Defining Issues for Public Policy Research and Deliberation

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors have gathered in Springfield this week for three days of training centered on news literacy, service-learning, and the emerging state social studies standards. This year’s summer workshops theme centers on engaging students in the public policy process, and my task was to first make the case for this, and then help define issues for further exploration and deliberation. Today’s post will center on the latter.

I’ve had great success in beginning this process within the hearts and minds of students. If there is a law they could change, what would it be? Further, what’s the status quo with respect to this issue, and how do policies differ in other jurisdictions? Finally, what does research show works best?

We can also pursue an outward-facing strategy, beginning with national polling data. According to Gallup, health care is the “top U.S. problem,” followed by dissatisfaction with government, immigration, economic performance, unemployment, and racism. Issues ebb and flow in response to public events. Health care concerns peaked during the initial debate over the Affordable Care Act, the public rollout that followed, and most recently the “repeal and replace” efforts of the Republican House.

The Pew Research Center offers deeper analysis of public opinion with respect to a plethora of issues. For example, when it comes to renewable energy sources, the public believes that government regulations are necessary to increase their use. On the other hand, a narrow plurality believes that it’s possible to cut back on environmental regulations and still achieve cleaner air and water in the U.S.

Closer to home, our friends at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute conduct annual opinion polls of registered voters in Illinois. The Springfield budget stalemate lingers as the summer wind blows in. A resolution from our elected representatives has been elusive, perhaps because their constituents are deeply divided themselves. A plurality believes that the budget should be balanced through spending cuts alone, although a growing share of the public calls for a mix of spending cuts and tax increases. Only a small share of the electorate believes that balance should be achieved solely through revenue increases.
Source: Paul Simon Public Policy Institute

Specific to young people, the Black Youth Project conducts regular public opinion surveys of 18-30 year-olds, with oversamples of nonwhite populations. Young people trend progressive, yet there is significant variation across race. For example, a majority of white youth support deporting immigrants currently living in the country illegally, but support peaks at 32% for African-Americans (25% for Asian-Americans and 18% for Latinos). There is broad support for raising the minimum wage across race, along with free tuition at public colleges, although it’s more tepid among white youth for the latter.

  1. Which level of government will solutions be explored: local, state, national, or global?
  2. What empirical evidence proves a problem’s existence?
  3. What specific government institutions are involved in addressing this issue (executive departments, independent agencies, legislative committees, etc.)?
  4. Which leaders are active on this issue both inside and outside of government?
  5. How does political ideology shape public views of the issue? In order to achieve policy success, solutions must be framed with bipartisan coalitions in mind.

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