Feb 27 2013

Understanding and Shaping Public Opinion

by at 11:24 am under Uncategorized

By Julie Ryan (Georgetown Public Policy Review)

In order to advance a public policy agenda, legislators need to understand the environment in which they find themselves. They are beholden to their constituents’ opinions, and mobilizing support for an expensive but important program for at-risk youth can be very difficult. In a breakout focusing on this issue, moderator Jann Jackson, a senior associate of policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, hosted a panel of experts including Patrick Bresette, the director of programs at Public Works; Jonathan Voss, a senior analyst at Lake Research Partners; and Yndia Lorick-Wilmot, Ph.D. a senior associate at the FrameWorks Institute. Drawing on their own research as well as descriptive statistics, panelists said convincing the public to support funding for at-risk youth programs is an uphill battle, but it is possible.

“Most people don’t think about government at all; they’re busy going about their lives…but it doesn’t stop people from having opinions about the government,” Bresette said. He argued that in our hyper-consumerist culture, people have come to see government as a vending machine. In other words, Americans are putting their money into the government and wondering what benefits they are getting out of the system.

In addition to this consumerist view, many Americans seem to have an intrinsic distrust of government. Lorick-Wilmot characterized public opinion as a swamp of developmental outcomes and resilience. This swamp, she argued, is filled with cultural ideologies and values deeply entrenched in public opinion, making them very hard to change.

“When we put our messaging out there into the swamp and they’re not framed effectively and strategically, they get eaten up in the swamp,” Lorick-Wilmot said. “Policy opinions are frame dependent…Tested values as an element have been shown to be really effective as swamp inoculators. Values really remind people of what’s at stake and why this issue’s important.”

In her research, Lorick-Wilmot found that tapping into ingenuity as a value had the greatest effect on public support for child abuse policy reform.

“People can think, ‘ok, I can be a part of this solution.’ It’s about this interdependence, this connection,” Lorick-Wilmot said.

Bresette agreed that interdependence, working together, and reinforcing the idea that everyone has a role to play in “our government” were all effective strategies for pulling Americans away from their cynical beliefs about government as a vending machine.

“More of that kind of ownership conversation is something that I think is subtle but important,” he said. “Help broaden the circle of concern – at some core on a spiritual level, we have to help people see their responsibility in each other.”

Jackson agreed, saying, “If America’s really going to meets its challenges, we need to start nourishing its innate capacity for empathy.”

In addition to reaching Americans’ empathy, Voss argued it is also effective to frame these issues as a threat to American exceptionalism. Two-thirds of American voters (regardless of party affiliation) believe American children are falling behind other countries.

“When it’s put in a patriotic kind of ‘we need to restore our leadership in this area,’ people are more likely to get on board,” Voss said. “This aspirational component runs deep in American culture and can be tapped into.”


Julie Ryan is an Associate Copy Editor for the Georgetown Public Policy Review.

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