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.