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Public Process Breakthrough

November 15, 2013 by Deborah Gilburg

Outside the headlines, there are a few stories of organizations breaking through complex challenges because leaders were willing to try a new way. One such story came through my email a few weeks ago.

Improving the process for school choice in Boston Public Schools (BPS) has been a vexing, emotionally charged challenge for several years. With a checkered history in desegregation and student bussing, and an inadequate and inequitable school assignment system leftover from the 1980s, BPS has been struggling to make inroads in this complicated issue. And they finally had a breakthrough. Three key elements were involved. 

First, they created a comprehensive, public use data set that was accessible and easy to use, and invited institutions, individuals, special interests groups—anyone, to play with the data in an effort to develop a solution. Second, BPS played a particular role — Public Institution as facilitator. They did not try to fashion a solution, but facilitated a diverse steering committee who determined the important objectives and developed possible solutions. Third, the entire process was open and transparent. BPS maintained the integrity of the public space, and helped ordinary people think through what was ultimately a complex solution. In the end, the student assignment process that passed may not have been perfect, but people respected the integrity of the process and recognized that the solution moved BPS a lot closer to the outcomes everyone wanted.

Below is a short and succinct video from Rahn Dorsey of the Barr Foundation, sharing the key insights of this breakthrough.  A really great example of the possibilities — particularly for public institutions — when they shift their leadership role from being the solution experts, to convening the people most vested in the problem to do the job of solving it. How do we do more of this? Enjoy the video! (Special thanks to IISC for braodcasting this video.)