NCDD Special Feature:? National Issues Forums
NCDD has been given the opportunity to conduct a survey of practitioners of public deliberation who are familiar with National Issues Forums. For those of you who have not used NIF, we wanted to introduce you to the NIF process and network. More details about NIF can be found at www.nifi.org. If you have used the NIF model or materials, we would love it if you would complete the brief survey, which is at www.thataway.org/ncdd/nifsurvey/.
National Issues Forums (NIF) is an independent network of civic and educational groups which use ?issue books? as a basis for deliberative choice work in forums based on the town meeting tradition. NIF issue books use research on the public's concerns to identify three or four options or approaches to an issue (there are never just two polar alternatives). Presenting issues in this way invites citizens to confront the conflicts among different options and avoids the usual debates in which people lash out with simplistic arguments. The term "National Issues Forums" is used to refer to a network of organizations and a deliberative process.
NIF was initiated by the Kettering Foundation, an operating foundation rooted in the American tradition of inventive research. Its founder, Charles F. Kettering, holder of more than 200 patents, is best known for his invention of the electric automobile self-starter. He was interested, above all, in seeking practical answers to "the problems behind the problems." Established in 1927, the foundation today continues in that tradition. The central question behind the foundation's research now is this: What does it take to make democracy work as it should? Rather than look for ways to improve on politics as usual, the Foundation is seeking ways to make fundamental changes in how democratic politics are practiced.
Natioanl Issues Forums are characterized by choice work, deliberation, and working toward common ground for action or a shared sense of purpose. In deliberative forums, people find places where their values, interests, and goals overlap. By giving citizens a chance to deliberate about public issues, National Issues Forums offer a place at the table where decisions are made that affect their lives. Forums seldom end in total agreement or total disagreement. Instead, they frequently end in a discovery of a shared sense of purpose or recognition of how interests are interconnected.
Some National Issues Forums are independent, local forums sponsored by energetic citizens. Others are part of educational programs at colleges, schools, and extension services (read more about Public Policy Institutes below). The forums range in size from small groups to large gatherings modeled after town meetings.
NIF is a network of civic and educational organizations that recognizes the need for citizens to deliberate together about issues they care about before they make decisions. Thousands of groups have used the NIF process since its inception in 1982. These local groups organize and plan deliberative forums about national or community issues that concern them.
The National Issues Forums (NIF) network includes educational institutions, leadership groups, civic groups, churches, libraries, senior centers, community groups, and youth groups joined together by a common desire to discuss critical issues. This network of convening institutions is both large and diverse, contributing to NIF participants? considerable diversity in age, race, gender, economic status, and geographic location.
Each year, major issues of concern ? such as health care, juvenile crime, or gambling ? are identified by the NIF network as ripe for public deliberation. Issue books, which provide an overview of the subject and present several choices, are prepared to frame the choice work. By offering citizens a framework for deliberative forums, the NIF network helps the public take an active role in policy decision making. NIF feels that the health of this nation's democratic enterprise depends on the active participation of responsible citizens who take the initiative to deliberate about the public policy choices and to set the public agenda.
The NIF network recognizes the importance of reporting on its deliberative forums to elected officials at the local, state, and national levels to give them insight into what the public is thinking. People at the Kettering Foundation in Ohio collect detailed reports from forums that are held across the country, and are able to compile these results and publish or distribute them as needed.
Citizens have an undelegable responsibility to make choices about how to solve problems because government alone cannot solve them all. Forums should be ?charged? from the start with the responsibility of helping the country and their communities make sound decisions on critical issues. Not doing this imperils the effectiveness of forums and study circles.
According to NIF, it is very challenging for a moderator to get a group to do choice work unless it is explained initially and the group commits itself to this task. Otherwise, forums wander and responses are random and unconnected when there is no sense of working to meet a common goal.
Moderators are told to emphasize that the forum is not just any forum. It will be distinguished by its deliberative character, its emphasis on the need to do the hard work of recognizing that a choice has to be made, that consequences have to be weighed and trade-offs balanced. Democratic politics requires that we hold ourselves, and not just officials, accountable.
The NIF network is also known for its Public Policy Institutes (PPIs), which provide workshops that bring citizens together to train them in convening and moderating National Issues Forums. Some PPIs also offer instruction in the fundamentals of framing issues (IFWs) for deliberation.
PPIs offer a setting where you can focus on the ideas that make democracy work and the practice of deliberation (a way of reasoning and talking together). In debate, we argue and insist on our own point of view. When we deliberate, we listen carefully to the views of others and talk through the conflicts that arise when people disagree. In deliberation, we make decisions together.
PPI participants observe and participate in community forums and small-group forums; become acquainted with NIF materials; understand the connection of what people value to choices about issues, and appreciate the importance of deliberation in identifying the public's perspective; practice moderating forums; and discuss how to organize NIF programs in their communities.
PPIs are locally organized and operated, and people interested in moderating NIFs should contact the PPI that is closest to them. There are now 29 PPI sites in 25 states. They are sponsored by a variety of organizations: a neighborhood association, a statewide humanities foundation, community colleges, various universities, national organizations, and an assortment of other institutions. Go to www.nifi.org/ppi.html for a listing of all PPIs.
NIF has produced dozens of issue guides covering important issues ranging from The Day Care Dilemma to the Future of Affirmative Action. Its newest issue guides are:
To view the list of all of the issue guides, most of which are downloadable and are accompanied by moderator guides, go to www.nifi.org/issues.html. Issue guides are listed under these categories: Children and Family, Civil Rights, Economic Issues, Education, Energy and Environment, Government and Politics, Health and Well Being, and International/Foreign Policy.
Another great resource NIF provides is the National Issues Forum Starter Kit. The kit contains a Public Policy Institute Guide, a summary of discussion guides, a moderator guide and a network contact list. To order, email Ruffolo at , call 1-800-600-4060, or FAX 1-937-435-7367. You can also peruse the entire NIF catalog at www.nifi.org/catp1.html.
There are four basic questions that the moderators ask during a National Issues Forum: What is valuable to us in this issue? What are the costs or consequences associated with the various options? Where are the conflicts in this issue that we have to work through? And can we detect any shared sense of direction or common ground for action?
Experienced NIF moderators report that it is important to:
Deliberation is more likely to take place if some ground rules are laid out at the beginning; they can help prevent difficulties later on in the forum. Typical NIF ground rules are:
The moderator is not constantly intervening. To the contrary; the essence of good moderating is to encourage people to engage one another. The responsibility for doing the work of deliberation is the group?s responsibility and the moderator should make that clear from the beginning. Above all, the moderator also must remain impartial so that the group can do its job.
This information was gathered from the NIF website (www.nifi.org) and Kettering Foundation website (www.kettering.org), the NIF publication, ?For Convenors and Moderators: Organizing for Public Deliberation and Moderating a Forum/Study Circle ? and the NIF Moderator Guide for ?By the People: Americans? Role in the World.?
For more information about National Issues Forums, go to www.nifi.org.
Last Updated:? May 1, 2003.