Helping Students Navigate the Public Policy Process

The  Illinois Democracy Schools Network continues its 2022-23 C.L.A.D. (Civic Learning Across Disciplines) webinar series focusing on Student Voice.  In the third session, Dr. Shawn Healy, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at iCivics, used a unique perspective to explore the public policy process: (1) as a civics educator, he explained how he used this 10-step model with his students (as adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago), and  (2) as a citizen and advocate for civic learning, he shares how he has engaged in the model to seek change and improvement in civic learning opportunities for students at the local, state and national level.  He utilizes the format outlined in the book America: the Owner’s Manual by Bob Graham and Chris Hand, which consists of these steps:

  • Defining the problem
  • Gathering information to sway policymakers
  • Identifying who in government can solve the problem
  • Gauging and building public support for the cause
  • Persuading the decision-makers
  • Using the calendar to achieve goals
  • Building coalitions for citizen success
  • Engaging the media
  • Finding resources to support the initiative
  • Preserving victory and learning from defeat

Dr. Healy shared numerous examples of his own efforts, both in Illinois and at the national level, to improve student access to quality civic learning programs.  This has been the essence of his work for his entire professional life–beginning as a civics teacher in Wisconsin and Illinois, a leader in the Democracy Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, and now as Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy at iCivics.

He believes that the first step, “defining the problem,” gives citizens an occasion to “work on something near and dear to their heart.”  This powerful factor drives the entire process, providing voice and choice. Gathering information is the next task, where one casts a wide net to find unbiased, credible, recent data.  Dr. Healy encourages consideration of a broad range of sources–at local, state, and national levels. At this stage, it is necessary to determine exactly “who” can actually fix the problem, which will often lead to a discussion of federalism and the existence of multiple jurisdictions. This is also a time to become familiar with current legislators–the ones that represent you or might be interested in the issue you are researching.   

Using polling data is necessary for “gauging and building public support.”  Some useful sources of this data and analysis are GallupPaul Simon Public Policy Institute, Pew Research Center, FiveThirtyEight, and major media organizations.   Armed with information and polling data, the next step is to persuade decision-makers, which will involve understanding the legislative process and a thoughtful plan of communicating with legislators.  This can also entail building a coalition of allies; these allies might be local but, in many cases, could reach statewide or nationally.  

Engaging the media is where one tries to get attention from the press for the issue, and this takes many forms.  It might be as simple as a letter to the editor or posting on social media. Still, it could also lead to more intense media interaction, such as interviews or appearances on broadcasts.  To strengthen your proposed solutions, it would be useful to have some thoughts about financial considerations, given the deficit situation for most states and the federal government.  The final step is “preserving the victory and learning from defeat.” 

If you missed the webinar, you can access a recording on the Illinois Democracy Schools Network Webinar archive. You will find many other resources available on that video. 

The Illinois Civics Hub and the Illinois Democracy Schools Network are hosting free after-school PD from our expert civic partners this year. A description for each webinar and information to register for professional development credits through the DuPage Regional Office of Education is available on the Illinois Civics Hub Professional Development Calendar. 

The Illinois Civics Hub also has a newsletter that shares our free PD that is open to all. You can subscribe here!