What Are We Learning?

This week, I am in Dayton at the Kettering Foundation’s Public Policy Workshop. I am writing a series of small pieces about the experience. Thank you to my colleague, Taylor Willingham, for suggesting I do so.

These are people who would not normally mix. Or would they? Sitting in Salon G of the Dayton Marriott, it’s hard to get your bearings. We are talking together, in a mixed group of professional organizations, international aid executives, nonprofit leaders, professors and students about something called “civic engagement.” That’s a fancy way of talking about what happens when citizens do the work of being citizens.

These organizations — professionals and experts all — have begun to notice something about what happens when they do their own work: it’s getting harder and harder. More and more, the issues that they face require that the public be involved in some way. They have not chosen to attempt to bludgeon the public into paying attention to their issues through ads rooted in scare tactics, nor are they pandering to them through frothy appeals to “getting together” to “do something.” These are tacks that seems all too common in today’s public sphere.

Instead, these groups are looking at ways to work with the public, and to examine how organizations can add to that work. They are asking themselves: How is it that we can add to what the public does?

But, the real question, the one that is hard to address, is why? Why do these professional organizations, who, after all, have self-interested reasons for existence (and this is not at all a bad thing) choose this path?

This is one of the questions this small group will consider over the next two days at the Kettering Foundation’s Public Policy Workshop. The “PPW” is much larger than just my small group. Almost 350 participants are here, with a roughly half-and-half mix of people from the states and from overseas. They are divided into small workshops, according to what kind of questions they are seeking to answer here. There are state legislators, heads of nonprofit organizations, journalists, academics, people called “practitioners,” writers, and a few just plain folks. This is an annual meeting, and it has grown each year since its inauguration 25 years ago.

The questions on the table for our little workgroup are deceptive in their simplicity:

  • What are you trying to accomplish?
  • Whay are you interested in this work?
  • How are you going about it?
  • What are you learning?

Together, we are sharing what we know, what we are learning, and what we are struggling with.

Watch this space for more.