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National Issues Forums

The term “National Issues Forums” is used to refer to both a network of programs and a deliberative process. National Issues Forums (NIF) is an independent network of civic and educational groups which use “issue books” as a basis for deliberative choice work in forums based on the town meeting tradition. NIF issue books use research on the public’s concerns to identify three or four options or approaches to an issue. Presenting issues in this way invites citizens to confront the conflicts among different options and avoids the usual debates in which people lash out with simplistic arguments.

NIF was initiated by the Kettering Foundation, an operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of inventive research. Its founder, Charles F. Kettering, holder of more than 200 patents, is best known for his invention of the electric automobile self-starter. He was interested, above all, in seeking practical answers to ‘the problems behind the problems.’ Established in 1927, the foundation today continues in that tradition.

The central question behind the foundation’s research now is this: What does it take to make democracy work as it should? Rather than look for ways to improve on politics as usual, the Foundation is seeking ways to make fundamental changes in how democratic politics are practiced.

A Deliberative Process

National Issues Forums are characterized by choice work, deliberation, and working toward common ground for action or a shared sense of purpose. In deliberative forums, people find places where their values, interests, and goals overlap. By giving citizens a chance to deliberate about public issues, National Issues Forums offer a place at the table where decisions are made that affect their lives. Forums seldom end in total agreement or total disagreement. Instead, they frequently end in a discovery of a shared sense of purpose or recognition of how interests are interconnected.

Some National Issues Forums are independent, local forums sponsored by energetic citizens. Others are part of educational programs at colleges, schools, and extension services (read more about Public Policy Institutes below). The forums range in size from small groups to large gatherings modeled after town meetings.

A Network of Organizations

NIF is a network of civic and educational organizations that recognizes the need for citizens to deliberate together about issues they care about before they make decisions. Thousands of groups have used the NIF process since its inception in 1982. These local groups organize and plan deliberative forums about national or community issues that concern them.

The National Issues Forums (NIF) network (also called the National Issues Forums Institute) includes educational institutions, leadership groups, civic groups, churches, libraries, senior centers, community groups, and youth groups joined together by a common desire to discuss critical issues. This network of convening institutions is both large and diverse, contributing to NIF participants’ considerable diversity in age, race, gender, economic status, and geographic location.

Each year, major issues of concern – such as health care, juvenile crime, or gambling – are identified by the NIF network as ripe for public deliberation. Issue books, which provide an overview of the subject and present several choices, are prepared to frame the choice work. By offering citizens a framework for deliberative forums, the NIF network helps the public take an active role in policy decision making. NIF feels that the health of this nation’s democratic enterprise depends on the active participation of responsible citizens who take the initiative to deliberate about the public policy choices and to set the public agenda.

The NIF network recognizes the importance of reporting on its deliberative forums to elected officials at the local, state, and national levels to give them insight into what the public is thinking. People at the Kettering Foundation in Ohio collect detailed reports from forums that are held across the country, and are able to compile these results and publish or distribute them as needed.

In addition to this national network there is the National Issues Forums Institute. The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) is a nonprofit organization made up of a board of directors whose primary activity is to oversee the selection, production, and publication of several issue discussion guides each year.

Choice Work

Citizens have an undelegable responsibility to make choices about how to solve problems because government alone cannot solve them all. Forums should be ‘charged’ from the start with the responsibility of helping the country and their communities make sound decisions on critical issues. Not doing this imperils the effectiveness of forums and study circles.

According to NIF, it is very challenging for a moderator to get a group to do choice work unless it is explained initially and the group commits itself to this task. Otherwise, forums wander and responses are random and unconnected when there is no sense of working to meet a common goal.

Moderators are told to emphasize that the forum is not just any forum. It will be distinguished by its deliberative character, its emphasis on the need to do the hard work of recognizing that a choice has to be made, that consequences have to be weighed and trade-offs balanced. Democratic politics requires that we hold ourselves, and not just officials, accountable.

Public Policy Institutes

The NIF network is also known for its Public Policy Institutes (PPIs), which provide workshops that bring citizens together to train them in convening and moderating National Issues Forums. Some PPIs also offer instruction in the fundamentals of framing issues (IFWs) for deliberation.

PPIs offer a setting where you can focus on the ideas that make democracy work and the practice of deliberation (a way of reasoning and talking together). In debate, we argue and insist on our own point of view. When we deliberate, we listen carefully to the views of others and talk through the conflicts that arise when people disagree. In deliberation, we make decisions together.

PPI participants observe and participate in community forums and small-group forums; become acquainted with NIF materials; understand the connection of what people value to choices about issues, and appreciate the importance of deliberation in identifying the public’s perspective; practice moderating forums; and discuss how to organize NIF programs in their communities.

