Center for Michigan helps citizens bend politicians’ ears

The cover has a big picture of an ear. Underneath, the headline: “This is a politician’s ear. Bend it!”

It’s the cover of the discussion guide for this year’s round of Community Conversations sponsored by The Center for Michigan. They’re small gatherings designed to call forth Michiganders’ views on where our state should be going.

In all, some 3,000 Michiganders will get together from October through April in groups of 20-30. The idea is to help citizens frame and amplify their priorities in advance of the 2014 election, when voters will pick a governor, together with all 38 state senators and 110 state representatives.

This is the fifth major round of community conversations facilitated by The Center for Michigan. Since 2007, The Center has spoken with more than 20,000 citizens, the largest public engagement campaign in Michigan history.

Participants will review information from Bridge Magazine’s Michigan Scorecard about where Michigan stands today with respect to four key policy areas: Economy & Prosperity, Education, Quality of life, and Public Money Priorities. Participants will discuss their views and set priorities for how best to make Michigan a better place. Together they’ll build a public agenda for our state’s future to help focus political discussion in next year’s election.

The conversations are open to all. Folks who want to help set a citizen agenda for Michigan’s future can call 734.926.4285 or send an email to

These conversations aren’t just idle chatter. They’ve proven to have real impact on what actually happens in Michigan:

Preschool: Since 2011, Community Conversation participants repeatedly put top emphasis on expanding the state’s Great Start Readiness Program for poor and vulnerable four year-olds. The state budget adopted this year increased support for preschool programs by more than any other state.

State Prison Reforms: Dan Heyns, director of the Department of Corrections, credits The Center and public pressure for reforms that have cut hundreds of millions from the state’s prison budget.

The Center is a “think-and-do” tank, with a preference for doing along with thinking.

Here’s an example. This summer, the legislature increased state support for the Great Start Readiness Program by $65 million. To help ensure that this increased state funding actually resulted in increased GSRP enrollment, Center President John Bebow and Operations Director A. J. Jones decided to help state government in reaching out to poor, vulnerable and often difficult to reach four year-olds.

They designed and printed 10,000 flyers. Jones drove all over the state to post flyers in likely places – food pantries, United Way and Michigan Works offices, libraries and churches. Jones also arranged with United Way’s 211call-in system to provide callers with GSRP enrollment details.

Although it’s not entirely clear just how many kids the leaflets drew, just-released state Office of Great Start figures show that a total of 53,834 GSRP slots were requested by Intermediate School Districts, 6,350 more than the 47,484 that the state has funding to fill.

