Civic Caucus Internal Discussion - Civic Process 2

Reassessment of Minnesota's civic process is overdue

September 18, 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), Dana Schroeder (associate director), Clarence Shallbetter.


The Civic Caucus should undertake an objective assessment of Minnesota's civic process, both past and present, to determine what improvements might be needed in that process today. The need for a civic environment that encourages public and private civic groups to initiate strong proposals for public-policy change is as critical today as in previous years, if not more so. However, instead of yearning for the "good old days", civic-minded Minnesotans should recognize the changed circumstances of today's civic life, including the evolution of social media, mass media, population diversity, political polarization, and attitudes towards civic participation. Any analysis of the adequacy of today's civic process must address these significant changes in the civic landscape.

Nevertheless, the critical need for creative, actionable proposals remains central to the success of civic problem-solving. Strengths and weaknesses of civic groups should be as openly identified and as subject to analysis as the issues these groups themselves have identified and analyzed. As an example, civic groups and others proposing change should examine whether they turn too often to the federal level for solutions instead of employing the ready assets of public and nonpublic institutions at the state and local level.


This is the second of three internal discussions on the feasibility of a Civic Caucus study of the past, current and future quality of Minnesota's civic process and the role of the Caucus in that process.


The Civic Caucus should include an examination of Minnesota's civic process in its upcoming interviews. On September 11, 2015, the Civic Caucus held an internal discussion on the current quality of Minnesota's civic process and the role of the Caucus in that process. Based on that discussion, Civic Caucus Executive Director Paul Gilje proposed in a follow-up session that the group focus its upcoming interviews on two areas:

1. An analysis of the comparative advantage of Minnesota's civic process now and in the past; and

2. A continued exploration of the human talent issue in Minnesota.

Historically, Gilje said, Minnesota has had a competitive advantage in public policy, because it has been able to produce better vision and better public action than other states. People have different feelings about how that process is working today. "Where are the strengths and weaknesses in the state's civic process today?" he asked.

Gilje said that he and Civic Caucus Chair Dan Loritz suggest that the Caucus have detailed interviews in coming weeks regarding the advantage Minnesota might have had in public policy and whether that still exists today. Possible interviewees could include business leaders, elected officials looking for good policy ideas, leaders of organizations involved in public policy, media representatives, editorial writers and foundations.

The second part of the suggestion, Gilje said, is that the Caucus not ignore its continuing focus on human capital in Minnesota.

He believes the Caucus shouldn't just abandon the topic of human capital, after spending so much time examining it. But he suggested the group might want to be thinking about what a wrap-up of the topic might involve. He noted that several interviews on human capital are already on the schedule in upcoming weeks. He said he and Loritz would like the flexibility to be able to mix in interviews on the two topics on the upcoming meeting schedule.

Gilje noted that the Caucus has already issued two statements on the topic: one in September 2014 laying out the human-capital challenges facing the state today and in coming years and a follow-up paper in January 2015 offering recommendations for maintaining a high-quality workforce in Minnesota.

An interviewer commented that addressing the issue of human capital should also include tackling the problems of African American poverty in Minnesota and of the "horrendous" learning gap in the state's schools for students of color.

Another interviewer commented that in our exploration of human capital and human talent, we haven't looked enough at the question of economic growth. We don't know yet what the jobs of the future are for which people must be trained, he said.

Exploring the state of Minnesota's civic life involves looking at two questions: (1) How did we get to where we are today? (2) What can we do to move forward from today? An interviewer stated that there are three parts to answering the first question:

1. Minnesota inherited a business culture from New England, "Yankee-dom," from those who settled here early on and started businesses. They had certain ideas about business and civic life. Business leaders and civic leaders were the same people. The area also had a very communitarian outlook. Middle-of-the-roaders dominated business life in Minnesota until very recently.

2. The state lacked cultural challenges in its business and community life. This was a homogeneous area, mostly northern Europeans, and people behaved with each other as if they were all part of the same majority culture.

