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Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums

The 36-page guide, Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums, was written by Brad Rourke and published 2014 on the Kettering Foundation site. In the guide, Rourke shares all the elements needed to design an issue guide to better inform participants during deliberation. An issue guide lays out multiple sides of a subject/issue to give participants tools to engage in more informed deliberation, the guide then offers examples of the options, as well as, drawbacks to each one. There is no one perfect way to develop an issue guide; so Rourke provides details on ways to design a guide that is effective at giving participants the information they need to deliberate on the issues at-hand.

Below is an excerpt of the article; it can be downloaded in full at the link on the bottom of this page or find it on Kettering Foundation’s site here.

From the guide…

KF_Developing_MaterialsDeliberation does not require a certain kind of guide, or framework, or language, or facilitator. But, because it can be difficult to face such choices, supporting materials can make it easier. Many community groups, national organizations, and others, including the National Issues Forums (NIF), develop materials meant to help groups deliberate together over difficult public issues. Through its research, the Kettering Foundation has learned about the kinds of materials that can spark this public work. This document explores the important elements involved in going from an initial topic to having a complete issue guide suitable to use in the kinds of deliberative forums that are the hallmark of the NIF.

Deliberative forums are used in different ways, depending on the community and who is involved. Some communities use them to set direction on important local issues. People in other communities may hold forums in order to give citizens the opportunity to think through an important national issue and what they and others might do about it. The results of deliberating together in these ways are sometimes passed on to public officials. Other times public officials personally take part in deliberating with other citizens.

There are many ways to create materials that will support such public deliberation. As long as they are accessible to all kinds of people, allow them to carefully consider options and weigh drawbacks, no one way is necessarily better than another.

Naming and Framing Issues in Public Terms
When issues are named and framed in public terms, we can identify the problem that we need to talk about (naming) and the critical options and drawbacks for deciding what to do about that problem (framing).

When citizens see their concerns reflected in the naming and framing of an issue, they are more likely to participate in making decisions and to see that they themselves have power to affect their future.This goes beyond simply using clear language (this is part of it, but not the only aspect). It means that the problem must be stated in terms that take into account the things that people hold deeply valuable. This is the essence of naming problems in public terms.

A framework that will prompt public deliberation should make clear the options that are available for addressing the problem and the tensions at stake in facing it. It should lay bare what is at issue in readily understandable terms.

Three key questions drive the development of a framework for public deliberation:

– What concerns you about this issue?
– Given those concerns, what would you do about it?
– If that worked to ease your concern, what are the downsides or trade-offs you might then have to accept?

Responses to these questions, together, can generate a framework that makes clear the drawbacks of different people’s favored options. Facing these drawbacks and coming to a sound decision about what to do is the ultimate concern of deliberation.

Issue framing is a practice, not a process or specific technique—akin to playing a musical instrument, knitting, martial arts, or exercising. The best way to learn about these things is by doing them. The more people work at the practice of issue framing, the better they get at identifying core concerns and articulating trade-offs. Like any practice, this develops over time.

In deliberating together, people wrestle with options, face trade-offs, and make decisions about how to act. Sometimes people and organizations in communities convene deliberative forums where people come together to do this work-NIF groups have been doing this for 30 years. An issue framework, or issue guide, is intended to support this. There is no perfect issue framework. Any framework that includes the public’s main concerns fairly represented and that includes the important drawbacks of each option can provide the structure for a group of people to deliberate together about how they will address a shared problem.

A Way to Do It
In developing materials to support public deliberation, writing an issue guide is just the tip of the iceberg. The earlier work that goes into naming and framing the issue—work that requires time and people—is most important. The sections that follow describe one way of naming and framing issues for public deliberation. The aim is to create an issue guide that will be used by many kinds of people in deliberative public forums. It is not the only way to achieve that goal, but it is one that has worked well over time.

Essential Elements
An issue guide should introduce and support deliberation, collectively, among a group whose individual experiences and inclinations may differ.

A well-framed issue guide contains enough factual material and data so that citizens from different circumstances who deliberate together have the knowledge they need to engage productively. However, it doesn’t need to serve as a primer or study guide. Its purpose is not to create experts but rather to illuminate what is at issue—the important conflicts or dilemmas that the issue raises—and allow people to make decisions about how to act together

Regardless of length, issue guides usually contain five elements:

– A title that reflects the major tension inherent in the issue. The title must convey that there is a difficult question or problem that must be faced and can’t be ducked. An excellent title that starkly conveys one problem at the core of the health-care issue might be: “The High Cost of Good Health Care.
– An introduction that explains what the issue is and why something must be done about it. The introduction should make the case that this is an important issue to talk about and should refrain from “arguing” for any of the options.
– Descriptions of each option for dealing with the issue. Each option is an overall strategy that is driven by a unique concern when it comes to the problem. These sections are at their best when they adopt a tone that argues for each specific option—that is, each one should be persuasive and an argument against the others. It should make its own strongest case. These options each have subsections.
– The first subsection includes examples of actions that would correspond to each option, along with who would do them. The actors should be real—and varied—such as government, police, schools, or neighbors. We have found that identifying four or five actions per option helps give people a clear sense of what the option is about and what people can do to work on solutions.
– The second subsection includes examples of the drawbacks or trade-offs inherent in each action. Every action that is presented should have an inherent drawback. Some may find a drawback tolerable, and others may not; however, talking through the consequences of a particular action against what you hold valuable is the crux of deliberation. The key is to make these choices clear.

Many participants will read the guide for the first time during the forum, so presenting data and facts as charts or other easily grasped formats makes it easier to use. In many issue guides, the options are summarized in the form of a grid, which provides the basic framework at a glance.

For more information, download the full guide at the bottom of this page.

About Kettering Foundation
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.

Follow on Twitter: @KetteringFdn

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