Sean Kershaw's Weblog
August 25, 2011
Today's post comes from my recent viewpoint in the July/August issue of the Minnesota Journal.
Just to make myself miserable, I'll sometimes play the "what if" game. What if I could have known the recent recession was coming? What would I have done differently with my family's resources, or the Citizens League's? Ah, how the world would be different if I had only known. Minnesota is in the middle of its own financial "what if" game right now, except that...we know what's coming. We understand the causes of our state's financial ills (aging and slow labor force growth) and the consequences of doing nothing, but our current approach to policy making cannot provide a solution. On a broad swath of issues, from education and health care to the environment and economic disparities, we often know what must be done but struggle to get it done -- to move from reports to results. So how do we, mired as we are in bitter partisan and ideological divide, find the practical solutions needed to solve our state's fiscal ills in a way that preserves the common good? We need to imagine a different outcome for Minnesota and then create it.
A new approach
The current model for policymaking no longer works. Narrow but powerful ideologies have created narrow but powerful political "bases" and affiliations, fracturing our political process and making it nearly impossible for our elected leaders to find common purpose or act for the common good. Traditional advocacy and partisan politics only make this situation worse. We have allowed this divide to put our nation's financial health at risk and create the longest state shutdown in U.S. history. To change this dynamic we as citizens must find a common collective purpose, one based on our shared need to govern for the common good. It won't be easy. As a people, we've lost the basic civic and political skills required for governance; we've lost sight of our role as citizens in governing. We more often see ourselves as consumers rather than producers of the common good. We see policy as something that happens "out there" in our state or nation's capitol, and have come to view government as either the source or the barrier to the common good. It is neither. Although critical to preserving our republic, it is increasingly less central to many of the practical policy solutions we need. We must choose a new way forward.
A better model
In this issue of the Minnesota Journal, we offer examples that demonstrate how we can move forward by embracing a better process for policymaking. We are developing and advancing recommendations in key policy areas using civic organizing, a political strategy that develops the civic capacity (the governing ability) of self identified civic leaders who have enough authority within their institutions to influence change. Civic organizing takes democracy deep inside all institutions -- closer to where we can impact outcomes. Its power to effect change comes from creating a diverse base of engaged citizens and institutions willing to find common ground and act for the common good. Civic organizing applies to our work in at least three ways:
Common ground for the common good. Civic organizing begins by organizing those impacted by a problem to help define the problem against shared civic values, and then aligns individual and institutional self interest and the resources that come with these interests, toward creating and effecting a common solution.
The Citizens League's Honoring Choices, long-term care and Common Cents projects began by bringing together a large group of stakeholders to define the problem through respectful dialogue, and then identified the resources each participant could bring to help create the solution.
Everyone is a policy maker. Civic organizing assumes that all individuals have the capacity to impact the common good, positively or negatively, through everyday actions. But like unexercised muscles, our civic skills have grown weak with lack of use. Through the Quantum Civics &trade leadership program, and the disciplines and practices of civic organizing, the Citizens League is helping to build a new base of individuals and institutions who see their role as producers rather than consumers of governance.
Policy happens everywhere. Civic organizing assumes that all institutions, government included, must play a role in developing the incentives and capacity needed to solve our public problems. This isn't an ideological notion, it's an entirely practical one.
Building better solutions
By helping to better define problems, and then building the capacity (the people and resources) necessary to advance policy recommendations, civic organizing has allowed the Citizens League to advance policy in a number of areas, including long-term care, mental health reform, poverty and water. Our work is better and more impactful because of this model. It's hard to go against the grain of current politics and policymaking. But we're at a point in time where as citizens we have to choose action over gridlock. Civic organizing offers both hope for a better future, and a real opportunity for us to make Minnesota once again the state where miracles happen.
July 14, 2011
Today's post comes from my recent op-ed in the Star Tribune.
The political theater has been tragic, but as long as there's a next act, there's hope.
In Greek mythology, Cassandra has the gift of prophesy but the curse of powerlessness. She can see into the future and knows that trouble is coming, but can't prevent catastrophe. She is wise, but her powerlessness makes her tragic.
