Civic Caucus Internal Discussion - Civic Process 3

Preserve learning and teaching as central roles for the Civic Caucus

October 2, 2015


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


Essential aspects of civic life in Minnesota include (1) learning and teaching about the state's public problems and opportunities; (2) coming up with specific proposals for action; and (3) taking action. Results of its new inquiry into the state's civic infrastructure and process will help reveal what changes the Civic Caucus should make in its central role.

Regardless of that outcome, the Civic Caucus should continue to concentrate on learning and teaching via its weekly interviews and in-depth e-mail reports of its interviews. To effectively carry out its role, the Civic Caucus should place high priority on carefully selecting (a) topics for interviews, (b) the group conducting the interviews, (c) individuals it invites for interviews, and (d) questions it asks in interviews.

The Civic Caucus should enlist younger people and people of varied ethic and cultural backgrounds as interviewers and interviewees. The Civic Caucus must preserve its strictly nonpartisan, non-special-interest approach.


This is the third of three Civic Caucus internal discussions on whether and how the Caucus should examine the past, current and future quality of Minnesota's civic process and the role of the Caucus in that process. The first internal discussion was held on Sept. 11 and the second on Sept. 18.


Note: The use of the word "interviewer" in the discussion notes below refers to members of the Civic Caucus interview group who were participants in this internal discussion session.

Readers who responded to the Civic Caucus's e-mail reporting its Sept. 11, 2015, internal discussion agreed that the Civic Caucus should conduct interviews on the overall public-policy development process in Minnesota. Civic Caucus Associate Director Sallie Kemper gave a review of the written responses to the Caucus's e-mail reporting on the group's Sept. 11, 2015, internal discussion. That meeting featured a discussion of whether the Caucus should undertake a review of Minnesota's process, past and present, for generating policy proposals to help solve its most difficult problems.

Kemper said that as of October 2, only 22 had people responded to the e-mailed notes of the Sept. 11 meeting, by answering questions posed in the e-mail and/or sending back written responses. She noted that such a limited response does not permit drawing conclusions about a general level of support for the statements posed. She reported that those responders to date have replied to the e-mail questions as follows:

  • 20 of the 22 responders moderately or strongly agreed that the topic discussed at the Sept. 14 meeting is of value. One responder strongly disagreed.
  • 16 responders agreed that further study of the topic is warranted. One responder strongly disagreed.
  • 21 of 22 responders agreed that a vital part of a state's livability is the ability of its people to devise solutions to public problems.
  • 20 responders agreed that Minnesota's comparative advantage in public policy, built up over several decades, is at risk.
  • 21 responders agreed that given the gravity of today's problems, such as gaps in income and education, the state couldn't rest on past accomplishments.
  • All 22 responders agreed that new proposals addressing today's problems are needed.
  • 21 responders agreed that the Civic Caucus should conduct interviews on the overall public-policy development process: how civic and community institutions respond to events, analyze options, devise proposals and take action.

Some readers said the Civic Caucus ought to use the information it generates to develop solutions to problems. Kemper analyzed the written comments offered by the responders and reported the replies included two main themes:

1. Frustration about lack of further action on issues . The Civic Caucus interviews and interview notes sent by e-mail are great, but then what happens? What do you do? We see no action. What can you do with all this information to identify, develop and promote solutions? The Caucus is all talk and no action. The Caucus needs to transform its findings into action or get them into the hands of those who can. It's frustrating that the Caucus discerns problems and possible solutions, but no one seems to take up its clarion call to action.

2. Anguish about the demise of cooperation . There were lamentations over the current partisan divide, the intolerance for bipartisan cooperation and the powers that be remaining stuck in old thinking. It's good for people to come up with wonderful policy proposals, but they die because of the intransigent partisan divide.

In addition, Kemper said, there were two subthemes in the written comments:

1. Concern about diversity of interviewers. Three people called into question the makeup of the interview group and its lack of diversity. One said there should be more regular citizens and fewer experts.

2. Questions about transparency of the Caucus. Several people commented on the relative "opaqueness" of the Civic Caucus. "One suggested that we are viewed somewhat as the wizard behind the curtain," Kemper said. Some responders said it is not readily understandable who the Caucus is, what it purports to do and who it represents. One noted that a number of people who are active in public affairs are completely unaware of the Civic Caucus.

