The politics of listening


The US House of Representatives was not successful in passing a bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act. This is being portrayed as a failure of policy and leadership, with blame leaving virtually no person, party, or organization in Washington unscathed. At the same time, there is a general consensus that parts of the Affordable Care Act are in need of a policy fix. For instance, insurance premiums are rising, not enough healthy and young people are signing up, and insurance companies are not finding it profitable to enter the marketplace across the board. Each of these are separate but related issues that require a set of solutions that expand and enhance access for all citizens to quality, affordable care.

There are ideological, practical, financial, and philosophical divides on these and other issues related to health care, as there are with any number of other social and economic issues now confronting political leaders. With such divisions, “debate” and argument and protest will often become emotionally charged, leading the most dispassionate among us screaming in frustration and the most passionate among us engaging in rhetoric and behavior that is frankly unbecoming of a people who claim to cherish their freedoms of speech and assembly.

Freedom is not, as Janice Joplin sings, just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is more than fierce individuality; freedom is real only when a person lives, acts, thinks, speaks, or believes without fear of oppression, censorship, or emotional, social, financial or physical retribution for a livelihood, behavior, thought, message, or belief that is somehow different than that of any other person or any group of other people.

What are missing from the arguments around health care are two things: freedom (citizens do not feel as though they can speak openly) and politics.

Yes, politics is missing from the argument. To be sure, I do not mean party politics; there is certainly enough of that occurring to make us want to curl up with George Washington’s Farewell Address by a soft fire and think about “happier times” when at least one man dreamed of a country without factions.

Politics and political participation are often measured and discussed in terms of voice and action. How many of us are voting? How many attending community or local council meetings? How large was the protest? Who is still writing letters to the editor of a newspaper, or expressing their view of politics on social media or other website?

Passivity is considered a civic and political ill. As former US Senator and Florida Governor Bob Graham writes in America, the Owner’s Manual, civics is not a spectator sport.

However, a certain amount of inaction is necessary in a politics designed to produce responsive policies. Inaction that consists of listening and striving to understand can be the most meaningful form of political participation in a society, and it is a form that is now ill practiced.

The decision to stop, sit, and listen can be the most courageous political act a person can take. Our 24/7 media, always connected social media and networks, and politics of promises and bluster, push us all to speak first, speak over someone second, speak third, and maybe, if we are still engaged, listen fourth.

On Monday, April 3, 2017, the College of Health and Public Affairs, with support from the School of Public Administration and Center for Public and Nonprofit Management, is convening a Community Conversation on Health Care. This is the second such conversation, the first having occurred on December 22, 2008 following a call from the Obama transition team to citizens around the country.

In 2008, with 70+ people crammed into a room fit for 30, we demonstrated that civil discussion is possible, that individuals from different backgrounds and with different values, can sit in a single space without once raising a voice in anger or disgust, or raising a fist in intimidation, or raising a photo of any political leader defaced to look like Hitler.

In these times, when we have social fragmentation more manifest than any we have seen in recent and perhaps long-term memory, we aim to demonstrate the potential of politics once again to be a unifying force, discussion to be a means to understanding the complexity of our individual and collective lives, and listening to be the tool most underused in a society that is known through its history to be civil but often in word only and not always in deed.

This is a political event; it is not an event with a policy agenda, partisan agenda, or to produce an advocacy outcome beyond process. This is about the politics of listening.

RSVP to attend through email to, or write to the same for more information.


The War on Impoverished Citizenship: Reflections for Government-Citizen Relations around the Globe

Extended Abstract of Remarks Prepared for Delivery at the Institute of Public Affairs, Chonnam National University, Gwangju Metropolitan City, South Korea,

October 27, 2014

 Thomas A. Bryer, PhD

The War on Impoverished Citizenship: Reflections for Government-Citizen Relations around the Globe

A central question to ask in citizen-government relationships, and one that is not so easily answered is: “Are we on the same side?” In the United States, survey researchers regularly ask about citizen trust in government, and observers often lament the lack of trust and, in recent decades, declining trust. However, the political and governmental system in the United States is grounded in assumptions of distrust and skepticism. The U.S. constitutional democracy established a separation of powers across three branches of government based on the assumption that, as one of the nation’s founders wrote, men are not angels. Checks and balances were and are necessary to protect against one branch, or any group of people with authority, from acting in a selfish way.

The distrust embedded in the constitutional framework of the United States further seeped into the thoughts about the role of citizens. The nation’s founders held a rather dim view of the capability of citizens, taken as a whole, to think and act reasonably. They considered citizens as more driven by passion than by reason, thus easily manipulated by the urgency of the moment. Indeed, one founding thinker—and future president of the United States—thought the citizens subject to “temporary delusion,” the kind of which needed systems in place to protect the people from themselves. The people, dominant thinking suggested, are not capable of knowing or representing their own interests. From a public administration perspective, Woodrow Wilson, who went on to become another president of the United States, thought it necessary to endure meddlesome citizens with their oft-changing public opinion while focusing on the core administrative value of efficiency?