Perhaps Cassandra is a good metaphor for Minnesota's recent political theater. We can see fiscal catastrophe coming and have the wisdom of good intentions and ideas, but are cursed by a broken political system. We can't afford tragedy.
Our legislative leadership has been right. Demographics (we are aging, and workforce growth is slowing) and escalating health and human services costs create an unsustainable fiscal future.
Medical and human-service-related costs are projected to increase 8.5 percent per year; revenue by 4 percent. This trend is unsustainable, and tax increases aren't sufficient to solve the problem.
We need dramatic program reforms and a conversation about the proper role of government in our new demographic and economic landscape.
Our governor has also been right. Without some type of additional revenue and/or program reform, we have to make drastic reductions in services for students, the poor and seniors, and we need a drastic overhaul in our tax code no matter what.
We spend $11 billion a year through tax loopholes and exemptions, most of which are regressive, and our tax code isn't built for a competitive, entrepreneurial, global economy. Without these reforms, we will eventually undermine the quality of life that makes Minnesota a great place to live in this global marketplace.
Our politics push us toward tragedy.
Tragedy, because even short-term solutions shut us down. And they only get us to the next biennium, when we face another enormous shortfall and fewer options. Think this budget melodrama is bad? Wait for the 2014-15 season.
Tragedy, because we've seen this crisis coming for 15 years, and because we don't suffer from a lack of policy ideas. This isn't a knowledge problem that needs more policy experts, proposals and reports.
Tragedy, because the purpose of politics in a democracy is to act on these good ideas and intentions -- to be powerful -- but our political infrastructure is profoundly broken and dysfunctional.
We lack the places and opportunities in all types of institutions -- not just government -- to identify, discuss and reconcile our policy differences: to create common ground for the common good. In many ways, it's this simple.
We aren't resolving our differences and building support for reform because we spend our time and resources in echo chambers that only magnify our differences, not reconcile them.
The pragmatic solutions to our policy problems will need to be created in all institutions -- not just government -- and my organization, the Citizens League, has demonstrated that finding and building support for these solutions is possible. In fact, people are hungry for this opportunity.
And what political infrastructure we have left is motivated almost entirely by narrow partisan interests, and is actively working against finding solutions. (If you have been urging your political leadership to hold fast and not compromise, you are now part of the problem.)
The ultimate tragedy will be not seeing the opportunity created by this crisis. Minnesota has always been an innovator; a state on the leading edge of "what works."
Recently we've been on the leading edge of nationwide political dysfunction regarding fiscal and tax reform. We should see this as a chance to show the nation a better solution.
Tragedy or opportunity?
So if our policy and political leadership has been characterized by paralysis and cynicism, on what grounds do we have any hope for this better solution?
In poll after poll, and in extensive conversations that the Citizens League conducted in partnership with the Bush Foundation's "Common Cents" project, Minnesotans are hopeful and ready for reform.
When they understand the magnitude of our demographic and fiscal challenges, they are willing to endure short-term pain in order to create long-term solutions. They want our tax system to be better: more fair and productive. They can talk across dramatic ideological differences to find meaningful common ground based on shared civic values.
Our path forward begins with reimagining and rebuilding our political infrastructure: our ability to act on these intentions. In the short term, we need the majority of Minnesotans who favor reforms to make their voices heard through all means -- just not through the type of partisan win/lose battles we've seen in Wisconsin.
In the long-term -- which starts in 2012 -- we need our leaders to articulate a vision for Minnesota that is bigger than ideology and partisanship, and more long-term than the fall election.
We'll need civic leaders in all types of institutions to act on long-term policy proposals. We can't blame this on the politicians when we all have a role to play. We eleted them.
The purpose of tragedy in drama has always been to remind people what's really important. From the Mayo brothers to 3M, in Minnesota we've always valued -- and depended on -- a unique and powerful mix of innovation and pragmatism. These values are more important than ever.
What's at stake here is not just the fate of this budget or very real short-term policy dilemmas, but the next generation of civic leadership and capacity in Minnesota.
To waste this opportunity would be a tragedy.
