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Three Keys to Breakthrough on Complex Social Contract Issues

When complicated politics and old wounds keep deep-sixing change efforts, what does it take to get to a new outcome? A recent breakthrough in Boston suggests a template.

Until this year, parents wishing to enroll their child in the Boston Public Schools faced a school assignment system that had been in place since 1988. This system divided Boston into three sprawling zones. Each had dozens of schools for parents to consider, and no guarantee their child would be placed in any they preferred. They might get lucky and land a seat in a first-choice school around the corner. Or they might be assigned a last-choice school a long bus ride away.

For years, families, city leaders, and school officials called for a better approach – one that was easier and more predictable for families, while also promising equitable access to high quality schools closer to home. But time and again, change efforts failed. Old wounds kept resurfacing and the politics proved too complicated.

Earlier this year, however, Boston had a breakthrough. After a wide-open community process that drew ideas and comments from over 5,000 people, the Boston School Committee approved a new system now scheduled to launch in January, 2014.

School Assignment Community Meeting

School assignment community meeting (photo courtesy of Boston Public Schools)

Barr’s Evaluation Director, Rahn Dorsey, served on the committee appointed by the Mayor to oversee that process. After it was all over, I sat with Rahn, and asked him what he thought were the keys to breakthrough. He pointed to three:

  1. Making available a huge, public-use data set for anyone to work with to understand the challenges and generate possible solutions
  2. A public institution acting as facilitator of a community process, not salesman of pre-determined solutions
  3. Maintaining the integrity of the public space so that anyone, from any corner of the community can put ideas on the table, and know they will be taken seriously

For more on this template for navigating complex social contract issues, watch Rahn in this video:

Three Keys to Breakthrough on Complex Social Contract Issues

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Stefan Lanfer

Stefan Lanfer

Director of Communications