IJP2 Article Part 4: Frame in terms of general goals and desired outcomes    

At the October 2008 NCDD conference in Austin, Texas, one theme that emerged in the “Framing Challenge” was the idea of framing dialogue and deliberation in terms of general goals and desired outcomes.

2women200pxMany times, the potential for concrete outcomes or results needs to be underscored in big, bold letters. This often means identifying language that explicitly connects the public engagement process or program to solving a particular problem people are facing. In the online dialogue we held before the conference to explore the five challenge areas, Judith Mowry described learning that an especially effective “way to bring people to the table” is to make clear for them “what’s in it for me?”

Citizens, community leaders and elected officials tend to talk in terms of solving problems and addressing issues, and think in terms of outcomes and content rather than process. Several conference attendees reported more success in drawing people to the table when they framed public engagement work in such terms. Theo Brown mentioned much greater drawing power for AmericaSpeaks events when they are able to highlight concrete action and policy outcomes. Facilitator Lucy Moore described “lofty policy goals” as key in bringing many stakeholders together for her dialogue about Grand Canyon issues.

Of course, it can be tricky to promise even general outcomes like “citizen action” or “impact on policy” for programs designed, by their very nature, to allow the participants themselves to identify specific action or recommendations. In their workshop, Virtuous and Vicious Cycles: Beyond a Linear View of Outcome and Impact, Maggie Herzig and Lucy Moore noted that overly defining outcomes from the start can undermine participants’ ownership of their efforts and underappreciate the possibilities that were unimaginable before the initiative began.

Herzig and Moore pointed out that for some groups, an overly-defined outcome is enough to turn them away. People with more conservative political views, for example, can be quickly turned off by talk of “social change” or “community organizing” that seems inherently progressive. Talk of influencing government policy can also be a red flag for conservatives like panelist Pete Peterson, Executive Director of Common Sense California, a self-identified “communitarian conservative” who would like to see public engagement efforts focus more explicitly on empowering citizens to take responsibility for community problems themselves rather than turning to government for help or demanding government action.

Peterson emphasized the importance of not allowing a more deliberative democracy to replace self-reliance. After all, government is not the answer to many of our problems, and we cannot expect it to be. Similarly, panelist Grover Norquist stated frankly, “I don’t like it when 12 people or 12,000 people get together and tell someone what to do.” Peterson, Norquist, and others on the “Conservatives Panel” suggested framing public engagement around more traditional values like “voluntary, civic solutions to problems” (rather than only political solutions) and “individual responsibility in addition to collective responsibility” in order to attract more conservative participants.

PhilipThomas200pxWhile there may not be a single framing of public engagement that works for all audiences, practitioners are increasingly finding success in focusing on the purpose or potential outcomes (in general) of engagement. Specifically, framing in terms of problem solving and identifying and working towards a desirable future seems to resonate with broad audiences. In the online dialogue, Joseph McIntyre described his efforts to frame public engagement work in a broadly accessible way:

We frame our work leading wisdom circles in sustainable agriculture as reinvigorating local democracy and specifically we create “citizen think-do” tanks that attempt to bring perspective and the common good back into the center of our communities. For us, the call to represent “our best hopes and aspirations for a future worth having” resonates strongly with both the rural conservative and urban environmental members of our alliance.

It is also helpful to consider the way organizations like NCDD member Everyday Democracy (which reinvented itself recently by changing its name from the Study Circles Resource Center) talk about the work they do in communities. Everyday Democracy’s website states simply that “we help your community find ways for all kinds of people to think, talk and work together to solve problems.”

Note from Sandy:

This is my fourth blog post featuring content of an article published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Public Participation (IJP2), titled Taking our Work to the Next Level: Addressing Challenges Facing the Dialogue and Deliberation Community.  The article outlines our learnings in two of the five challenges we focused on at the 2008 NCDD conference in Austin:  The “Framing Challenge” (How can we talk about and present D&D work in ways that are accessible to a broader audience?) and the “Systems Challenge” (How can we make D&D values and practices integral to government, schools, and other systems?).  You can download the full article from the IJP2 site.

Here’s What 8 People Had To Say…

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  1. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 23, 2009:

    Brian Sullivan of CivicEvolution.org sent this reaction to me via email:

    “Community problem solving” is the only phrase that had any resonance with my family and friends. At the “No better time” conference in July one of the sessions was specifically about how to frame the work we we call “Deliberative democracy.”

    The term “deliberative democracy” sank like a lead weight. No recognition, no interest. All of the variations also failed. I’ve tried to talk about it to very smart people in other fields, and deliberation and deliberative don’t connect, they don’t even knock on a mental door. Explain it in terms of juries, and they “get” what I mean by deliberation, but it still doesn’t translate beyond the legal system.

    I settled on the term “community problem solving” just before I read Martin Carcasson’s “Beginning with the end in mind” where he strongly adopted the same phrase.

  2. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 23, 2009:

    John Backman sent this response to the NCDD Discussion list:

    This makes a great deal of sense to me. I’m generalizing here, of course, but it seems that so many Americans favor the concrete over the abstract, prefer to deal with immediate issues over long-term problems, and are motivated by self-interest (the “what’s in it for me?” business). Add in the frenetic pace at which many live their lives, and it all makes a strong case for short-term dialogues to solve immediate problems in which the participants are personally invested.

