Philanthropy’s Role in Scaling Sounder Public Judgement

A Conversation with Will Friedman of Public Agenda


Photo Credit: Public Agenda

Thinking through complex, challenging issues in today’s day and age is becoming increasingly difficult for the American public, but our democracy is dependent on our ability to decipher between rhetoric and truth, identify misinformation, and cut through the issues that divide us.

Public Agenda’s “Sounder Public Judgment Working Paper Series” aims to “help the public come to terms with tough issues in today’s digital and divisive world.” The series is supported by a lead grant from the Ford Foundation, and additional funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Rita Allen Foundation.

PACE’s Kristen Cambell sat down with Public Agenda’s president Will Friedman to explore these challenges and learn from the paper’s potential solutions. The two discuss the society’s difficulty forging common ground, how public judgement contributes to a strong democracy, why there may be space for hope, and how philanthropy can play a role in creating conditions for sounder public judgment. Here’s the conversation:

Kristen Cambell: What inspired the series? Why did Public Agenda decide to prioritize this project?

Will Friedman: The capacity of partisan actors and special interests to manipulate public opinion for narrow ends and sow discord to disempower the people is growing fast in the digital age. Unfortunately, society’s capacity to support sound public thinking and forge democratically meaningful common ground on solutions to our mounting problems is failing to keep pace. The result is the unstable populism, political polarization, demagogic leadership and endemic mistrust that defeats problem solving and endangers democracy itself.

KC: What does “public judgment” mean? What are the components that make for sound public judgment and how is it different from other terms (e.g., public opinion)?

WF: Dan Yankelovich, the social scientist and public opinion research pioneer (and co-founder of Public Agenda), introduced the concept in his seminal 1991 book, Coming to Public Judgment. Based on his decades of research on U.S. public opinion, Yankelovich discerned a distinction between raw, reactive, unstable “public opinion” and more stable, responsible and considered “public judgment.” The latter is a stage that public opinion can reach on an issue when many people have struggled with how to respond to a public problem, moved beyond the wish for easy/magic answers, recognized that there will be challenges and tradeoffs involved in any solutions, and settled on a direction that they are willing to support. Importantly, Yankelovich also delineated the stages the public tends to go through and the conditions that help or hinder people in the process of coming to judgment. It’s a useful framework for those of us interested in a more citizen-centered democracy, but it was developed prior to our digital and divisive age and needs updating — which is what we’re working on through our new series of Public Judgment Working Papers, with contributors from diverse fields.

KC: How does public judgment contribute to a strong and healthy democracy?

WF: A democracy requires the public to play a decisive role in governance. It begins with voting, but many believe that the public must do more than that, as shown by Public Agenda’s Yankelovich Democracy Monitor which found 67% of Americans saying, “It’s mostly our responsibility as Americans to help find solutions, it’s not enough to just vote and pay taxes.” But if the public is to play its necessary in the democratic process, creating conditions conducive to public judgment is crucial. If the public is easily divided and manipulated strong democracy becomes unattainable.

KC: There seems to be a lot working against sound public judgment: digital communication, polarized politics, rapid change, etc. Why should we be hopeful it is achievable?

WF: We shouldn’t be hopeful in any naïve sense, as the challenges are formidable, but despair certainly won’t get us anywhere. The situation calls for bringing greater energy, resources, and innovation to the task of creating the conditions that support sound public judgment at scale.

KC: What is the “call to action” from this series? What should philanthropy, in particular, take away from it?

WF: Philanthropy can be catalytic in helping society create conditions at scale for sounder public judgment, despite the special challenges posed by our digital and divisive age. It can do so by supporting:

  • Applied research that deepens our understanding of the stages of public judgment and the conditions and supports that can help the public move through them. For example:
  • Recent advances in understanding how natural cognitive biases affect people’s judgments and decisions have been marshaled on behalf of more sophisticated persuasion of the public. These could just as well be applied to the cause of fostering sounder public judgment, and applied research could help us understand how.
  • There is evidence that algorithms on social media may be contributing to the spread of misinformation, hate speech, the echo chamber effect and polarization, all of which help undermine and defeat public judgment. Applied research could explore whether and how social media algorithms can support public judgment instead, e.g., by spreading sound evidence and diverse perspectives, and aiding in the discovery of common ground on solutions to tough public problems.

The Sounder Public Judgment Working Papers Series suggests a number of promising paths for applied research in public judgment.

  • Investments in innovation and experimentation in ways to support public judgment at scale. One example that Public Agenda is involved with is the Hidden Common Ground 2020 Initiative, our partnership with USA Today, as well as the National Issues Forums, the America Amplified — Election 2020 public media initiative, and Ipsos.
  • Multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder, multi-partisan convening and dialogue on how to create the societal conditions for sounder public judgment.
  • Dissemination of knowledge and spread of innovation resulting from any and all of the above.
WIll Friedman

Will Friedman joined Public Agenda in 1994, and in 2011, he became president of Public Agenda. Dr. Friedman has overseen Public Agenda’s steady and expanding stream of work aimed at helping communities and states build capacity to tackle tough issues in more inclusive, deliberative and collaborative ways. In 2007, he established Public Agenda’s Center for Advances in Public Engagement (now the Yankelovich Center at Public Agenda), which conducts action research to assess impacts and improve practice.

Dr. Friedman is the author or co-author of numerous publications including “Reframing Framing,””Transforming Public Life: A Decade of Public Engagement in Bridgeport, CT,”“Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Scope,”“Deliberative Democracy and the Problem of Power” and “From Employee Engagement to Civic Engagement: Exploring Connections between Workplace and Community Democracy.” He is also the co-editor, with the late Public Agenda co-founder Daniel Yankelovich, of the book, Toward Wiser Public Judgment, published in February 2011 by Vanderbilt University Press. He serves on the executive committee of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, and has led sessions at the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation Conference, Independent Sector Annual Conference, and Social Equity Leadership Conference, and many other conferences.

Previously, Dr. Friedman was senior vice president for policy studies at the Work in America Institute, where he directed research and special projects on workplace issues. He was also an adjunct lecturer in political science at Lehman College, a research fellow at the Samuels Center for State and Local Politics, and a practitioner in the field of counseling psychology. He holds a Ph.D. in political science with specializations in political psychology and American politics.



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