A longtime colleague — one of my teachers in the craft and science of framing public issues — has passed over the weekend.
He was a giant in the world in which I work. I treasure the many projects we worked on together — him gently yet forcefully guiding a young man into understanding what “issue framing” is and might be. He reviewed almost all of my early work with the Kettering Foundation. He was a formative influence in my understanding of how democracy can best work as it should.
Exacting yet gracious and cordial, receiving a memo from Bob always necessitated deep thought, in trying to implement the excellent corrections they invariably conveyed. But it was when I could convince him to get out his colored pen and actually edit my text when I was the most grateful. His brilliance in turning tepid concepts into razors of insight was profound. His marks seemed to magically make my prose, and therefore my thinking, better.
A fuller memorial is posted at the Kettering Foundation’s page. In it, Kettering’s president, David Mathews, says, “Bob Kingston was one of the primary architects of the modern Kettering Foundation. He is renowned for his role as editor of the Kettering Review. To say that he is irreplaceable is an understatement. All of his colleagues and associates at the foundation will sorely miss him.”
Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?
We study how democracy can best work as it should.
By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:
Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.
A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.
So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:
Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.
So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.
We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.
I am asked to talk about what I think are some of the most important elements of public deliberation to different groups from time to time. Public deliberation is just one way of describing people working together to weigh options about what we should do about a difficult shared problem.
One aspect of this involves the question: What problem should we talk about? This shows up in different ways. For instance, groups that seek to work in civic engagement often have a problem on their minds that they believe the community must address. “How will we get people to come to such meetings?” they may wonder. Or in other cases a group thinking about fostering public dialogue has the sense that there is something that is bothering people throughout the community, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. “What do people think the problem is?” such groups may wonder.
These are all different ways of talking about naming. By that term, when applying it to public deliberation, I simply mean: What is the problem that we all agree we must talk about? If I want people to come to my meeting, I need to present a problem that everyone agrees is important to discuss.
But for groups trying to foster public deliberation, it doesn’t stop there. Not all such “shared problems” are actually suited to public deliberation. Why? Deliberating together is necessary for problems where collective (complementary) action is required in order to move forward. This isn’t the case for all problems — some problems, while widely seen as important, can be solved by one or two agencies or organizations, or the solution is clear and it is technical.
(Note that these aren’t the only important dimensions, but they are high on the list. Public deliberation is called for where the nature of the problem is in dispute, where solutions involve tensions between things held commonly valuable, and where any solution necessarily involves multiple actors. Some people refer to such problems as “wicked” problems.)
I recently began thinking about different ways to convey the nature of problems that are suited to public deliberation, and I had an insight that I could draw a picture of those two different dimensions. I scrawled this down on a scrap of paper, but more recently I’ve tried to make it clearer. Below is what I came up with. Click it to see it larger and more legibly.
Notice that I have notionally spread out different kinds of “shared problems” to show how it works. You might dispute my placement. It’s really just illustrative — my point is that there is an important difference between the issue of “crime” and “pedestrian safety” in the minds of most people. Indeed, each dimension on the graph represents the broadly held sense in the community about the problem. (So it isn’t precise and isn’t meant to be.)
Problems toward the upper right on these scales are more likely to require public deliberation — so groups seeking to support such public work will likely be best served by focusing on such problems.
What this means practically is that a group may think that the community needs to talk about, say, healthy school lunches. But it is easy to imagine that among community members there won’t be broad agreement that we MUST deal with this issue, nor broad agreement that working together is necessary to tackle it. During concern gathering where the group asks community members what concerns them about the issue, they may hear people talk about food deserts, difficulties in finding healthy food that families experience who are struggling, and worries that poor health is creating problems more broadly in the community. In listening carefully to such concerns, the organizing group may come to the conclusion that people in the community are more willing to believe that “obesity” is a problem we ought to or must deal with, and that progress will take many different people.
In a learning exchange where I recently discussed this way of looking at problems, a number of people suggested different dimensions, or making it three-dimensional. Those are valid ideas and I think the concept is worth playing with.
When I arrived at my office this morning and saw the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to write a post about the difference between the dominant political narratives of issues, and the more nuanced way that the public sees the same issues — in this case, having to do with immigration. The president and the speaker are at loggerheads on this already (or still, depending on how you look at it). Just those juxtaposed images tell the story of exactly the kind of political stalemate that Americans are incensed about.
Kettering research over decades suggests that the way difficult issues like immigration are framed by policy leaders and experts is often at odds, or at least out of step with, the way in which people see those issues. Where the dominant political discourse frequently sees conflict, people in communities are wrestling with tensions among the things they hold valuable. This is not a question of one solution versus another. Instead, the question individuals must wrestle with is, what am I willing to give up—and under what conditions.
On immigration, Kettering research suggests that people see this issue in a more nuanced way than the binary amnesty-vs.-tough-borders way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media. Their concerns center on a range of things that are held commonly valuable by all—our self-image as a welcoming nation, personal and national security, and the reality seen by many that our prosperity depends on immigrants. These concerns became the basis for the options in a guide for public deliberation that Kettering prepared for the National Issues Forums Institute, Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis? Three options are outlined, each rooted in a different view of the problem:
1. Welcome New Arrivals. A rich combination of diverse cultures is what defines us as a people. We must preserve our heritage as a nation of immigrants by shoring up our existing system while also providing an acceptable way for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living here to earn the right to citizenship.
