What Do I Do?

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am a program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?

We study how democracy can best work as it should.

By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:

Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.

A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.

So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:

Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.

So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.

We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.

 

Immigration: Stalemate or Progress?

When I arrived at my office this morning and saw the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to write a post about the difference between the dominant political narratives of issues, and the more nuanced way that the public sees the same issues — in this case, having to do with immigration. The president and the speaker are at loggerheads on this already (or still, depending on how you look at it). Just those juxtaposed images tell the story of exactly the kind of political stalemate that Americans are incensed about.

This from my post at Inside Public Judgment:

Kettering research over decades suggests that the way difficult issues like immigration are framed by policy leaders and experts is often at odds, or at least out of step with, the way in which people see those issues. Where the dominant political discourse frequently sees conflict, people in communities are wrestling with tensions among the things they hold valuable. This is not a question of one solution versus another. Instead, the question individuals must wrestle with is, what am I willing to give up—and under what conditions.

On immigration, Kettering research suggests that people see this issue in a more nuanced way than the binary amnesty-vs.-tough-borders way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media. Their concerns center on a range of things that are held commonly valuable by all—our self-image as a welcoming nation, personal and national security, and the reality seen by many that our prosperity depends on immigrants. These concerns became the basis for the options in a guide for public deliberation that Kettering prepared for the National Issues Forums Institute, Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis? Three options are outlined, each rooted in a different view of the problem:

1. Welcome New Arrivals. A rich combination of diverse cultures is what defines us as a people. We must preserve our heritage as a nation of immigrants by shoring up our existing system while also providing an acceptable way for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living here to earn the right to citizenship.

2. Protect Our Borders. Failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration undermines our national security, stiffens competition for scarce jobs, and strains the public purse. We need tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.

3. Promote Economic Prosperity. To remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to acknowledge the key role that immigrants play in keeping the US economy dynamic and robust. This option favors a range of flexible measures, such as annual adjustments to immigration quotas, that put a priority on our economic needs.

The difficulty of immigration lies in the tensions between these things. One reason this issue is so intractable is that these tensions must be worked through by the public before there can be any durable policy solution.

Read the whole piece here.

New Issue Guide From National Issues Forums: What Should Go On The Internet?

I’m delighted to announce that the latest issue guide from the National Issues Forums is now available. “What Should Go on the Internet? Privacy, Freedom, and Security Online” is freshly updated for 2013 and includes new data as well as stories to illustrate key points. (Order.)

An excerpt from the introduction:

NIF_Internet_2013.cover
(Click to enlarge)

The same Internet that has given us new ways to socialize, learn, and engage in civic life has also given criminals new avenues to steal from us and scam us, often using information gleaned from public government documents now posted online….And because no one’s in charge, there’s no single authority we can call to complain.

When does our personal information become public? What data collection is acceptable? Should there be limits on what we can do online? It’s time to find a way to balance our needs to safeguard privacy, preserve free speech, and ensure security for all our citizens, young and old.

It’s time to answer the question: What should go on the Internet?

This 12-page issue guide presents three options to consider:

Option One: Protect Individual Privacy

Privacy is a fundamental American value. But the Internet has obliterated the line between public and private, forcing Americans to live in a virtual fishbowl. Our top priority must be to safeguard personal information on the Internet.

Option Two: Promote Freedom of Speech and Commerce

The Internet is a revolutionary leap forward for democratic societies and free markets. Direct or indirect censorship by concerned citizens, special interests, or government could stifle this great resource.

Option Three: Secure Us from Online Threats

The Internet is a Wild West of criminal activity that threatens our personal safety, our economic vitality, and our national security. Our top priority must be protecting our children and ourselves.

Click here to order these issue materials.

 

I'm Full Time at The Kettering Foundation

I’m delighted to report that, as of February 1, 2013 I’ll be a full-time staff member of the Kettering Foundation, a research foundation that studies democracy. I have had a relationship with the Foundation since 1998, and have been an Associate of theirs since 2005.