Fast-forward to the year 2014, and these biases and challenges are embedded in democracies around the world—old and new. Some democracies have emerged from authoritarian pasts; others have plodded along effectively tolerating active citizens without fully embracing them. The question remains: are citizens and government on the same side, where genuine power-sharing collaboration and authentic dialogue are normatively desirable and practically possible? Or, is it theoretically more compelling and practically more feasible to conceive of the relationship between government and citizens as adversarial?

My response to the question is, yes, genuine power-sharing collaboration and authentic dialogue are both normatively desirable and practically possible. Stated differently, government and citizens are on the same side. However, to make it so, and to persuade as to the desirability of it being so, requires thinking a bit less abstractly. As such, I will focus on the substantive policy issue of poverty alleviation and the involvement of citizens with government to help that cause.

Citizenship and poverty are inextricably linked. Active, ethical citizenship is required in the development of interpersonal empathy, generalized social trust and felt belongingness. Alleviating poverty, or the conditions leading to or consequences of living in poverty, is more possible with empathetic, trusting, and community-oriented citizens. Attending to the substantive democratic needs of a society requires attention to the procedural democratic means of a society, and vice versa simultaneously. To win a war on poverty requires an equally strategic and aggressive war on impoverished citizenship.

The battle will be to destroy the active weapons used in the War on Citizenship that perpetuate and make real the myth that citizens are not capable of reasonable thought and accurate representation of their own interests. The battle will on the following fronts: (1) expertise versus mass competence, (2) transparency versus informed judgment, (3) volunteers versus active citizens with the state, (4) consumerism versus citizenship, (5) quantity versus quality, (6) representation versus inclusivity, and (7) tolerance of ignorance versus empowerment.

Each battlefront will be reviewed and strategically assessed, and conclusions will be suggested to reinterpret Maximum Feasible Participation, an initial core component of the War on Poverty in the United States, for the 21st century. Such reinterpretation will provide lessons for established and emergent democracies around the world to reinvigorate or develop anew strong, sustainable, and skeptical but civil government-citizen relations.

Together for Tomorrow: An Assessment of Partnership Formation

In spring 2013, students in PAD 6825 (Cross-Sector Governance) completed a service learning porject to evaluate the parntership formation in five Together for Tomorrow cities. They conducted telephone interviews with lead agencies in each city, VISTA members, school officials, and community partners to ascertain the processes employed to develop partnerships and utilize AmeriCorps VISTA resources. The project was jointly designed with the Corporation for National and Community Service and culminated in a national webinar, where students presented findings to a live audience of approximately 100 community leades. The contents of this brief are drawn in part from the data collected by students. This partnership is a win-win-win, for students learning about community partnerships, for the Corporation for National and Community Service seeking information about their pilot locations, ad for communities that can benefit from lessons learned to replicate or expand Together for Tomorrow.

Download the issue brief here.

TFT_CPNM Brief_Page_01

Beyond Job Creation and Service Learning: Putting the Public Back in Public Affairs Education

I am happy to share an article that is forthcoming in Journal of Public Affairs Education. This also serves as the foundation for a larger book project. I welcome your thoughts. Download the article here. Below is an excerpt and one of the descriptive figures that form the core of the argument.

The aim in this article is to suggest an umbrella “end state” or aim for higher education, in which each of these four vistas are vital components. To continue the standard approach to higher education reform by selecting one vista, theory, or grand narrative to the exclusion of others is perhaps naïve given the withdrawal of public financial support over the past couple of decades and more prominently in the past few years. Universities are well placed to leverage relationships, act as conveners and facilitators, and to take advantage of their vast amounts of human, intellectual, social, and political capital. The modern and future university needs to be at once versatile, innovative, perceived as a partner, and not be dependent on any one or two sources of revenue. To quote Lay (2004, p. 111), “the university should be valued as an intellectual resource of inherent social usefulness.” For public affairs education, this means the public needs to be placed at the center of the enterprise.

Figure 1_JPAE Forthcoming


Fragmentation in Social Services: An Interactive Exercise

DSCF2736Gaining access to an array of social services needed to regain self-sufficiency can be challenging, depending on where the individual or family in need of service initiates their search. Presenting a request for goods or services at a small faith-based organization, food bank, or job training center may result in a very different set of outcomes than if a request is first presented at a local government agency, local United Way, or mental health facility. The primary factor that will lead to differential outcomes is the variation in referral relationships between agencies. That is, one agency—a local government social services agency, for instance—might have a comprehensive list of service providers and may even provide case management to assist the individual or family in need secure the required services from the appropriate agencies. On the other hand, a small faith-based organization may be able to provide for immediate food or clothing needs but may not have other community relationships necessary to provide for shelter, job training, mental health, child education, or substance abuse issues.                                                                           

Download an interactive exercise (Networking Exercise for Homeless Services) that demonstrates the challenge of navigating a complex network and allows participants to visually see and to physically experience the web that needs to be improved to ensure access to vital services is not left to chance. Email  me with questions about the use of the exercise, and have fun!