2. Protect Our Borders. Failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration undermines our national security, stiffens competition for scarce jobs, and strains the public purse. We need tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.
3. Promote Economic Prosperity. To remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to acknowledge the key role that immigrants play in keeping the US economy dynamic and robust. This option favors a range of flexible measures, such as annual adjustments to immigration quotas, that put a priority on our economic needs.
The difficulty of immigration lies in the tensions between these things. One reason this issue is so intractable is that these tensions must be worked through by the public before there can be any durable policy solution.
I’m excited to announce the newest report from the Kettering Foundation, Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums. It’s a handbook for anyone interested in creating materials to support deliberative conversations on difficult public issues.
This report has been a long time coming. It was one of the first things I was asked to complete when I came on staff at Kettering.
Our aim was to collect what we have been learning about “issue framing” and make it accessible to people so it didn’t seem like such a mystery. Throughout the dialogue field, people often talk about issue framing as some kind of specialized skill that only certain people can do — or that takes huge amounts of money, people, time, and other resources. But we’ve learned that it is relatively straightforward and really just takes a careful attentiveness to a few principles and key ideas.
It’s also available for free in hard copy! Just drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know you’d like a copy.
Here is 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). . . .
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.
The report is available as a free PDF download from PACE, where the paper is described like this: “The paper grew out of a conversation we began with PACE members over year ago about how the issues of transparency and accountability might soon impact the field of philanthropy. PACE and Kettering convened three roundtables of philanthropic and non-profit leaders, and talked to dozens more one-on-one. This report is a distillation of what we heard and the issues that were raised.”
I am proud to have worked on this important research. An early preview of our findings, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few weeks ago in an article by me and PACE executive director Chris Gates, outlines the main points:
Philanthropy is at a crossroads as it experiences increased pressure from all sides to solve public problems and to be more accountable for outcomes.
Transparency may be a necessary component of accountability, but it is not sufficient and too often may be obfuscating.
Strategic philanthropy may paradoxically tend to make philanthropic organizations seem less accountable and more risk averse.
Accountability isn’t just about data transparency. It’s also about relationships.
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.
The same Internet that has given us new ways to socialize, learn, and engage in civic life has also given criminals new avenues to steal from us and scam us, often using information gleaned from public government documents now posted online….And because no one’s in charge, there’s no single authority we can call to complain.
When does our personal information become public? What data collection is acceptable? Should there be limits on what we can do online? It’s time to find a way to balance our needs to safeguard privacy, preserve free speech, and ensure security for all our citizens, young and old.
It’s time to answer the question: What should go on the Internet?
This 12-page issue guide presents three options to consider:
Option One: Protect Individual Privacy
Privacy is a fundamental American value. But the Internet has obliterated the line between public and private, forcing Americans to live in a virtual fishbowl. Our top priority must be to safeguard personal information on the Internet.
Option Two: Promote Freedom of Speech and Commerce
The Internet is a revolutionary leap forward for democratic societies and free markets. Direct or indirect censorship by concerned citizens, special interests, or government could stifle this great resource.
Option Three: Secure Us from Online Threats
The Internet is a Wild West of criminal activity that threatens our personal safety, our economic vitality, and our national security. Our top priority must be protecting our children and ourselves.
I’m delighted to report that, as of February 1, 2013 I’ll be a full-time staff member of the Kettering Foundation, a research foundation that studies democracy. I have had a relationship with the Foundation since 1998, and have been an Associate of theirs since 2005.
As a consequence of this, I am shutting down my firm, The Mannakee Circle Group. I’ve had wonderful clients over these years since 2003 when I struck out on my own – not only including Kettering but United Way Worldwide, The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, the Case Foundation, the Omidyar Network, Everyday Democracy, the Northwest Area Foundation, the Darden School of Business and the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership both at the University of Virginia, and more.
It’s with glad heart yet with a certain amount of wistfulness that I say “farewell” to these close friends.
I will remain an active participant in the dialogue and deliberation community, and I look forward to continuing my relationships with individuals and organizations throughout this field.
Here’s the bio that they are posting at their site (won’t be live until 2/1), which gives a sense of my duties:
Brad Rourke is a program officer at the Kettering Foundation. His work includes studies of naming and framing issues in public terms and how people make decisions and work together on shared challenges in communities. Rourke is executive editor of the National Issues Forums issue books as well as other issue books produced for public deliberation.
Rourke has written and cowritten a number of articles and op-ed pieces, appearing in print publications such as The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, Foundation News and Commentary, Campaigns & Elections, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He contributed a chapter on the ethics of citizenship to Shades of Gray (Brookings Institution, 2002). He has spoken at the National Press Club, the Brookings Institution, and the Chautauqua Institution. He is listed in Who’s Who in America.
Rourke has been a Kettering Associate since 2005. Prior to joining the foundation, Rourke was president of the Mannakee Circle Group, a public issues firm with clients from a cross section of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. He was founder and publisher of Rockville Central, a hyperlocal news source he began in June 2007 that became the second most-read local blog in Maryland. He helped design and regularly participated as a lecturer in the bipartisan candidate training program of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. Rourke was senior project manager and then director of external initiatives at The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and vice president for public policy at the Institute for Global Ethics. He has served on the staffs of then-controller of California Gray Davis and Congresswoman Jane Harman and as deputy California campaign manager for the National Health Care Campaign.
Rourke received his BA in comparative literature from UC Berkeley.