June 30, 2011
Policy change is no longer just about those "five guys"
In March I was lucky enough to have lunch with two people who are both personal mentors and sources of inspiration. Near the end of our conversation, one of them leaned over the table, looked me in the eye, and got to the point.
"A generation ago there were five institutional leaders in Minnesota we went to in order to get something done. The Citizens League had clout in this public space. But what happens today? Is it your energy and enthusiasm that propels the Citizens League, or is there a method to what you are trying to achieve?"
I'll get to my response at the end, but this question made me think that our current project examining the future of higher education offers a great opportunity for us to demonstrate our continuing relevance and our new model for policymaking, a model we think can succeed in today's public arena at a time when the "five guys" approach is long gone.
Outcomes and accountability
There is an emerging consensus that our post-secondary (higher education) outcomes are insufficient; that we're not producing the workers and citizens our economy and our democracy need. Concerns are growing, too, about student readiness, cost, debt, and disparities in completion rates by race and income.
There is also debate about just what outcomes higher education should produce. What's the right mix of technical and critical thinking skills needed by today's workforce, and by tomorrow's? Can we connect higher education's role as a training ground for the workplace with its role in sustaining a healthy democracy, one that can govern efficiently and effectively? There's no real consensus yet.
Part of our opportunity with this work is to reassess the outcomes we want from higher education. Without clearly identifying what we want and need higher education to achieve it is difficult if not impossible to hold any group or institution accountable for the system's successes or failures.
From 5 to 5 million
One thing is clear: our efforts to solve our higher education challenges will need to involve more than just people in higher education. Reform won't be successful unless we recognize that the stakeholders in this system are more diverse than ever, and that they all need to participate in defining and delivering outcomes. We are all the "who" in this system.
- Employers play a role in defining the higher education outcomes needed to support the future and current workers.
- P-12 and post-secondary institutions are more interdependent than ever and must support each other.
- Families and individuals need to prepare and save for post-secondary education and be academically responsible and ready.
- Nonprofits can and should play new roles in supporting students and families.
- Minnesotans need to support reform that benefits us all -- and future generations.
A common purpose
Reform will need to unite these diverse stakeholders in a purpose big enough and inclusive enough to fit them all. That common purpose is democracy. Post-secondary education isn't just important for individuals, it's important for our ability to govern, and to solve our common problems in ways that benefit the common good. In a world where knowledge and professional expertise are essential human and economic resources, higher education can and must develop citizens' skills, knowledge, expertise and leadership abilities. I'm also willing to bet that what is good for democracy is good for the economy. Our private wealth is tied to our common wealth.
Reality and possibilities
So, getting back to the questions posed by my mentor. As the Citizens League prepares to celebrate 60 years of public policy work, can we continue to succeed in this new era of policymaking with its focus on single issues, special interests and hyper-partisanship? Those "five guys" aren't coming back. How can we replicate their success in these times?
Over the past several years, we have developed a set of operating principles, to help us better engage stakeholders in developing policy that supports and furthers the common interest of Minnesotans rather than the narrow interests of one particular group or ideology. Our civic organizing process allows us to better define problems and to build the capacity to implement recommendations by developing the civic infrastructure needed for success.
As I finished answering the questions, my mentor nodded his head in agreement (or relief). There is a method to our madness.
Nearly sixty years after its founding, the Citizens League remains committed citizen-based public policy that serves the common good and the interest of all Minnesotans. Our methods may be different now, but our mission hasn't changed.
April 1, 2011
I wrote this in 2005. I'd write it differently now, but I find it interesting in light of current realities. It must have been written in the midst of the last crisis/standoff.
This standoff could change the face of state government //
Don't be surprised if Minnesota's shutdown of 2005 leads to long-term damage and to a new political and civic reality.
Star Tribune. Publication Date: July 6, 2005 Page: 15A Section: NEWS Edition: METRO
Friday, July 1: When I returned home today my 5-year-old son was hard at work on a mysterious Lego structure. He asked me if I would help him "make the Capitol building." I was stunned by his timing, did my best at constructing one, and told him that the real Capitol needed some fixing too.
Afterwards I sat down to construct this essay. I just hope it becomes part of a history book - not a fairy tale.
For political and civic life in Minnesota, 2005 was clearly a turning point.
