whether the Caucus should issue more reports with recommendations for action on specific civic issues.

An interview group member said it appears that groups commonly bring topics forward, but too often those topics are framed in general terms, not expressed as specific proposals for action, he said. So, what should the structure be for a public-policy organization today?

Civic Caucus Chair Dan Loritz said he and three other members of the Caucus's interview group had been part of a separate group that looked at redesign over a four-year period. During that time, the "Discussion Group on Redesign" looked at the question of redesign of public services. At the heart of the issue of cost and quality of public services is the state's competitiveness. So, for the past two-plus years, the Caucus has been focusing on Minnesota's competitiveness and, more intensely, on its human and social capital. Loritz said the Caucus should now consider looking at the state's institutional capacity for getting things done.

An interview group member said the issue is how we can solve problems, which are the same as 100 years ago, in the context of today's culture. Asking how public action can solve a problem is very different from asking how we can think about it. How can we intervene to make a difference? How can we put leverage on the system to make a difference? We don't get that type of discussion, which has values at its root, he said.

For example, he asked, why do some public policy organizations think differently now from how they thought in the 1960s, when they were more involved in developing specific proposals for civic action?

Verne Johnson and four associates, including Jim Olson, started the Civic Caucus in 1949. At that time, the organization was essentially a small, quiet discussion group, meeting alone, separate from other groups. In 2003, several more people, including current interview group member Clarence Shallbetter, joined the Caucus discussions. The people involved in the Caucus at that time, in addition to Johnson, Olson and Shallbetter, included John Mooty, Charles Clay, James L. Hetland, Jr., and John Sampson. The group had been issuing reports on various topics, among them transportation, the Metropolitan Council and even one on the Middle East. Those reports are on the Civic Caucus website .

In 2005, the Caucus made a major shift toward becoming more public. It began conducting weekly interviews, starting with John Brandl, professor at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and former Minneapolis state senator, on Sept. 14, 2005. It began circulating written reports of those interviews by email widely in Minnesota.

Gilje said moving to the interview process crowded out the Caucus's reports, because there simply wasn't enough time to write up notes on the interviews and to prepare reports. Recently, the group has issued one or two statements or reports a year.

There are now 4,500 people on the Caucus's e-mail list, who receive summary notes of each week's interview.

In 2008, the Caucus set up a website, which is maintained by a dedicated volunteer. The website is organized by interviewee name, by date and by topic and includes reader responses. That same year, the organization started getting bipartisan signatures of support for its statements. In 2009, the Caucus began focusing its interviews over a period of time on one subject.

In 2015, Gilje reported, there are record numbers of participants, judging by e-mail openings and website usage:

  • Since 2010, 3,621 out of 4,500 on the Caucus's reader list have opened the Caucus's e-mails one or more times; 2,116 have opened them 10 or more times; 804 opened them 50 or more times; 60 opened them 200 or more times; and one person, 265 times.
  • There has been steady growth in readership on the Caucus's website, with record numbers of visits currently, approximately 1,100 different individuals each month.

The Civic Caucus has issued 15 reports since 2003 and has held 500 interviews since 2005. Gilje noted that written summary notes of all the interviews are sent to the group's e-mail list of 4,500 readers and, since 2008, all have solicited responses from readers. All interviews are available online at the Caucus's website . All have been approved for accuracy by the interviewees.

Gilje said he wishes more organizations would produce written public reports of their meetings on public policy questions. Often there is no effort to synthesize and send out notes of speeches, presentations and other events to people who weren't able to attend. "We'd love to have groups take our experience and use it themselves," he said.

The Caucus' budget. Gilje reported that the Caucus's budget totals $65,000 annually, all from charitable contributions. Families of three Civic Caucus founders make major contributions. The group pays no honoraria to interviewees; has very low consultant staff expenses; has no office, phone or computer expense; has minimal expense for meeting location, paper and printing; and pays about $500 a year for e-mail, web hosting and survey computer programs.

