Starting Where the Public Starts: A Key To Framing an Issue for Public Deliberation

For those interested in creating materials to support public deliberation, I’d like to offer a peek into the evolution of one of the newest National Issues Forums guides, Political Fix: How Do We Get American Politics Back on Track?

This guide went through a longer evolution than most, as we at Kettering tried to make sure we fulfilled one of the key things we have learned about framing issues for public deliberation: it is critical to start where the public starts.

For many issues, this is easier said than done. The more we know (or learn) about a particular topic, often the more expert-driven our views become about what would make a good solution. This is natural. In the case of Political Fix, we initially began with a slightly different topic in mind: money in politics.  Because of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and the record amounts of money spent in recent elections, we have heard pundits discussing money in politics in op-eds and on Sunday morning talk shows for some time. But when we held research forums with ordinary citizens to see how they talked about the issue, we discovered two important things:

  • People said they see the issue of “money in politics” as much broader than simply questions about campaign finance—they believe that limiting the conversation in this way leaves too much untouched. They are sophisticated enough to believe that money plays a part throughout the current political system.
  • Just as important, people said that there are more fundamental problems in our political system than just money and power. They were interested in a conversation that goes beyond money and addresses more basic questions.

It was clear, in looking at these results, that an issue guide about the broader problem of American politics in general—and what to do to fix its current ills—could be widely useful to citizens. So we began to work on one, taking what we had heard from citizens, gathering strategic facts from non-partisan experts, and distilling the result into a workable framing.

Here is how we ended up introducing the issue:

The view that something is amiss in American government is now widely shared. “We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years,” say scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman Ornstein, “and never have we seen them this dysfunctional.”

Even some elected officials acknowledge they have a problem. “We need to change the way we do business,” says Tom Udall, a Democratic senator from New Mexico. “Right now, we have gridlock. We have delay. We have obstruction, and we don’t have any accountability.”

The troubles facing American politics are varied and complex. Observers point to a wide range of developments that, if left unchecked, are likely to further weaken the effectiveness of government. These include:

  • The flood of corporate money into American political campaigns.
  • The growing influence of lobbyists and special interest groups.
  • The increasing polarization and rancor of our political discourse.
  • Structural impediments, such as current redistricting laws that limit ballot choices and skew elections results.
  • The “permanent campaign” that encourages lawmakers to focus on short-term gains instead of long-term solutions.
  • Political leaders acting in their own interests rather than serving the public good.
  • The disengagement of ordinary Americans who turn away from politics in disgust rather than getting involved and making their voices heard.

Based on research that includes policy research as well as close analysis of the varying things that people hold valuable when it comes to this issue and the tensions between and among them, our issue team identified three possible options:

Option 1: Break the grip of special interests
The key to addressing gridlock and dysfunction in government is to rein in special interests and curb the influence of big money.

Option 2: Increase responsibility
Our best hope of fixing American politics is to restore individual responsibility in communities and at every level of government.

Option 3: Fix the mechanisms of politics
The mechanisms of government are no longer responsive to the will of the people. We need major structural changes to make the system work as it was intended to.

We think that this framing, being based on talking directly to citizens, ought to resonate with them, and provoke some productive deliberations—we hope so.

You can order Political Fix from the NIFI store here. We would be delighted to learn what you do with it.

Click here to order Political Fix from the NIFI store.