March 30, 2010

It takes more than politicians to make good policy

By Eric Schubert
Updated: 03/27/2010 04:00:18 PM CDT

Most Minnesotans don't leave to live elsewhere. For the most part we stay because we like it here. So how do we make Minnesota even better as our relatively small world grows smaller and more competitive? How do we keep our most talented people at home, attract others with valuable skills, and move Minnesota forward? The answer lies in using our most abundant and valuable resource - human capital - differently.

The more we draw from the deep reserves of what Minnesotans know and aspire to, the better off we'll be, on everything from public policy to business climate to civil society. As we consider how to apply our strengths to the challenging times ahead, here are a few things that I think would help.

Credible Data: Since Minnesota's Planning Department was eliminated, we've had no shared, go-to research source measuring threats and opportunities. Game planning without a scouting report is difficult. Minnesota Compass, funded by nine foundations and run by Wilder Research Center, could change that. But unless leaders of our civic spokes - foundations, for-profit and non-profit businesses, chambers of commerce, unions, faith communities, media, think tanks - coalesce as hubs to engage Minnesotans to act - a Compass just points.

Safe Harbors for Ideas: The Legislature wasn't designed to be a research and development center. But too often we expect it to be that and more, relinquishing our own civic responsibility. Minnesota has smart people and a multitude of public policy groups, including the Citizens League, Humphrey Institute, Chambers of Commerce, foundations, Growth and Justice, Center of the American Experiment, and others. But too often quality gets lost in quantity.

For example, it feels as though hundreds of groups work on "improving" education. Yet noise seems to overpower shared momentum. Imagine if we had really robust safe harbors for ideas, where people check their preconceptions at the door, share knowledge, focus and collaborate on solving specific problems and seizing new opportunities. The Citizens League is convening such a group to work on long-term-care financing, but we need safe harbors working daily. Technology could increase their citizen participation and move ideas from paper to advocacy to implementation. We implore government to work smarter and better together, but what about us?

A Shared Voice: Many commissions have studied taxes, making us the Land of 10,000 White Papers. But where is statewide discussion and understanding of those ideas? Why should only so-called "experts" discuss and examine taxing options? After all, we all pay taxes. It would take discomfort for some, untraditional collaborations, and leadership for our foundations, businesses, non-profits, think-tanks, and others to reach common ground on taxes and then rally Minnesotans to it. The "tax-the-rich!" vs. "no-new-taxes!" fight is too shallow for good governance and a barrier to a smarter system. A broader discussion - one not framed by partisans inside the Capitol - could empower us to make sound statewide decisions.

Venture Fund: A void of CEOs as civic catalysts is often lamented. But Minnesota has 19 Fortune 500 companies (33 in the Fortune 1,000), plus many foundations and philanthropists. Collaboration outlined above could be supported in part by a Minnesota Innovation Venture Fund seeded by those desiring better for our state, which I assume includes many companies, foundations, philanthropists and others. It would challenge citizens, foundations, universities, think tanks, special interests and others to submit proposals on how they'll engage a wide range of people - not just special-interest partners - in creating new approaches to public challenges. Funding could be awarded in phases. Each milestone triggers dollars supporting the next phase. Everyone works smarter. The winner: us.

Civility: Minnesotans are known for friendliness. But let's not rest on precedent. Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) and Minnesota Public Television are skilled at keeping discussions on combustible issues civil. Interestingly, MPR was founded by Benedictines at Saint John's University, whose tenets include civility and the common good. Recipients of public dollars, MPR and Minnesota Public Television could convene statewide discussions on approaches grown from the Minnesota Innovation Venture Fund. Discourse also would benefit from media outlets following's requirement that message board commentators use their real name. At public water coolers, transparency is a much-needed moderator.

In 1858, people began working together to build Minnesota. We can build much higher if we turn to each other.

Eric Schubert, Inver Grove Heights, a former Humphrey Policy Fellow at the University of Minnesota, helped found the Eugene J. McCarthy Lectureship at St. John's University, which this year featured former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel.