A School Leader’s Take on Engagement

Doug Christensen, state commissioner of education in Nebraska, has made public engagement a core instrument of his school leadership. Public Agenda worked closely with him in two statewide policy initiatives — one establishing statewide standards and the second defining the essential educational opportunities all students should have.

Christensen, a former district superintendent, describes his views on public engagement in questions posed by staff at Public Agenda:

Q: Typically, policymakers formulate a course of action and then develop a communications strategy to explain why it needs to be done. Engagement brings citizens and stakeholders into the process early, while ideas are still being developed. Why have you invested time and energy in this approach?

Christensen: Any time a public issue or public problem requires a solution, it is always better, cheaper and ultimately easier to engage the public at the start. The process of public engagement can create solutions to which people are connected from the beginning. We no longer need to sell the solution to the people; they already feel ownership. It ensures that time, energy and resources are not spent on the pathology that is created when solutions are developed inside an organization and then forced on the very people who are to be served.

Q: How does engagement help leaders move forward? Doesn’t it eat up time that could be spent on tackling problems directly?

Christensen: Public engagement is about building connections to communicate and create and resolve problems. It is about building trust so all the stakeholders have an investment in the problem and in the solution. It is about building confidence so the strategy that is created is likely to work and be supported.

Public engagement enables us to be clear about what our publics are actually saying rather than paralyzed by making decisions based on our assumptions.

Q: What concrete impact has engagement had on your work as commissioner?

Christensen: We almost did not have a system of standards and assessment in our state because we assumed the voices we were hearing represented public opinion when, in fact, they did not. We had over-generalized opposition, and public engagement not only told us something different, it confirmed that our work was enthusiastically supported by a substantial majority. Finding that out gave us permission to move forward and the confidence we needed to do so.

A second initiative involved our statewide work to develop the concept and policy of an Essential Education for All Students. We had developed a policy draft using every opportunity to engage professionals, community leaders and policymakers. We used public engagement as a broader process to independently verify and validate our work.

The result was a policy document no one — state level or local — could ignore, helping to get local and state policy leaders and the education community on board. The policy was unanimously adopted by the state board of education and has been the point of reference and driver in determining board goals, budget priorities and legislative proposals.

Q: What is your advice for administrators who are thinking about incorporating engagement into their work?

Christensen: Periodic public engagement can serve as an "early warning" system for identifying issues while they are still manageable. It’s a way to get in front of negative issues or potential problems beginning to bubble below the surface before they become full-blown public policy disasters.