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A Treasure Chest About to Open (Connection 2015)

The two-page article, “A Treasure Chest About to Open” by Nicholas A. Felts was published in Kettering Foundation‘s annual newsletter, Connections 2015 – Our History: Journeys in KF Research in the fall of 2015. Felts shares some of the history of National Issues Forums, one of the most valuable assets to come from the forums, and reveals an exciting project soon to be released from Kettering.

NIF has been running for 30 years, making it one of the longest-running citizen-to-citizen public engagement experiences. Over the last three decades, Kettering has stored all the data collected from the forums, including one of the most valuable aspects- all of the questionnaire responses. After years of laboring,  Kettering will soon have a fully functional digital archive of all the data from the NIF forums! Below is an excerpt from the article. Connections 2015 is available for free PDF download on Kettering’s site here.

KF_Connections 2015From the article…

One constant focus of the NIF questionnaires, though, is also one of their most uniquely valuable features. From the very beginning, each NIF questionnaire has always asked questions designed to capture which policy trade-offs citizens can and cannot accept. For example, a recent NIF questionnaire asked whether “Congress should raise the age of eligibility for Medicare to 67, EVEN IF that means seniors under 67 would have to get health insurance on their own or from an employer.”

Standard public opinion surveys do not usually ask questions that force citizens to reckon with the negative aspects of even their most preferred courses of action. NIF questionnaires have always done this and they are richer for it, because questions like this reveal what the public will do when push comes to shove. As someone who has both completed an NIF questionnaire and been in the room when others have done so, I know that participants usually note how difficult the questions are. In standard survey research, complaints about difficult questions are a glaring red flag and usually indicate that the wording of the question is unclear or confusing. However, in the NIF context, comments like this about the “even if” questions are a clear sign that participants are really thinking through an issue and grappling with all its complexities.

In a larger sense, the information that NIF questionnaires capture differs from that of standard surveys, even on the same topic. Standard surveys are generally administered to a randomly selected collection of individuals so the results will be representative of some larger population of interest. By contrast, those who complete NIF questionnaires are not randomly selected and, as a result, the opinions gathered from them are not necessarily representative of the larger population. For some, this lack of representativeness is a cause to dismiss information garnered from NIF questionnaires. However, NIF questionnaires are unrepresentative in the best possible sense. While they cannot tell us how the population as a whole feels about an issue, NIF questionnaires can tell us a great deal about how a concerned and informed subset of the population feels about an issue after deliberating with a group of their peers. NIF participants complete questionnaires after having the chance to think about, read about, and deliberate together about an issue. In this sense, NIF questionnaires provide a picture of public thinking that is truly public and truly thoughtful.

After several years of work and the help of an army of Ohio State University research assistants, we are now on the cusp of having a fully functional digital archive of all things NIF. This archive will contain data from the questionnaires described above, as well as copies of forum recordings, starter tapes, issue guides, and much more. ]

What questions can we ask of this information to help us better understand how issues have been named and framed for public deliberation? Moreover, what can the stories revealed by the NIF questionnaires tell us about the nature of public judgment on the shared problems we all face?

About Kettering Foundation and Connections
KF_LogoThe Kettering Foundation is a nonprofit operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research. Kettering’s primary research question is, what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Kettering’s research is distinctive because it is conducted from the perspective of citizens and focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation.

Each issue of this annual newsletter focuses on a particular area of Kettering’s research. The 2015 issue, edited by Kettering program officer Melinda Gilmore and director of communications David Holwerk, focuses on our yearlong review of Kettering’s research over time.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn.

Resource Link: www.kettering.org/sites/default/files/periodical-article/Felts_2015.pdf

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