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.
As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am at program officer at the Kettering Foundation. Kettering is a research organization that studies ways to make democracy work as it should — meaning to place citizens more at the center of politics rather than on the periphery.
One of the roles I play at Kettering is executive editor of our issue guide series. These are publications we develop that present difficult public issues in frameworks that are designed to spark and support public deliberation. These guides (which we primarily develop in partnership with the National Issues Forums) are used by all sorts of organizations around the nation as well as globally. Our issue guides are some of our most visible publications at Kettering, and for some time we have been trying to make the ways in which we develop them more transparent. A great deal of research goes into them, and we thought that giving some visibility into this research, on an ongoing basis, might be useful to others.
And so we have established a new blog designed to shine light on the kinds of things that go into our thinking as we develop materials to support public deliberation — the research, naming, framing, and more. The blog is called Inside Public Judgment and we will be updating it on a regular basis.
My first post has just been published, which outlines some of the main starting points that seem important to keep in mind when thinking about deliberative politics. Here’s an excerpt:
Some (Not All) Starting Points for Deliberative Politics:
One aim of democracy is for citizens to have a stronger hand in controlling their own future.
There are a number of “problems of democracy”—things that get in the way of democracy functioning (that is, things that get in the way of people taking control of their future).
Politics can be described as a set of practices that can respond to these problems.
There are different kinds of problems that face people in communities. Some are technical and can be solved unilaterally (e.g., how to build a new jail), but others are much more difficult because they involve tensions between things held valuable that must be worked through (e.g., what we should do about a growing sense of personal vulnerability in our community).
Some of the things we all hold deeply valuable (not the only things) are often in tension: “security,” “fairness,” and “freedom.”
We don’t “solve” such problems—we need to negotiate our provisional solutions together, and we do this repeatedly over time. We do this by weighing options for action against what we hold valuable and against likely consequences—this is deliberation.
Naming in public terms and framing for deliberation are powerful ways to make it more likely (and possible) for citizens to weigh these things held valuable.