Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums

We are happy to announce the publication of a new report, Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums, a guide for anyone interested in creating materials to support deliberative conversations on difficult public issues.

Our aim was to collect what we have been learning about issue framing and make it accessible to people so it did not seem like a mysterious process that requires extensive learning or credentials. Throughout the dialogue field, people often talk about issue framing as some kind of specialized skill that only certain people can do. Or they assume it takes huge amounts of money, people, time, and other resources.

But we have learned that it is relatively straightforward and primarily takes a careful attentiveness to a few principles and key ideas.

The report is available for free download here. A printed version is also available free of charge and can be ordered here.

Here’s an excerpt:

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.