The Community Conversations beginning this week will give Michiganders a chance to think together. Based on past evidence, these conversations can have a big impact on what actually gets done in Michigan.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Charles Richards
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 2:20pm
Mr. Power says, " Participants will discuss their views and set priorities for how best to make Michigan a better place." I'm curious as to just how rigorous this process is. Are these just feel good sessions where people hand in their wish lists? Or are participants invited to make actual choices where having more of one good thing entails giving up some of another good thing? In other words, are they being rational? Are they saying what is the optimal ratio of this to that? Do they have an opportunity to make out a state budget? Say how much to spend on this versus that? Raise taxes, or maintain current levels in the hope of stimulating faster economic growth? Invest in infrastructure, and if so, how much? Will they be invited to specify their discount rate? That is, what is the minimum acceptable payoff over a period of years that would justify a given measure, or expenditure. Just as important, to the extent practicable,will they be invited to specify what concrete, specific eventualities would mark their proposals as successes or failures? The $65 million increase in funding for the Great Start Readiness Program is a case in point. Certainly, the intentions are good, and I hope it is an overwhelming success, but have any benchmarks been established to measure its effectiveness? Scaling up from pilot projects often doesn't work out well. Have any of the universities, perhaps in partnership with a foundation, made preparations to rigorously evaluate the expansions' effectiveness? Have any of its proponents specified the degree of success that would justify it? Or would they consider the mere transfer of resources to poorer families sufficient?
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 1:45pm
Hi Charles, these are great questions! I'm Amber DeLind, the Center for Michigan's outreach director. In these conversations, we seek to do exactly what you mention: ask Michigan residents to make trade-offs in determining their priorities for the state's future. We're asking specifically about economy and prosperity issues, education (both PreK-12 and higher ed), quality of life issues, and taxes and government spending. Participants have the opportunity to prioritize the issues they think are most critical for our state's future, and are then asked to share specifics about how legislators should implement the changes they suggest. In each conversation, participants are provided an "Issue Guide" which provides statistics and rankings of Michigan's performance compared to other states on about two dozen indicators of a state's success, as well as statistics on Michigan taxes and current government spending. I encourage you to attend one of these discussions to see one in action. I'd be happy to share information about conversations happening in your area, as well as an electronic copy of our issue guide. Contact me at!
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 11:30pm
Amber, I must admit to some skeptism when you say that 20-30 people will get together to discuss all of the topics you and then prioritize them. It would seem if you had one topic and each person talked about it for 6 minutes you would have 3 hours of meeting before you even started to prioritize the issues. The issues you mention are simple to prioritize unless you have already decided on the action plans you have for each issue. And as much emotion as has been generated by each issue it is hard to imagine that people would want to talk as little a 6 minutes on one of the issues. To have a discussion about the issues and prioritize them would seem to require either a pre-package description of each issue and an action for it or that there will very limited on the issue and nothing but a vote for prioritization. I wonder if you plan to establish any metrics for these session before you start the process so there will be a tranparent assessment of the program or will it be like the politicians do, claim success and move on without any real accountability and open identification of what worked and why, and where were there opportunities for improvement and why. I would surely like to particpate both to contrinute my views on the issues and prioritization and to watch how this process is implement. I believe that such forums and be the inccubator for new and innovative approsches to addressing long standing issue. I believe that there is a breadth applicable knowledge and creativity in the public that is untapped and this could be a means for drawing that creativity into the efforts to improve our state by addressing the issue you have mentioned.
Thu, 10/03/2013 - 11:58am
Duane, I definitely encourage you to participate in one of the Center's community conversations, or to host a discussion in your own community to see these discussions in action. Email me at for details on conversations close to your home and for more information about how to host. Our conversation campaigns are evaluated by an external evaluator and our participant demographics are analyzed by an outside firm to ensure that the participant sample reflects the population of our state. We also work with an outside firm to administer large telephone polls with Michigan residents, and compare these results to our conversation results. Contact me with any additional questions, and I hope we'll see you at a conversation!
Fri, 10/04/2013 - 9:36pm
Amber, Thank you for the invitation. However, you have added to my doubts about the sessions. When the metric is about the participants reflecting the population and not about new and effective ways to address the issues it seems what is said has minimal value and who attends is most important. The outside polling to validate the ‘conversations’ suggest that the sessions are designed for statistical leverage to facilitate influencing votes in Lansing. That approach is designed to maintain long held positions and seldom encourages new approaches or new ideas for addressing problems. That usually means spending more of other people’s moneys. I appreciate that Bridge is going to great expense to develop and administer this program, it is disappointing that such an opportunity will be spent on reinforcing already establishes positions rather than be used to open up new ways to look at the needs of Michigan and to facilitate the exploration of new ways to address them. Thank you again for your courteousy, but I don’t fit your targeted demographics and I am about new/change/problem solving and not about spending other people’s money and partisan politics. If there is a session in west (of GR) Michigan I will try to attend.
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 6:20pm
Hi Charles I attended most of the community conversations that were in Lansing before the 2010 election cycle. I did not feel that they were just a feel good thing. After the meetings I attended several events that Mr Powers facilitated and really enjoyed every event mainly because it really got the public involved. If you have the opportunity to attend I highly recommend them. (note) Mr Powers is a no Nonsense person he wants you to be involved and in a way demands it. Dale Westrick Still working to keep our residents informed!!!
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 7:04pm
Charles I forgot to add this link to and interesting website about community building. Dale The January edition of Smart Communities takes a look at which dimensions of your community have the strongest relationship to the retention of young residents. Click on the link below to view the report to see the importance of a quality parks and recreation program. Access the January newsletter here.