3. There were successful local companies, partly because Minnesota is located on the edge of the northeastern manufacturing belt. There's little competition between here and the West Coast, so there were no serious competitors for lumber businesses, grain processing and milling businesses, and manufacturing businesses based on agriculture. "Wealth piled up here," the interviewer said. "We did business out to western Montana without significant competition."

The people who founded the Citizens League were all drawn from those traditions, the interviewer continued. "Those three things made the difference." But, he said, those three things started to dissipate in the 1960s. The area's population began to diversify, the Yankee-dom culture began to dissipate and the national economy became internationalized, meaning every metro area began competing with the world.

The interviewer said we must acknowledge "that it ain't what it used to be."

The Civic Caucus is a learning organization that shares its findings, not a teaching organization. Gilje said the area has a system of civic life and the Caucus needs to learn more about how that system is working and share those findings. The group must decide whom to interview to learn more about that system. And, he added, there is still more we need to know about the human capital topic.

He and Loritz are proposing that the Caucus look both at the civic system and at human capital. "I'm not sure we'll be transitioning from human capital to looking at the civic system," Gilje said. "Looking at the civic system is not the same as exploring the human capital topic. I think we'll transition from human capital to something else we haven't determined yet."

Another interviewer said the Caucus must look at what the state's public-policy mechanism should be today and in the future, especially in a time when people aren't inclined to join groups.

The area must restore its historic comparative advantage in collective action. Loritz read the last paragraph from a speech entitled "Cold Sunbelt" that Civic Caucus member and former Citizens League executive director Ted Kolderie gave to the Skylight Club in January 2006:

"It is no way ordained that the 15th-largest metropolitan area be located where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi. If we are to succeed, we will have to work to maintain those elements of 'livability' that attract people to come here and to stay here. And to do that, we will have to restore our historic comparative advantage in collective action. This is created by community institutions that can see ahead, that know how to get to the causes of things, that can explain to the public the choices it faces and that can act with vision and with courage. And we will have to do this in a metropolitan region and in a time dramatically different from the one that existed here from 1938 to 1978."

Loritz said that when he worked in government, there were a number of policy proposals put forward by organizations. "We had ideas to look at." When he worked for Gov. Rudy Perpich, Loritz said, the governor prodded his staff to find ideas and proposals. "How does government get proposals now?'" Loritz said.

An interviewer commented that in trying to find entities that propose good ideas, the Caucus must learn how the public sector has also changed in the last 50 years. Today, lots of people get together to make their pitch to government bodies, he said. "And a lot of this energy is driven to the federal government these days. The number of lobbyists has grown exponentially in Washington. People believe Washington is the place where things happen in terms of policy."

"There are a lot of groups and organizations, all of which are making proposals," he continued. "I don't think the Legislature or the mayor or the city council are lacking in proposals, petitions, draft legislation; they get it all."

Another interviewer disagreed. She said most advocacy groups and lobbyists today are acting defensively. "They want to stop things from happening and to stop any cuts in spending to their area. The lobbyists are not bringing in thoughtful, new, creative proposals."

"Can't somebody do that?" asked Loritz. "Ultimately, do we have any mechanism left to deal with the most difficult issues we face? We must maintain or rebuild our historic comparative advantage. Can we do that?"

Gilje suggested that the Caucus note that the area once had a comparative advantage in collective action and then ask, "Do we still have that comparative advantage today?"

An interviewer asked how the Civic Caucus could influence other civic organizations and potentially affiliate with them.

Everything is fragmented today. An interviewer noted that in the past, everyone read the same editorials in the newspaper. "Thoughtful, community-oriented people would participate in public affairs through the newspaper. We can have the facts, but we need the story that makes sense. We need stories of collective action. However, the culture has encouraged everyone to go his or her own way."

"What would have to be done to make it work differently?" he continued. "How can we have a conversation among legislators, find areas of common agreement and figure out what to do about it?"

He suggested tapping into the schools and colleges, which should be preparing the next generation of young people to participate in and prepare for civic life. "Grow the next generation so they can see ahead and evaluate the choices."

