Patty Dineen has been convening and moderating National Issues Forums (NIF) in Pennsylvania and other states since the early 1990s. She has assisted with issue framing and deliberative forums projects for the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), the Kettering Foundation, and others including the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Citizen Voices projects, the National Summit on School Design (an initiative of the American Architectural Foundation), the National Parent Teachers Association, Common Ground in Akron, Ohio, and Global Connections-Pittsburgh forums. She has written issue guides and materials for the American Bar Association and other clients. She presently works as the contributing editor for the National Issues Forums News and website at www.nifi.org.
The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI) publishes and distributes an ongoing series of issue guides and videos that prepare communities for thoughtful deliberation on many of today’s thorniest problems—health care, immigration, Social Security, and racial and ethnic tensions, among others. Former Kettering Foundation research assistant Jack Becker sat down to talk with Dineen about the NIFI network.
Jack Becker: When was your first exposure to National Issues Forums?
Patty Dineen: In 1992 my local library president in the Pittsburgh area asked me if I would attend a workshop that included people from all over the region learning about moderating forums using issue guides. At the time, there were a number of librarians going all around Pennsylvania to local libraries to use NIFI-developed issue guides. It was a novel idea and I expressed interest.
My library president knew I was interested in politics—not partisan politics, but politics as problem solving—and she encouraged me to get involved with NIFI. I was afforded the opportunity to attend a workshop led by Len Oliver about issues forums at a nearby library. From that early exposure, I learned about each of the important aspects of issues forums: moderating, recording, recruitment, framing issues, and other roles. So I kept my eyes open for additional opportunities and traveled to California to attend what were then called Public Policy Institutes. These were opportunities to learn more about framing issues, moderating, and convening your community together. At that point I was hooked and looked for opportunities like that with the League of Women Voters, the local school district, and others.
It was in 1996 when I went to another Public Policy Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, and I found a great workshop in the area doing deliberative forums. After a while I began helping put on these PPIs and eventually I started attending Kettering workshops and becoming involved in the work more broadly.
What are the most important aspects of NIFI’s work?
First, there are the nonpartisan issue guides that provide a unique approach to addressing a public problem. They allow us to get people together in their communities to talk about issues. These materials, including the issue guides and moderator guides, are available on the NIFI website.
The other important aspect of our work is promoting the idea that you can do this. That is, you can talk about issues that are important and you can lead conversations in your community. To support this, we promote forums and put people in touch with many people around the country who host forums in a variety of settings: prisons, schools, and other areas. Also, we can often offer people a megaphone for their work by providing avenues to capture and amplify the public voice that occurs at forums. For example, feedback from forums is often included in annual reports prepared by the Kettering Foundation, we work with Public Agenda to cover topics and host events and, of course, we use NIFI’s own network to amplify public voice.
NIFI calls itself a nonpartisan organization promoting deliberation. How does it stay nonpartisan and encourage substantive discussion on public issues, knowing most people view issues through their own partisan lens?
The intent is to address this tension in the issue materials. If you have a group of people with homogenous views and don’t want to meet with a group with diverse views, then there is an opportunity for them to engage diverse views among each other by going through a deliberative issue guide. If they see their viewpoint represented in the issue guide, then they can at least try on other viewpoints. The power of the process is you can bring in those different viewpoints even if they aren’t in the room. You can ask people to set aside temporarily their strong belief of a particular viewpoint and entertain other perspectives.
In this sense, people can individually do internal deliberation and entertain many different viewpoints. I think without the framework it is much more difficult to get people to set their strongly held views aside and consider other possibilities. From our experience, the issue guide is very helpful in encouraging people to temporarily suspend their stringent beliefs and try on other views.
In what ways are NIF reports used?
What happens in a forum, and what a report tries to capture, is that people take a framing they are presented with in an issue guide and as they deliberate they often reframe the issue—sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. The report typically captures how people reframed that issue and what they struggled with. I think one of the big values of a report is to pitch to policymakers the value of knowing how the public is framing an issue. Not necessarily what the public wants to do, but how their framing compares with the politician, the expert, the media, and other members of the public.
For politicians to do their work better, they would be well served by knowing how the public frames an issue they are working on. If it is pitched correctly to politicians, they should jump at the chance to get help with the work they are doing: understanding the public.
What do you think holds the NIF network together?
I think there is a belief that anybody who wants to talk about an issue can and should. Oftentimes people think you have to have certain credentials to speak about an issue. The idea that it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to talk about important issues is a powerful one.
Also, the idea that people who aren’t experts on an issue and have experience and perspective are valuable and important to understanding and addressing public issues is important to understand. People have lived their own experiences with health care: they access the system, pay for it, and go to appointments, and so on. They are experts on the issue in this sense and can talk about that experience.
I think there is a sense that all issues are local issues as much as they are national or international. They all have their local and personal touch. There has been creeping confusion with the name National Issues Forums. Some people think it means we are trying to say that a national issue is a federal issue, but what we mean is it is a local issue almost everywhere. So what we’re about are the things that are commonly experienced problems.
How has NIFI approached developing and cultivating relationships with partners?
From my side of things, which is primarily working with the website, I try to list individuals and centers for public life and keep the list current. The idea is that people can at least find people nearby that they can call and get advice from and support for their work.
The other big goal is for people to find examples of public engagement efforts that are happening all over the country. From this they can learn about issues and examples of how others are pursuing this work. In my mind, it’s about finding examples and spreading the work. I try to encourage people to let me know what they are doing.
The network has even extended itself internationally in the form of experiments with issue guides for multinational groups.
I do think people would like to talk more about international policy issues, and they are certainly are talking more with people internationally. The public is ahead of us on this. They are thinking and connecting with their peers globally via social media and other online means of communication. This is only going to become easier and more ubiquitous. People are affected in this country by foreign policy decisions that affect them globally. We can’t ignore the obvious: that people are becoming more connected internationally and are increasingly seeing themselves as part of a global community.
Patty Dineen is secretary and treasurer for the National Issues Forums Institute. She has been convening and moderating National Issues Forums (NIF) in Pennsylvania and other states since 1994.
Jack Becker is a former Kettering Foundation research assistant. He currently works for Denver Public Schools in the Office of Family and Community Engagement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter: @jackabecker