PPIs are locally organized and operated, and people interested in moderating NIFs should contact the PPI that is closest to them. They are sponsored by a variety of organizations: a neighborhood association, a statewide humanities foundation, community colleges, various universities, national organizations, and an assortment of other institutions. Go to www.nifi.org/network for a listing of all PPIs or network contacts.

A Public Voice

A Public Voice is an annual public television series now in its second decade. The series is developed in cooperation with the National Issues Forums Institute. The series consists of one-hour public affairs television programs, produced annually, to examine how well we, as a nation, are tackling crucial public issues.

At the center of each program are American citizens, in serious deliberation in National Issues Forums around the nation, and a distinguished panel of nationally known political leaders and commentators who reflect on what this ‘public voice’ may mean in setting a direction for America.

Over the years, A Public Voice has addressed issues such as:

  • The Debt and Deficit
  • Democracy’s Challenge:  Reclaiming the Public’s Role
  • Racial and Ethnic Tensions
  • Terrorism
  • The Public Schools
  • Money and Politics

Under what circumstances is the model most successful or fitting?

Forums are sponsored by many kinds of organizations and institutions within many communities. They offer citizens the opportunity to join together to deliberate, to make choices with others about ways to approach difficult issues, and to work toward creating public judgment. According to the National Issues Forums Institute, deliberative public forums can be useful and productive in any situation and setting where citizens want and need a way to talk together about common problems.

Tips for NIF Moderators

There are four basic questions that the moderators ask during a National Issues Forum: What is valuable to us in this issue? What are the costs or consequences associated with the various options? Where are the conflicts in this issue that we have to work through? And can we detect any shared sense of direction or common ground for action?

Experienced NIF moderators report that it is important to:

  • Move the conversation beyond sharing the stories to looking at costs and consequences of the options.
  • Make sure the best case/positive side of all options are considered and understood. To diminish an option is to stop deliberation.
  • Stay with deliberation until participants see that the issue is framed on what is valuable to people and until they have identified the conflicts among the approaches.
  • Recognize that forums seldom end in total agreement or total disagreement. Forums frequently end in a discovery of a shared sense of purpose or recognition of how interests are interconnected.

Deliberation is more likely to take place if some ground rules are laid out at the beginning; they can help prevent difficulties later on in the forum. Typical NIF ground rules are:

  • Everyone is encouraged to participate, but no one should dominate.
  • Listening is as important as talking.
  • Participants are encouraged to speak to each other, rather than just to the moderator.

Participants must fairly consider every option and fully examine all the trade-offs involved in a choice. (If no one in the group seems to favor a particular option, the moderator or someone might raise a question like, ‘What would someone who favors this approach say?’)

The moderator is not constantly intervening. To the contrary; the essence of good moderating is to encourage people to engage one another. The responsibility for doing the work of deliberation is the group’s responsibility and the moderator should make that clear from the beginning. Above all, the moderator also must remain impartial so that the group can do its job.

Issue Guides and Other Resources

NIF has produced dozens of issue guides covering important issues ranging from The Day Care Dilemma to the Future of Affirmative Action. Here are some examples of issue guide titles:

  • The New Science of Food: Facing Up to Our Biotechnology Choices (2003)
  • Examining Health Care: What’s the Public’s Prescription (2003)
  • By the People: Americans’ Role in the World (2003)
  • News Media and Society: How to Restore the Public Trust (2003)
  • Terrorism: What Should We Do Now? (2002)

To view the list of all of the issue guides, many of which are downloadable and are accompanied by moderator guides, go to www.nifi.org/issue_books. Issue guides are listed under these categories: Children and Family, Civil Rights, Economic Issues, Education, Energy and Environment, Government and Politics, Health and Well Being, and International/Foreign Policy. You’ll also find materials for teachers, materials in spanish, a host of local issue books, and materials that are currently under development.

The National Issues Forums Institute website (www.nifi.org) provides information about these and other publications, including national reports on the outcomes of forums; workshops that are held around the country to teach people about moderating and convening deliberative public forums; news about NIF activities, projects, and events in the NIF network; and other information.

If you are new to NIF, one great resource is the FREE NIF Starter Kit at http://www.nifi.org/forums/starterkit.aspx. The starter kit includes a sample issue book, an NIF publications catalog, “NIF: An Overview”, and other materials.

You can also sign up to receive occasional email updates for the NIF network by emailing Patty Dineen at dineenp@msn.com with ‘please add to NIF News e-mail list’ in the message.

Resource Link:  www.nifi.org

This text was compiled from the NIFI website (www.nifi.org) and Kettering Foundation website (www.kettering.org), the NIF publication “For Convenors and Moderators: Organizing for Public Deliberation and Moderating a Forum/Study Circle” and the NIF Moderator Guide for “By the People: Americans’ Role in the World.” Some of this information was also submitted to NCDD by NIFI.  Updated 8/13.

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