Cracks in the political foundation began to appear in the 1980s and `90s, as party caucus participation plummeted and political endorsements became meaningless. The foundation shifted, for a while, when Jesse Ventura won the governor's race in 1998. But Ventura's unwillingness to build a political base, and the DFL and Republican parties' generous application of whitewash to their own problems, simply delayed the inevitable.
In 2005, despite many promises and months to reach a solution, the governor and Legislature failed to reach a budget solution and state government shut down. While the shutdown soon ended, the long-term damage was done. The existing structure began to unwind - and a new political and civic reality began to come together.
In retrospect, three relatively simple factors contributed to the political and civic transformation we now call the "North Star Solution."
For the DFL, the big meltdown came in 2007. The scandals and anger surrounding the over commitments and under-funding of state-regulated pension programs forced the DFL to choose between absolute loyalty to public sector unions and absolute loyalty to the overall public good. By developing innovative ideas and an interest in implementing them, the DFL became "progressive" again.
For the Republicans, the fatal error was the anti-gay-marriage amendment in 2006. Despite huge polling advantages just a year earlier, on the heels of the 2005 shutdown Minnesotans were much more interested in addressing education, health care and transportation, not waging bitter cultural battles.
Large numbers of Republicans voted with the DFL and Independence parties. But by eventually returning to their roots - focusing on common-sense moral values, and on fiscal and family stability - Minnesota's Republicans eventually became "conservative" again.
The most underreported issue of the 2005 crisis was the fact that political leaders were stuck with real policy challenges that required new solutions and bold civic innovations. Traditional cut-or-spend approaches wouldn't address the issues (in education, transportation or health care) or balance the books. Leaders were blamed for problems they inherited, and which they never had the capacity to solve on their own.
The retirement of the baby boomers forced policy leaders to transform the health care and long-term-care systems. Competition from the new Sino-India Economic Axis caused leaders in every community to become serious about improving education outcomes for all Minnesotans - at all stages of their lives. The arrival of 1 million new residents brought about world-class innovations in transportation.
"Govern or Get Out."
This slogan from a 2006 rally protesting the deadlock on a transportation bonding bill summed up the public mood in this key election year. As one commentator said at the time, "Maybe the children of the Greatest Generation simply can't govern. They can raise the barricades but they can't take them down."
But the inability of elected leadership to govern was a reflection of governance problems everywhere. Corporations, schools, nonprofits and all types of organizations were struggling
with their own governance dysfunctions.
The young leaders who started charter schools, nonprofits and technology companies in the 1990s soon became elected leaders and CEOs of major business, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations. The legislative leadership of the new "2020 Caucus," which emerged in 2005 and became a political force in 2007, joined forces with this new generation of leaders. They organized around an agenda of new leadership development, innovative public policy solutions and good governance in all institutions.
The outcome of this work is clear - in the continued quality of life and economic success of Minnesota's democracy. But the lessons remain. The crisis of 2005 wasn't about gays, or gambling, or more or less government. It was about governing for the common good, the guts required to do so in every institution, and the payoff for future generations of Minnesotans.
Sean Kershaw is president of the Citizens League.
December 29, 2010
Thanks to all our members and partners for a great year! As 2010 winds down, I've recorded a short message about what we've done this year and what's next for 2011. I hope you enjoy it, and please let me know what you think.
P.S. Your support makes this work possible. Please consider and end-of-year donation to the Citizens League. Thank you!
This, from David Durenberger earlier in the year:
"Now is the time to reshape the League. It takes a public "break-thru" project to show civic leaders in Minnesota how they need to think about our state, our institutions, and their accountabililty for both. And how a new generation of concerned citizens, along with those who broke the molds in the past, using a consistent set of beliefs or principles, can do better than elected officials, association and single issue groups alone."
Thanks (again) Dave! Happy New Year!
August 27, 2010
I will try to keep an updated page with resources for understanding our budget crisis. To get things started, here are a few:
* Our past work -- for ideas on how to address the problem. Look especially at the work from August of 1995 and July of 1993.
* Recent presentation on revenue/budget trends that I'm giving with Mark Haveman from Minnesota Taxpayers Association.
