In his 2010 TED Talk, Philip K. Howard, founder and Chair of Common Good, tells the story of Broward County, Florida where, in 2005, children were banned from running on playgrounds. Seesaws and swings soon suffered a similar fate and were replaced with stationary equipment in accordance with strict U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission guidelines. When met with objections from upset parents and children, Broward County School Board member Robin Bartleman stated simply, “‘To say ‘no running’ on the playground seems crazy. But your feelings change when you're in a closed-door meeting with lawyers.’” Just as children are stifled in this new play environment, so is society in America’s current legal landscape, argues Howard. “We’ve been taught to believe that law is the foundation of freedom but somehow or another, during the last couple decades, the land of the free has become a legal minefield.”
A Call for Change
Ludicrous laws on the playground are just one of the many examples Howard points to when illustrating the need for a return to common sense and the deep cleaning needed to rid society of inefficient laws and regulations. A lawyer himself, Howard has called for an overhaul of current law and government in order to allow those in positions of responsibility to make needed decisions and take action to better society. After the publication of his much-lauded book The Death of Common Sense in 1995, Howard went on to found Common Good, a nonpartisan organization aimed at influencing and promoting national debate surrounding the need to rebuild law and government and to restore the freedom to take responsibility and act sensibly. Touting the slogan “People, not rules, make things happen,” Common Good strives to move society towards common sense based on the principles of responsibility, accountability and individual freedom. As Andrew Park, Research Director for Common Good, states, “People have a misconception about law. It’s more than about proscribing the things you can’t do but also about protecting the things you can do.”
Moving Ideas Forward
Through their partnership with the Argosy Foundation and others, Common Good has been able to collaborate with like-minded, highly respected entities to host live forums sparking debate and timely conversations surrounding sunset laws, reliable justice, civil service overhaul, school bureaucracy and health courts. In February of 2012, Common Good teamed up with the Bipartisan Policy Center to host a forum addressing the role that obsolete law plays in government spending, deficit reduction, job creation, controlling health care costs, and in improving education and infrastructure, as well as possible solutions. Then, in May 2012, Common Good partnered with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Change and Citizens Budget Commission for a forum focused on the bureaucratic and legal impediments to sensible government in New York City and State. Panelists addressed the many ways in which common sense decision-making in local government is thwarted by open-ended mandates, inflexible rules and overly-complex regulations. Attendance at the obsolete law forum reached 80 while 100 people came to the New York forum. Common Good hosts an average of three to five forums and events per year and plans on continuing to do so in order to keep the dialogue around these pressing issues at the forefront of their work. According to Andrew Park, these forums not only “bring together diverse viewpoints on an issue that aid in the development and betterment of a policy position or proposal, but they also bring issues, policy proposals, and new ideas to the public's attention that an op-ed, blog posting, or article might not.”
In addition to the live forums, Common Good launched the website NewTalk, which acts as an online forum for experts to discuss some of the most pressing domestic topics shaping American society today from healthcare and education to the environment, economy and justice. In 2012, Common Good partnered with The Atlantic to present a essay series titled “America the Fixable” addressing these topics, featuring participants such as former Governor Mitch Daniels (R-IN), former Governor Jeb Bush (R-IN), Teach for America CEO Wendy Kopp, AOL co-founder Steve Case, and many more. In total, they have published 99 articles by 75 expert contributors with The Atlantic, enabling Common Good to widen their audience and deepen the discussion around the country’s most significant problems. They have also been able to build a following and increase outreach through their interactive website that features a blog, downloadable essays and articles and a place for visitors to share their own anecdotes regarding outdated laws and systems. Their website has drawn in 39,613 unique visitors throughout the year, with the average duration of each visit growing from seven minutes and 15 seconds in January to 14 minutes and 31 seconds in December.
Influencing the National Discourse
Through their partnerships with well-respected think-tanks, experts, and civil leaders as well as through editorials, media appearances, newsletters, and polling, Common Good has been able to propose a number of specific overhaul reforms that have been promoted by politicians, thought leaders and practitioners. One of Common Good’s most successful proposals has been the implementation of health courts. Andrew Park describes health courts as impartial administrative systems that would be dedicated full-time to medical malpractice cases in order to cut down on defensive medical practices and restore reliability, efficiency, and fairness to medical justice. With the help of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, Common Good ‘s health court model has gained significant support from politicians such as Michael Bloomberg , Mitt Romney and President Obama . Another key proposal from Common Good-- education reform-- has been gaining traction in the national discourse. From Florida’s recent bill aimed at providing relief from excessive and unnecessary state regulations  to former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ extensive reform efforts , states are moving towards alleviating the litigious environment in the school system and restoring responsibility and decision-making freedom to teachers and principals. Common Good has also seen success influencing the public consciousness through popular media channels such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart , Need to Know on PBS , and New York Times columnist David Brooks .
A Natural Fit
According to John Abele, the Argosy Foundation’s Founder and Chairman, one of the fundamental principles of the Foundation’s work is empowering people, and Common Good is doing just that: “[They’re] trying to create an society where people have more opportunity to innovate because they’re not constrained by a set of rules that don’t accomplish what they were originally designed for… Innovation is essential for continual growth and providing opportunity for citizens. It’s always a delicate balance between empowerment and innovation and safety and regulation,” says John. With Argosy’s ongoing support, Common Good has been able to address this delicate balance through their live forums-- igniting debate among politicians, thought leaders, experts and the public about how to best move the country towards greater innovation and opportunity. John adds, “Argosy has an obligation to support that underlying principle that is trying to protect our system and the good things about it and fix it in the areas where it’s running off the tracks. And that’s what Common Good is all about.”
As they move forward, Common Good plans to continue addressing the need for a deep cleaning of unnecessary regulation, the simplification of law, an increase in responsible leadership, and a return to common sense decision-making through media appearances, social media, op-eds and their relationships with respected organizations and partners. Just as children need to be free to run on playgrounds, Common Good hopes to provide society with the freedom to move forward.