There are two models the Civic Caucus is discussing, both from the past. An interviewer commented that one is a policy action role and one is a teaching role

1. The first model, policy action, comes from a time when there was an overlap between the two parties and civic groups tried to identify feasible solutions that could find a home with people interested in solving a problem;

2. The second model, a teaching role, is similar to former Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin's 500 interviews on his Minnesota Issues public-affairs program, broadcast on Twin Cities public television from 1976 to 1987. He interviewed elected officials, thought leaders and people involved in public affairs on a variety of topics

The first is a model of policy proposals and action, the interviewer said, and the second is a model of asking questions and passing on information to people.

The interviewer continued, saying the Civic Caucus has interviewed a number of people involved in vocational-technical education and a number of people more broadly involved in preparing young people for life. "If we had zeroed in on those people," he said, "and made them tell us what we can do and how we can do things that will make a difference down the road, we could lay that out as an action plan from the point of view of people who are in the business. But we usually didn't get that far."

Another interviewer noted that the model used in the past by some civic groups included not only a study process, but also a strong effort to implement whatever proposal was developed during the study process. He said the Civic Caucus in its history faced that issue: are we going to convince the Legislature or the county board to endorse a proposal? "The conclusion was that we didn't have the capacity," he said. "That approach is very demanding."

The political culture has changed. An interviewer commented that today issues are seen as interests while leadership is defined as negotiating among those interests to find a compromise among all special interests. "That doesn't mean it's good public policy; more often than not, it's not," he said. "People don't know how to take us, because the radical part of the Civic Caucus is that we don't carry water for anybody. What other group out there can you say that about?"

Another interviewer agreed. "You don't put a committee together composed of one representative of each aggrieved group," he said. "It's almost guaranteed you're not going to get a good answer. You have to get people who can stand back and look at the bigger picture. The politics of today are the politics of identity, so you have to deal with the fact that people look at things through very narrow eyes and don't know about or care about the bigger picture. In the long tradition of Minnesota politics till several decades ago, there were people who did think of the larger picture as the first thing they thought about and then negotiated the details later."

The same interviewer said that at the recent first meeting of the new Citizens League task force on the Metropolitan Council, he tried to ask the question of who represents the future of the metropolitan area, when Hennepin and Ramsey Counties are fighting over where to put public facilities, for example.

Good planning is supposed to be able to determine, he said, things like where to put sewer and water to serve the area for the next 30 years. "But planning got pushed into the background when the Metropolitan Council became the overseer for a bunch of different operating agencies."

Another interviewer commented that if the Metropolitan Council is not doing planning, it's not fulfilling its original function. "Who is responsible for future planning for the well-being of the state, which is intimately dependent on the well-being of the metropolitan area?" she asked.

The Civic Caucus has had primarily a teaching function, illuminating the various sides of large questions. "We don't have the resources for implementation," an interviewer said. "What we can do is inform. There isn't any place else where these kinds of questions are explored in a nonpartisan, thoughtful fashion."

Another interviewer agreed. He said Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson has written about the collapse of civic organizations. And Otto Scharmer from MIT has said we are so dominated today by stakeholders that nobody's looking toward the future or the common good. "The Civic Caucus has a wonderful opportunity to take on that role as an educator, to pass on knowledge," the interviewer said.

The Caucus should focus on how we get action anywhere in the public-policy domain and how the Civic Caucus fits into that process. "What is the big picture?" an interviewer asked. We must be sure we look at the process from the state standpoint and not just the metro standpoint. He added that we need the public sector working together with the private sector to solve public-policy problems. "We need to expand that dialogue. The strength of Minnesota has been partnership."

Gilje suggested that during the Caucus's upcoming interviews dealing with human talent, we should also take the opportunity to ask the interviewees about their views on the state's civic process.

As part of its focus on human talent, the Civic Caucus should explore incarceration and its impact on the African American community. So much of the incarceration relates to substance abuse, an interviewer said. Another interviewer said society is missing the talent contribution from incarcerated people and is spending "a ton" of money that could be better spent. "We lose on both fronts," he said. A third interviewer commented that the incarceration was not just a war on drugs; it was a war on the black community. And a fourth interviewer noted that there is a joint legislative committee currently looking at the question of incarceration.