August 1, 2010
This is a great job opportunity. Brian Bell, Citizens League Boardmember, is leaving this position and they are looking for a new person.
July 25, 2010
David Brooks' speech at the Aspen Ideas Festival is fantastic. Many people have probably listened to it.
But listen especially starting at minute 44:00.
When we talk about a "civic policy agenda" -- Brooks is getting at what we mean. Policy has to speak to, and from, what motivates people. And we have to remember that this happens in the context of other people, institutions, and social/cultural/political systems.
P.S. I invited him to talk with us, but was politely declined. We'll keep trying.
May 17, 2010
The Board, staff, community partners, members, and our contract partners put a tremendous amount of effort into contributing the resources and changing how we do business to help us begin to overcome these difficulties. We cut staff and expenses, increased our fundraising efforts and capacity, and were fortunate to get a working capital loan from the Nonprofits Assistance Fund.
When we discovered the problems in 2008, our net unrestricted operating balance had dropped to negative $169,000. By the end of 2008, we had made up $22,000 of this loss. So in January of 2009 we started the year with a net unrestricted balance (net worth) of negative $147,000.
Our 2009 audit is complete, and has some great news. We completely eliminated the net operating deficit, and ended the year with a net worth of $454! You can read the full audit here.
The Nonprofits Assistance Fund even featured us as an organization that has been "transformed" through a financial crisis (link here).
This does NOT mean we're out of the woods, and we still have to pay back the full working capital loan, but we are financially stronger and smarter than we were two years ago. This was one of those great "learning experiences" that really did help to transform the Citizens League.
As members you have been incredibly supportive, and we have benefitted from trying to be as transparent as possible with you. Many of you have responded to our requests to increase your annual donations, and you are helping to recruit new members to join us. Even the small increases matter -- our net worth is equivalent to just nine (9) fifty-dollar donations!
Most importantly, this increased financial stability gives us additional capacity to achieve our mission of building civic imagination and capacity, and our three-year strategic goals of impacting public policy, and building and connecting civic leaders in all generations.
Feel free to contact us if you have any questions about this.
Thanks again for your investment of time and confidence in the Citizens League. We couldn't have made this progress without you.
February 11, 2010
The Collaborative has annually sponsored a "Changemakers" dinner that has always been a great conversation and a great group of business leaders and entrepreneurs of all types. It's covered important policy issues with a range of insightful perspectives.
They have also been generous in offering discounts to Citizens League members.
This year's topic is "What's Next, What's Real: Land of 10,000 Sports", and features a very knowledgeable panel of people from within the industry.
Whether you are supportive, neutral or opposed to the current conversations about a stadium and funding, this is meant to be an open and interactive conversation, and a great networking opportunity.
The conversation will focus on the business impacts of sports to Minnesota's economy.
You can sign up on the link above, or here.
December 29, 2009
In 2012 the Citizens League will turn 60 years old! In recognition of what we've accomplished, and what is needed -- and possible -- in Minnesota, the Board recently approved a set of three-year goals.
We're building a 2010 workplan based on these goals -- but we'd love your feedback, input, and support.
(NOTE: See Extended Entry for replies to comments.)
Thanks - Sean
In 2012 the Citizens League turns 60 years old! This is both a reminder of our historic achievements and a rallying point for our future efforts.
In these next three years, the Citizens League will use its mission of "building civic imagination and capacity" in order to achieve the following goals:
1) Impact public policy in Minnesota. The Citizens League will lead current approaches to policy making on the issues that matter most to Minnesota's economic health and quality of life. We will use our unique civic model of policy development and civic engagement to:
* Reframe critical policy issues so they are easier to understand, and position us to drive the collective public conversation;
* Develop policy solutions, based on our mission/principles and values, that provide effective, systemic, and long-term policy strategies to address these issues;
* Convene stakeholders in order design solution strategies to implement existing policy proposals;
* Influence policy decisions, turning these recommendations into reality; and
* Identify and build the partnerships necessary to achieve this goal.