Another interviewer commented that business organizations brought proposals to the Legislature during the time Orville Freeman and Elmer Andersen were governors. "They came with wonderful ideas to the Legislature and were very effective. Now they're not doing that." She said now employees from corporations do one-day, group good deeds in the community as their civic involvement. "But that's not civic involvement; that's a PR thing. Getting people to join civic committees takes leadership from the top."

Another interviewer said people are not willing to make a commitment to do something long-term. They choose individualistic behaviors over collective action.

Effective community institutions create a healthy public life. Loritz, again quoting from Kolderie's speech, said the comparative advantage in public life is "created by community institutions that can see ahead, that know how to get to the causes of things, that can explain to the public the choices it faces and that can act with vision and with courage."

"Do we have those community institutions?" Loritz asked. "If we don't have those community institutions, how should we get them? Is that the heart of the matter?" People in the group agreed that it is. "My guess is that if you look at successful areas around the country, they have successful community institutions," Loritz commented.

"Another thing we could perhaps do is stimulate the community institutions we do have here to improve themselves," Gilje said. "I believe people at this meeting are not opposed to inviting some knowledgeable people to comment on the area's community institutions today and how they're doing. If the institutions are not what we'd hope, how can they change?"

"We've been looking at issues for 10 years, but we haven't looked at the civic system within which we operate," Gilje continued. "There are lots of people who are really critical and who seem to think this isn't working as well as it used to." He said we could ask interviewees how they view the civic system and the community institutions we have today and how well they think they're working. An interviewer said we could also ask how the interviewees view their role in the civic process.

The Civic Caucus interviews on civic process should be interspersed with interviews still focusing on human capital. Gilje said he thinks that would be preferable to the Caucus focusing all of its upcoming interviews on the civic process.

Loritz said the Caucus has looked at part of the topic of human capital, but it hasn't looked at every dimension, such as the importance of the quality of health care to human capital. He commented that the Caucus should stay on the topic of human capital, but expand its focus.

An interviewer said there are many topics we're not going to become experts on and they're not the focus of the discussion. "The focus of the discussion," he said, "has been on the term 'civic,' an awareness of this larger thing that brings us together as citizens, to act collectively as citizens on a number of issues. How do you develop that awareness, that capacity? Where is that today? That's the more appropriate focus of a group like the Civic Caucus than a lot of other explorations about subtopics that are important, but where we're not going to add a whole lot."

We should make a distinction between the part of schooling that prepares people to enter the economy and the part that prepares kids for effective civic life. An interviewer commented that both would determine the extent to which our community flourishes down the road. The leaders of the community 50 years ago were all white northern Europeans, he said. "This is a different world. We need new shared civic narratives."

How does this discussion of where to place the Civic Caucus's focus in its upcoming interviews fit in with the issue of the future of the Caucus? Loritz responded that if the Caucus ends up taking a look at the area's community institutions, maybe the group could figure out where the Caucus fits in. It ought to become clearer what its future is.

Gilje said he shares a continuing concern about the lack of people of color involved in the Civic Caucus. Others cited the need to include younger members, but expressed concern that younger people too often have difficulty finding time to participate in civic groups.

The group needs to identify the kinds of questions we want to ask before we decide whom to bring in for interviews. "We need to ask what we'd like the interviewers to reveal about the nature of the civic enterprise," one interviewer said. Loritz suggested that the group dedicate another internal discussion meeting to putting together the key questions we want to know about the civic process.

What we really want is effective solutions presented to public and private decision-makers. "I think that's the key question," an interviewer said. "What we're looking for is successful ways some of the area's civic organizations have advanced public-policy proposals in the recent past."

Another interviewer commented that the effectiveness of the proposals that were advanced in the past depended on the openness of the media to what the civic organizations had to say and the fact that legislators were willing to act for different reasons from why legislators act today. It's difficult to make inroads in today's "media-clotted world," even if you do have a good proposal, he said.

"The Civic Caucus is a learning organization, but it's also a teaching organization," another interviewer said. "It's kind of a hybrid and has made great contributions through that approach." Examining the effectiveness of the state's civic process, while at the same time reviewing the Caucus's role in that process, would be a worthwhile endeavor.

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