10,000 Voices and More
By Phil Power
Since its founding in 2006, The Center for Michigan has made public engagement the centerpiece of our work to cure our broken political culture and develop a citizen’s agenda for our state’s future.
Our work falls into three phases.
Michigan’s Defining Moment
Our Michigan’s Defining Moment campaign engaged from 2007 to 2010 more than 10,500 citizens in community conversations throughout Michigan. “Weighing in on Reinvention” report, published in May 2011, pulled together community conversations, polling, and television reports designed to call forth citizen reaction to Governor Snyder’s plans to reinvent Michigan. Our public engagement work for the next 18 months will focus on education in Michigan, addressing the subject from the seldom-heard perspectives of students, families, and employers—all customers of the education system.
The Michigan’s Defining Moment (MDM) campaign involved 580 small community conversations ranging from 10-25 people in each, taking place in communities throughout Michigan. In addition to note takers, “clickers” were used to record participant preferences, which were databased by Public Sector Consultants. The demographics of MDM participants closely mirrored the face of Michigan in gender, race, age, and geography.
The largest public engagement campaign in Michigan history, MDM generated a common ground, bottom-up citizens’ agenda for the transformation of our state that was published in our 2010 report, “10,000 Voices to Transform Our State.” Every candidate for governor visited The Center to discuss the report, with Rick Snyder making it a centerpiece of his campaign.
The 10-point MDM citizens’ agenda in numerous ways helped set the tone for the 2010 gubernatorial election and for some of the policy debates now underway in Lansing regarding the size and role of government in our state and public investment priorities.
The more than 10,000 citizens who built this common ground, bottom-up agenda for Michigan’s future did so because they share a belief that even in this time of deep political skepticism and economic upheaval, they can help transform our state. Deliberated and refined in an unprecedented, nonpartisan campaign of nearly 600 community meetings statewide, the people’s 10-point action plan is to:
1. Create a more business-friendly entrepreneurial environment
2. Overhaul the Michigan tax system for the 21st century
3. Build on Michigan’s distinctive and competitive assets
4. Change how and what schools teach
5. Transform education operations and funding
6. Hold educators, parents and students to higher standards
7. Hold politicians—and ourselves—more accountable
8. Lengthen or repeal term limits
9. Execute transparent and strategic state budgets
10. Intensify consolidation and service sharing in local government.
This vision—and the action steps to achieve it—grew not from the dogma of any particular political party, one issue interest group, or regional power base. Instead, this agenda is rooted in widespread public concern for the state as a whole.
Weighing in on Reinvention
The Weighing in on Reinvention campaign was launched to probe public reaction to Governor Snyder’s legislative and political priorities after taking office. Running January-April, 2011, the campaign involved seven regional community conversations, a statewide telephone poll, a popular “You Balance the State Budget Game” and “Citizens Speak” television programs co-sponsored with Detroit Public Television. All told, the campaign touched at least 50,000 Michigan citizens.
In general, we found favorable but mixed public views on Governor Snyder’s program. Many supported the business tax cut, but questioned whether it would really yield many jobs. Opinion was split on taxing pensions and many were opposed to sharp cuts in support for schools and universities. Widespread concern was registered about legacy pension and health care costs for public employees, both state and local. A majority preferred to balance the state budget through both budget cuts and new taxes, in contrast to the “all cuts” method adopted by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
Our findings were published in a May 2011 report, “Weighing in on Reinvention: Citizens Respond to Change in Lansing.”
Our Next Challenge: The Education System
Our public engagement campaign over the next two years will drill deep into the central subject behind our economic prosperity: our education system. Over the years, there has been considerable debate around Michigan’s education institutions—pre-K, K-12, community colleges and universities—but much of it has been dominated by people and groups themselves within the education sector.
Our approach will be to expressly reach out to the customers of the education system, whose voices, while not neglected, have been largely overshadowed by institutional forces within the system. We expect to engage students themselves to determine what they like/don’t like about our schools and what they want from them. We will ask the same questions of parents and families of students. And we will reach out to employers to determine whether Michigan’s education system in Michigan is meeting their needs.
The Center has peer reviewed our approach with education experts and is developing a comprehensive issue guide to help community conversation participants understand what is plainly a very complex topic. We expect to issue a preliminary report late next summer in time to affect political discourse in the 2012 campaign. And we plan to issue a more complete report ready for distribution to the new Legislature in January 2013. Overall, our goal is to reach out to 5,000 Michigan citizens over the next two years and to have a noticeable impact on the political debate and public policy questions facing our state.
Reform and Transformation
Our work can largely be summarized in three verbs:
Engage (our public engagement activities); Inform (our newly launched twice-weekly, free email newsletter, “Bridge,” designed to fill the information vacuum left by the diminution of mainstream news media); and Achieve (making concrete changes in our political culture and public policy). These activities are mutually interconnected and work with each other to form a dynamic structure for change in Michigan.
The Center for Michigan’s basic approach is to call forth the voices of Michigan citizens, amplify those voices, and to carry them to the corridors of power. We believe that our state is ripe for citizen engagement as the driving force for reform and transformation and that our non-partisan, centrist organization has developed a track record of thoughtful and capable advocacy for Michigan.
For more information and to read the full reports, visit www.thecenterformichigan.net.
Phil Power is the president of The Center for Michigan. He can be reached at email@example.com.