2) Build and connect civic leaders. The Citizens League will develop a long-term base of civic leaders in all generations and institutions that can govern for the common good and sustain this impact on public policy outcomes. We will leverage our current base of members and partners to:
* Grow membership to at least 3200 individual and institutional members that represent Minnesota's diverse population;
* Implement a civic leadership training program in a wide range of institutions and settings;
* Increase and sustain opportunities for member engagement that don't depend on proportional increases in staffing; and
* Broaden and deepen our cross-sector institutional base for this work.
3) Achieve organizational sustainability. The Citizens League will become a national model for civic nonprofits. We will use our recent success to:
* Continue to design and implement a new business model with a sustainable base of funding;
* Use new technologies to advance our workplan and increase member involvement;
* Demonstrate new models for effective policy solutions and civic engagement strategies;
* Become debt-free, with sufficient operating reserves; and
* Develop internal governing policies based on our operating principles and organizing disciplines.
Continue reading Citizens League Three-Year Goals Proposed ...
...or that is articulated SO well by somebody else here.
(Thanks Janna! This is what every membership organization dreams of -- or should dream of in terms of impact -- certainly if it has "capacity-building" in its mission.)
In 2009 we've had impact on public policy. We've grown in membership and engagement. And we've become more sustainable as an organization. Not bad for a really tough year for all of us.
Thanks! It still feels like it's only the beginning of what is possible -- and necessary.
On the eve of 2010, we're already thinking ahead not just to the year ahead, but the next three years. We turn 60 years old in 2012, and the Board recently approved a draft set of three-year goals. (See link here).
We'd love your feedback. We'd love your continued support. And all new memberships and increases in financial support (up to $500) will be matched one-for-one through a generous grant from the Pohlad Family Foundation!)
Thanks for making this a great year. Thanks for your membership, your time, your wisdom and good ideas, your financial support, your feedback and criticism, and your support in the community.
Happy New Year! Here's to 2010 -- and 2012!
November 12, 2009
We take evaluation very seriously at the Citizens League. Evaluation is a critical skill in our leadership and organizing work. If you don't ask how you are doing, how will you ever get to where you are going?
Evaluation has always been used to help improve our events and our policy work, and this year's Annual Meeting is no different. From the venue to the new "keynote speaker" format to our efforts to explain to participants our policy and engagement opportunities, we're using ALL of the feedback (both the good and the constructively-critical) to help improve our work and our meeting next year.
Aside from avoiding a rainstorm and a major concert at the Target Center, the comments are extremely helpful for us in thinking the unique purpose that each Annual Meeting must serve, the logistics of location and activities before and afterwards, and how we mix our message and workplan with opportunities to meet and socialize.
Thanks to everyone who has commented so far. Don't hesitate to contact me directly at skershaw[at]citizensleague[dot]org if you need to with other thoughts/comments.
And finally -- thanks to our sponsors who are listed on the Annual Meeting page above, for making this event possible.
As you may have noticed, we've officially launched our first "affiliate" chapter in Rochester.
On Tuesday the 3rd of November 120 people showed up to hear Nate Garvis give a reprise of his "Naked Civics: Uncovering the Path to the Common Good" speech -- and formally announce the new affiliate. It was a fantastic crowd.
I think this is something great -- and the beginning of something even better for us.
* Our mission of "building civic imagination and capacity" demands that we look for new relationships, new ideas and opportunities for input, and new members. Rochester's role in Minnesota's economy and their history of innovation and civic involvement make them a natural place to expand our work. We're not down there because we think they need us. We're there because they will make our work better.
* This wouldn't have happened without the leadership of Sheila Kiscaden, and the initial leadership team that includes Cathy French, Sharon Tennis and Karel Weigel.
* We are still looking to expand the local Steering Team, which includes 16 people from a wide range of experiences and generations. (I'm especially pleased that young people were brought in up front.)
* The group will use our existing membership structure, but add local events that are based on the success of the previous "Coffee and Conversations" meetings. We hope to do two "Policy and a Pint" events in 2010 as well.
* Our current work on water policy, poverty and long term care will be better because of input from the Rochester region and leadership.
I urge anyone with questions or comments to please contact me at skershaw[at]citizensleague [dot] org.
Oh yes -- and I urge you to become a member as well!