What's valuable about the Civic Caucus approach? Gilje listed a number of things:

  • Guests do not give speeches, but are interviewed by the Caucus's interview group.
  • The media are not present for the interviews, freeing up the interviewees to speak candidly, knowing they can edit their remarks before they are made public.
  • Interviewees readily accept the Caucus's invitations.
  • The group is nonpartisan.
  • The Caucus shares and respects others' ideas and has a commitment to helping the interviewees' ideas become widely understood.
  • It promotes the value of civil discussion.
  • It creates a permanent, written, accessible record of all of its interviews. The notes it sends out are not transcripts, but are summaries, with boldface headings to help the reader easily absorb the content. All interview notes are approved by the interviewees for accuracy.
  • It's willing to help other groups.
  • The Caucus's emphasis is on Minnesota, but it does hold interviews by conference call with people from outside the state who have particular knowledge about a certain topic.
  • There are no membership or subscription requirements or dues charged to receive the Caucus's material.
  • It has a small Board of Directors (Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Dwight Johnson, Dan Loritz and Bruce Mooty).
  • Its interview group is kept deliberately small. It also has a small planning group.

An interview group member said healthy community action also requires drawing conclusions and making recommendations. Another interviewer said that's different from the Civic Caucus's approach of providing a forum for publicizing people's ideas. "What we're doing is educational," he said. "We look at what an interviewee is doing, why and what help they need."

An interviewer said he has never understood why some of the most highly respected universities in the state fail to give more attention to public policy education as part of their mission. "Why don't we use the universities' public spaces for what they were intended: to hold public conversations about important public issues?" Another interviewer commented that often when universities sponsor public education events, there is little public reporting afterwards outlining what went on.

An interviewer wondered whether society has changed, so that many fewer people want to be involved in civic organizations. How are we accounting for that? Will a new structure bring people back in?

Another interviewer said that in a recent column, David Brooks suggested that voting and political activity has become a matter of self-expression, not a matter of producing change. "It's very individualistic," he said. "I express myself and then I just walk away."

An interviewer said in the past, people thought of themselves as members of a group and as getting things done by engaging with a coalition of groups. Now we have the culture of the individual. "We don't have people talking about large questions," he said. "Now it's very personal."

An interviewer wondered whether it was more common in the past for employees to regard participation in community groups seeking solutions to public problems as a natural extension of their jobs. Lawyers, for example, may have gained an understanding of the structure of government and can apply that knowledge while engaged in a civic group's discussion. Another interviewer highlighted the advantage of networking with other people interested in the same issues. "That kind of linkage was part of the public- policy fabric of the Twin Cities," he said.

An interviewer mentioned the name of James L. Heltland, Jr., former Civic Caucus member, now deceased, who for many years was involved in public affairs in the community as a large part of his job. The interviewer wondered whether employers then had different attitudes about community involvement than today.

The Civic Caucus should interview people in the Twin Cities, in Greater Minnesota and outside of Minnesota who are deeply interested in high quality discussions of civic affairs to identify strengths and weaknesses in Minnesota's system of generating public policy proposals. Gilje and Loritz suggested that all kinds of people and organizations need good public policy information coming to them, for example:

  • Legislators looking for ideas for action on civic problems.
  • The media, which welcome the opportunity to comment on specific proposals.
  • Foundations, which need to give money to the community in intelligent ways.

"Where does the Civic Caucus fit in the future?" Gilje asked. "It could continue as is. It could be absorbed by another organization or perhaps be part of a new organization. But that seems premature. Instead, we could conduct interviews on what people think about the civic process today. It could be that the future of the Civic Caucus would become clearer during this interview process."

"What are our social infrastructure and our civic infrastructure?" Loritz asked. "We had strong civic infrastructure once and it was our comparative advantage. In the 1970s, people visiting here thought something remarkable was happening here. You can't go back, but if that spirit were here, what would it look like? The idea is that the Civic Caucus could use its own interview process to figure out where the organization belongs in that civic infrastructure. What would civic infrastructure in the future look like? What is needed?" He said that process would lead the Caucus to make some recommendations.

Gilje suggested that the group start its internal discussion next week by looking at Ted Kolderie's civic process chart and then suggesting people we should invite for interviews on the process of generating actionable public policy proposals.

It was clarified that the Civic Caucus' work on human capital would continue.

An interviewer commented that the Caucus must engage younger people, "because they understand the power of social media and we don't. It's an extraordinarily powerful community-building force." Several other people commented that we could invite interviewees who are more knowledgeable about harnessing social media in the promotion of civic engagement.

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