As a consequence of this, I am shutting down my firm, The Mannakee Circle Group. I’ve had wonderful clients over these years since 2003 when I struck out on my own – not only including Kettering but United Way Worldwide, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, the Case Foundation, the Omidyar Network, Everyday Democracy, the Northwest Area Foundation, the Darden School of Business and the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership both at the University of Virginia, and more.

It’s with glad heart yet with a certain amount of wistfulness that I say “farewell” to these close friends.

I will remain an active participant in the dialogue and deliberation community, and I look forward to continuing my relationships with individuals and organizations throughout this field.

Here’s the bio that they are posting at their site (won’t be live until 2/1), which gives a sense of my duties:

Brad Rourke
Photo by Melinda Gilmore

Brad Rourke is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. His work includes studies of naming and framing issues in public terms and how people make decisions and work together on shared challenges in communities. Rourke is executive editor of the National Issues Forums issue books as well as other issue books produced for public deliberation.

Rourke has written and cowritten a number of articles and op-ed pieces, appearing in print publications such as The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Foundation News and Commentary, Campaigns & Elections, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He contributed a chapter on the ethics of citizenship to Shades of Gray (Brookings Institution, 2002). He has spoken at the National Press Club, the Brookings Institution, and the Chautauqua Institution. He is listed in Who’s Who in America.

Rourke has been a Kettering Associate since 2005. Prior to joining the foundation, Rourke was president of the Mannakee Circle Group, a public issues firm with clients from a cross section of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. He was founder and publisher of Rockville Central, a hyperlocal news source he began in June 2007 that became the second most-read local blog in Maryland. He helped design and regularly participated as a lecturer in the bipartisan candidate training program of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. Rourke was senior project manager and then director of external initiatives at The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and vice president for public policy at the Institute for Global Ethics. He has served on the staffs of then-controller of California Gray Davis and Congresswoman Jane Harman and as deputy California campaign manager for the National Health Care Campaign.

Rourke received his BA in comparative literature from UC Berkeley.

New Issue Guide Available: Social Security — How Can We Afford It?

I am pleased to announce a new issue book developed by the Kettering Foundation for the National Issues Forums titled: Social Security: How Can We Afford It? This issue guide, authored by Maura Casey, is the latest in the issue book library of which Mannakee president I am Executive Editor.

The new guide is available to purchase for download or as a hardcopy at the National Issues Forums Institute website.

The following is from the introduction to Social Security: How Can We Afford It?

If anything, the recession that began in 2008 increased the concern about the cost of caring for the elderly because so many people lost their jobs, forcing some to take Social Security years earlier than they had intended. Social Security is one leg of a “three-legged stool” that also includes private pensions and personal savings. However, in tough times many find that the Social Security leg must bear more than its share of the weight…

Many Americans are reexamining the principles on which Social Security is based and are thinking anew about the nature of individual responsiblity. What does the government owe the elderly? Should saving for retirement be strictly an individual responsibility? Is it fair to require succeeding generations to shoulder the increasing burdens of supporting retirees?

The question we must face is this: how can we best provide for Americans’ retirement?

This 12-page issue guide presents three possible options for deliberation:

Option One: Shore Up and Reaffirm Social Security

Social Security benefits represent a promise made to Americans, symbolizing a shared commitment to one another that is a fundamental value of our country. The program has earned its near-universal support and the promise should be kept by doing whatever it takes to keep these benefits as they are.

Option Two: End Reliance on Social Security for Retirement

Government has been taking too much responsibility for the well-being of its older citizens, undermining the nation’s traditional emphasis on self-reliance. We should phase in a privatized system of retirement savings accounts, which could be regulated by the government, but controlled and managed by individuals.

Option Three: Reinvent Retirement and Social Security

It is unrealistic to continue to support a plan that enables people to retire in their early to mid-60s when the average life span now extends to the age of 78 and sometimes far beyond. Americans are living longer, healthier, more active lives. The compact that Social Security represents should be adjusted to account for this.