What are the questions the Caucus should ask upcoming interviewees about the civic process?
Interviewers suggested the following:

  • Are conditions today different from the past so that a new or different form of civic process is needed?
  • How has the significant increase in public-policy groups and/or special interest groups impacted the evolution of positive public-policy proposals?
  • Are useful proposals being advanced? If so, what sources seem to be the best?
  • How does and will the Internet and social media impact the formulation of public-policy content and recommendations?
  • Are people's personal schedules interfering with their civic activity more today than in the past?
  • What public-policy problems are most in need of proposals today?
  • Is there as great a need today to work on structural problems as in the past? Was there the same urgency in the past to work on social problems as today?
  • Is there a greater need today to emphasize identifying possible solutions and devising proposals?
  • Who in the civic process represents the future?
  • How are we educating young people to be citizens?
  • How has the state legislative process evolved and how is it working today?
  • How has the civic process evolved over the past 40 years?
  • What was the civic infrastructure in the past? What do people think it should be if it isn't what it was? How did it work? How should it work?
  • Are there still classes in schools on civics or government and on Minnesota history?
  • How can young people come to adulthood not having a clue about the governance system of our country and how it works at any level?
  • How can we help young people understand how the civic process used to work?
  • Are we a republic or a democracy?
  • Are teachers comfortable having an open conversation about difficult topics like gun control or foreign policy?

An interviewer said the civic process is dying because nobody joins anything. People are losing hope, because they're so self-focused. Another interviewer agreed, saying people are growing more and more frustrated with the civic process, so they're looking outside the parties in the presidential race.

The group suggested a number of potential interviewees on the topic of the civic process. One interviewer suggested that the Civic Caucus host a public forum featuring people we've interviewed about the civic process.

We need a strategy for helping young people understand how the civic process works. An interviewer said we should interview people who can give us a strategy for tapping into the energy of young people who want to change things. These young people will be in the Legislature in 15 years or will be doing other things in the future that people we talk to are doing today. "Let's connect with the place where the education is happening and help steer it toward a result that five years from today we can be proud of." Another interviewer commented, "We need to change the farm system for the Legislature."

People used to come to Minnesota to see how we were doing what we were doing. Some civic organizations get members by saying certain things, Loritz said. "They get their members roused up, but there's not a general civic discussion. They're all trying to support what their members want. But there was a time when people came here to see how we were doing what we were doing."

"They came here because there were a number of things that had been done that were novel, original, and unique to this area," an interviewer said. "Fiscal Disparities was preeminent. They couldn't believe it. How could you pass something that shares the wealth?"

Another interviewer said there was a time in Minnesota when labor, government and business talked with each other and worked together as a team.

Gilje suggested that the Caucus interview Sean Kershaw, executive director of the Citizens League, to discuss the aims and philosophy of the League, based on a 1953 report it republished last year. "The Citizens League strategy worked at one time," Loritz said.

An interviewer countered that there are a lot of factors that helped that strategy work that are no longer here. The Cowles newspapers were open to the Citizens League's ideas and endorsed those they liked. Everyone read the newspaper then. "That's all gone away now," he said. "We can't redesign the past."

But, he said, "The ground is ripe for someone to come along and say there's a set of general interests out there. Thoughtful people already see there's a problem. Sooner or later something's going to change. People are saying we've got to get out in front of this in a different way. There's going to be a hunger for another way to think about what we're doing that's going to get the job done."

It's not certain that the Civic Caucus will be able to come up with a proposal for a different civic infrastructure, but it should at least stimulate the conversation. Loritz asked whether the Civic Caucus could come to a conclusion about what we think the civic infrastructure should be. An interviewer responded, "There's no harm in giving it a go. There's no harm in trying to stimulate the conversation. There's a lot to be gained from poking at the conscience of this community."

Many people have talked to him, Loritz said, since the notes of the Civic Caucus's Sept. 11th internal discussion were sent out. People said they didn't know if it's possible for the Caucus to come up with a proposal for a renewed civic process, but somebody should try.

Comment here on this interview with Discussion Internal and Process #3 Policy