'The Public Will Not Blindly Follow the Experts'

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Public Agenda was founded on the premise that people can reach an intelligent consensus on tough policy issues if they are given the necessary tools. Traditionally, they have looked to their leaders in government, business, and the community to provide them with those tools.

Twenty years of research into what Americans think about major policy issues and five years of intensive probing into what people think about their public schools have not weakened our faith in the public's ability to work through complex issues. But we are concerned that leaders are distancing themselves from their citizens. They are not listening closely enough to what people are saying, are not engaging the public sufficiently in policy debates, and, increasingly, are failing to provide the tools people need to reach that important consensus.

Such communication between leaders and citizens has always been important. In today's volatile environment, it's absolutely essential.

Daniel Yankelovich, who along with Cyrus Vance founded Public Agenda in 1975, has identified three destructive trends that contribute to the pessimism and cynicism we find expressed at the polls, in talk radio, and in school referenda.

The first trend is economic. It finds a majority of Americans no longer reaping the benefits of economic growth, a result of the impact that technology and the global economy have had on American jobs and earnings.

The second destructive trend is cultural, a perception of widespread moral confusion and a breakdown in the shared norms that hold our society together. The most visible sign of this concern is fear of crime and violence, which Americans perceive as symptoms of a broader malady--one they see mirrored daily in the nation's public schools.

As if an imbalanced economy and eroding social morality weren't enough, a third destructive trend is exacerbating the other two. But the nation's leadership holds the power to reverse it.

The third trend is the growing disconnect between the thin layer of the nation's experts, professionals, and leaders and the general public. When voters are troubled by public issues, they turn to their leaders in hope of finding solutions. If solutions prove elusive, they hope for good-faith efforts or at least some degree of responsiveness. What drives people wild with frustration is a lack of responsiveness, a feeling of being ignored, misunderstood, and exploited.

At Public Agenda, we encounter this disconnect between leaders and the public often and on a wide variety of issues. Any public-engagement strategy that does not attempt to remedy this disconnect is doomed to fail. The matter of standards is exemplary. The public is absolutely committed to supporting higher K-12 standards and expectations for all students, even as they continue to oppose the very efforts that reformers insist would create such standards. Why, given this broad base of potential public support and an unusually strong consensus among America's leaders on a standards-based agenda, is the public not more engaged in the change process, or at least engaged in a positive way?

We believe it is because the public lacks confidence in the reform agenda, which it finds unresponsive to its perceptions about what is wrong with the schools. People believe that educators and reformers have ignored the essentials of good schooling, which they define as making schools safe, orderly, and purposeful enough for learning to take place and seeing that kids start by learning the basic skills.

What happens when such a gap exists, when leaders fail to address the public's primary concerns? People become increasingly frustrated and gravitate toward those groups and causes that come closest to addressing their concerns. And that, I believe, helps explain the growing attraction to such alternatives as home schooling and private education and the continued opposition to so-called outcomes-based education.

Given the growing dissatisfaction with public schools, how can leaders committed to education reform and other social improvements remedy these harmful disconnects? What does it take to engage in meaningful communication? One immediate first step is to understand how public opinion really forms.

Public opinion is never static. Over the years, we at Public Agenda have developed an understanding of public opinion as an evolutionary process that citizens go through as they struggle to make sense of complex issues, such as education reform or health care.

Generally speaking, people become aware of an issue, often through the media. Occasionally, an external event, such as a recession in the case of health care, causes people to develop a sense of urgency about the problem and start exploring potential solutions. But, at this early stage in the public-opinion process, people's instinct is to reach for easy solutions, resisting consideration of the costs and trade-offs involved. Only with time and help in thinking about the implications of various solutions will they begin to weigh the pros and cons of real alternatives. Ultimately, people do make an intellectual commitment to a solution, followed by a responsible moral and emotional judgment.

In terms of higher academic standards, people have worked through the real implications of demanding more of kids and themselves, and their views are reasonably consistent and stable. Reformers ought to build on that commitment. But, in many other aspects of education reform, people are still at a fairly early stage in this process, searching for solutions. Their support for education generally must be weighed against their concerns and doubts about specific school operations. They are aware of the problems and consider them urgent but are sometimes outraged at what they consider a lack of accountability on the part of educators. To some degree, however, they are flailing about, seeking easy answers to what they will eventually recognize as complex problems.

It is important to understand where people are in the opinion-formation process because different stages require different communication strategies. When people are searching for solutions, as they are today, they need their own opportunity to work the problem through, just as "the experts" have done over the past 15 years.

Leaders have forged their opinions through exposure to certain information and through considerable discussion and debate. Attempts by leaders to sell their viewpoint to a public that has not experienced the same information, discussion, or debate are unlikely to succeed. Today's public will not blindly follow what experts propose; they need to experience the opinion-formation process for themselves.

We at Public Agenda find that many educators and business and community leaders read our analyses and take them seriously. But few take the time and trouble to involve the public so that it, too, can understand the trade-offs and reach a thoughtful consensus. Whether it is school safety and discipline, teaching techniques, or standards and assessment, we must seriously invite parents and other members of the public into these discussions and build strategies for addressing the problems together.

"Public engagement," I am afraid, has become the latest buzzword, without much understanding of what is really required. To build consensus for anything worth doing is hard work. It takes time and patience. It requires a greater commitment to listening than our leaders and experts have been exhibiting of late.

Vol. 15, Issue 12, Page 32

Published in Print: November 22, 1995, as 'The Public Will Not Blindly Follow the Experts'
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