When framing issues for public deliberation, it’s important to start where the public starts. Practically speaking, this means doing basic research that involves talking to an array of people about what concerns them when it comes to the topic at hand and listening very carefully to what they say.
When people are working on framing such issues, they will often end up with a list of concerns that numbers into the hundreds. That’s more than any group could practically deliberate over. When we prepare issue guides for the National Issues Forums, we try to end up with three (or sometimes four) main options. Which raises the question, how do you move from hundreds of concerns to just three or four options?
First Cut: Not Every Concern Is Unique
While people may express a large number of concerns on a specific topic, many of these concerns are often similar or related. People talk about their particular circumstances, which differ, but their experiences are common.
For instance, if the topic is “crime,” then it is likely that the team doing the issue framing is asking people, “When it comes to crime, what concerns you?” One person might answer that she feels unsafe walking from her apartment to the bus stop early in the morning on the way to work. Another, who lives in a different part of town, may say that he is concerned for the safety of his children walking to school. These concerns are quite similar, and both reflect an underlying concern about personal safety.
When reviewing the research—that is, peoples’ answers to the question of what concerns them—a good first pass will be to see if it is possible to group the concerns into 7-10 such clusters that each represent a similar concern.
Refining the Concerns
Once the concerns are organized into a manageable set of groups, organizing these concerns into a number that people can consider in one sitting can still be a challenge.
Often, the team developing a framework for deliberation will struggle with different ways to further break them down. A number of ways might present themselves. Looked at one way, it might appear useful to organize the concerns in terms of who is responsible for solving the problem. Another way of organizing the concerns might be to focus on what level of government is typically responsible for addressing them. Or, a conservative-liberal-moderate approach might reveal itself. In our experience, these kinds of frameworks can get in the way of deliberation.
Public deliberation is nothing more complicated than people weighing options together against what they hold valuable. To be most useful, a framework to support this work should make clear the tensions between what we might do (options) and the things we hold valuable.
A “who-does-what” framework can gloss over tensions, as people naturally decide that whoever is not in the room is responsible. A conservative-liberal-moderate framework, meanwhile, may simply recapitulate the hyperpolarized discourse we already see in the op-ed pages.
Finding the Tensions: Things Held Valuable
When articulating the main options for action, we usually try to organize each option around something distinct that is commonly held valuable. This can be easier to say than it is to do. One way to think about it is to examine just what is meant by thing held valuable, and how these differ from the more common term, “values.”
As humans developed society, there were benefits that society brought that were valuable to our very survival. If we did not get them, we otherwise would have no reason to stick with the group. For instance, if my security does not increase in some way by my being a part of the group, I might just as well go my own way. All humans can be expected to see security as a thing held valuable in this way.
Values—at least in the way that most people mean them—derive from things held valuable. Something I might hold valuable is that people do what they say they will do in predictable ways. A value that derives from this is honesty.
In other words, things held valuable exist on a more basic level than those things that we commonly call values (e.g., “honesty”). In a useful deliberative framework, each option will reflect a different thing held valuable. Asking people about their concerns allows us to get a sense of how they are struggling and what language they use. Asking “what is the thing held valuable” that these concerns are driven by allows us to figure out what the main options are.
Some of the common things held valuable are:
- Personal safety
- Security of the group against outsiders
- Freedom to act as I wish
- Being treated fairly by others
- Care for the vulnerable
- Order in the group
- Planning for the future
- Minimizing harm to others
These are not the only such things held commonly valuable, but we do see them frequently in issue framing work.
I would like to hear from you if you experiment with framing issues using these ideas. Please feel free to drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) or comment on this blog post.