    And yet, people have such a need to make their voice heard on larger, more abstract issues as well. I think of interfaith dialogues in this context. Promoting mutual understanding and interfaith peace is hardly a short-term proposition, and the issues can be abstract if not esoteric. Yet many people are deeply motivated to discuss these issues. The same could be said of a dialogue on national health care policy: it’s doubtful that one group of people in dialogue would produce a blueprint for such a policy, but would the need to hear and be heard motivate them to attend a general dialogue on the topic? Surely it motivated those who took part in the town hall meetings of the past summer.

    John Backman
    The Dialogue Venture

  3. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 23, 2009:

    Christine Whitney Sanchez sent this reaction to the NCDD Discussion list:

    Sandy, I frame our work in terms of hosting/facilitating/convening conversations that matter. Rather than problems, I focus on the issues and opportunities that we need to collectively understand so that we can co-create our desired future.

    Thanks for asking and asking again. I really appreciate your dedication to representing our collective wisdom.


    Christine Whitney Sanchez
    Collaborative Wisdom & Strategy
    Skype: christinewhitneysanchez

  4. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 26, 2009:

    From Rebecca Townsend to the NCDD Discussion list…

    [This framing works for me.]…as I have arrived at D&D through communication-rhetoric… Aristotle claimed that deliberation is only possible on future courses of action. Dewey, also an influential thinker, was a proponent of a problem-solving strategy that has served as a basis for many discussion groups. And lesser well known in the US, but no less influential to me, is Bent Flyvbjerg, a Danish planning scholar, who is a proponent of phronesis, a classical Greek term meaning practical wisdom. Phronesis is about what to do next… so yes, way to go!

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!!


    Rebecca M. Townsend, Ph.D.
    Instructor of Communication, Manchester Community College
    Office: Lowe 218G * Phone: 860-512-2685
    Email: [email protected]
    Great Path M.S. #19, P.O. Box 1046
    Manchester, CT 06045-1046

  5. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 26, 2009:

    From Rosa Zubizarreta to the NCDD Discussion list…

    I agree wholeheartedly that “community problem solving” seems to speak to a lot of folks — and it works great for me.

    At the same time, as you said, no one framing will work for ALL audiences… I know that within professional circles, some of us AI and dialogue people prefer to think about “problem dissolving” rather that “problem solving”… :-)

    Seriously though, we need to meet people where they are at, and I generally find it more helpful for us as professionals to become “multilingual”, rather than to preserverate on “teaching” others our professional argot, useful as it may be for communicating among ourselves…

    with all best wishes,


    Rosa Zubizarreta
    Diapraxis: Facilitating Creative Collaboration
    Organization Development * Community Engagement

    Great Barrington, MA
    (413) 528-5296

  6. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 26, 2009:

    Anita Fonte sent this to the NCDD list:

    I agree about the deadness of the concept “deliberative democracy” and “deliberative dialogue.” Even among practitioners these terms don’t generate passion. On the other hand “community problem solving” focuses on the problem and doesn’t resonate either. Lately, the concept of “building community capacity” has warmed up some groups-capacity to solve problems, make decisions, build on assets-it encompasses a breadth of possibilities. And even that play on words “building or creating community possibilities” suggests hope, which is desperately needed these days.

  7. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 26, 2009:

    Chris Berendes sent this to the NCDD listserv:

    Context is critical. As Rosa writes, “no one framing will work for all audiences”.

    What sort of process is being framed? Processes that fall at different points along the IAP2 spectrum (particularly Consult – Involve- Collaborate-Empower) should most likely be framed in different ways. A frame that worked superbly for an empowering process would likely be perceived as deceptive for a process that had consultation as its primary goal.

    To what extent are we dealing with different understandings or different definitions in a context where goals are largely shared? I’d infer from what Brian writes that the problems he’s experienced with “deliberation” as a label fall in this area. That is, people aren’t substantively against deliberation, but they do find it to be, at first blush, a dry and “dead” term.

    Are we dealing with negotiation, i.e.divergent and even directly opposed goals? For instance, I gather from Norquist’s comments that it’d probably be impossible to involve him in a deliberation about how to structure health care reform, as currently being debated in DC, since, for instance, individual and employer mandates as well as additional insurer and provider regulations do in fact “tell people what to do”, and he’d be against it on those grounds.

    It might make sense to look at framing from a perspective of teaching – how can I inform my audience about aspects of the D&D process that would help them realize the value of their participation? And it may be that in some contexts a good framing will lead some audience members to sit out the process this time (e.g. as with Norquist above). That’s not ideal, but it’s better than creating expectations that the underlying process can’t satisfy.

    Chris Berendes

  8. Comment added by Sandy Heierbacher on November 26, 2009:

    Bill Potapchuk sent this message to the NCDD Discussion list…

    Greetings all. This conversation reminds me of work I did in South Africa in 1987. “Indaba” is a word used by the Xhosa and Zulu people that by meaning, was a perfect word for describing a community dialogue. Unfortunately, in the mid-1980s, the word was used to name dialogues that were ultimately about maintaining the apartheid system. So, by the time my colleagues and I arrived, Indaba was an off-limits word for any kind of dialogue, deliberation, or negotiation.

    In looking up the word today (see below), it was interesting to find out that the word has been resurrected two decades later.

    My point is that words and phrases used to describe dialogue and deliberation process often have a local meaning that must be respected as we go about describing our work.

    best . . bill

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