Engage Your Community: Hosting Forums Using the National Issues Forum Institute Model
About twelve years ago, the City of Virginia Beach began to investigate why its public hearings and other meetings with residents were so confrontational and what they could do differently. The resulting 2001 report, Connections for a Lifetime: Building Community Trust and Relationships, suggested a variety of actions, including “[m]ake public dialogue the cornerstone of a communication and interrelationships process whose outcome is a belief by citizens that they can make a difference in their community.” The report recognized that residents needed to improve their civic skills and be provided with more opportunities to talk with each other, not just at government. Officials, in turn, needed to enter into dialogue before decisions were made, listen without becoming defensive, and give citizens the trust they hoped to receive in return.
The Virginia Beach (Va.) Public Library was an active participant in developing the report, and we began to apply its findings to library service questions as well as to community problems, such as land use and transportation. More recently, we have used deliberation guides from the Kettering Foundation’s National Issues Forum Institute (NIF). After ALA launched its Center for Civic Life, NIF made some of its deliberation guides and issue maps available for free download by librarians through the NIF store.
The NIF Model
NIF’s deliberation model is a structured conversation that helps people with diverse views and experiences work on a public problem together by carefully considering three or more approaches to it. This helps participants find where there is common ground on which to build solutions. NIF also provides guides for moderators (see the America’s Role in the World guide [PDF], for example) that include some provocative questions for participants who are having a hard time coming to grips with the topic, though I’ve never found folks at a loss for words! Occasionally, a participant will get out of line, but the group tends to enforce expectations.
The moderator starts the forum by helping the group understand the ground rules and how the deliberation will work. Participants are then invited to share personal experience relevant to the topic. The group works through each approach, considering pros and cons, actions and tradeoffs. They reflect on what they have heard from each other and identify any areas of agreement. It is important for the moderator to set an understanding at the outset that each person participates as an individual, not as a representative of an organization or a minority, or as the “voice of the people.” Posting ground rules is also helpful. The moderator also needs to keep an eye on the clock and move the participants on, if necessary, to ensure that all three approaches receive equal time. I find that it is usually a low-key form of facilitation.
While basic deliberation staffing is one moderator and one recorder, not all library programming staff are comfortable with facilitating a public conversation on a hot topic, so having an experienced partner involved can be useful. We partnered with the Hampton Roads Center for Civic Engagement (HRCCE), a regional nonprofit created in response to the Connections for a Lifetime report, to help staff the forums and to extend our publicity reach.
Of course, any organization can create a deliberation framework if they are willing to spend the time finding out how the public feels about a topic. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Round Table did so with the topic of privacy in preparation for the launch of Choose Privacy Week. Round table volunteers asked public focus groups representing different stakeholders to talk about their privacy concerns. The volunteers compiled the responses and found that the dominant theme was not knowing who to trust, so the three approaches to protecting one’s privacy presented in the Choose Privacy Week guide are to trust the marketplace, the government, or only oneself.
Virginia Beach hosted a test forum on an early draft of America’s Role in the World: What Does National Security Mean in the 21st Century? that resulted in many changes to the final guide. In a Navy town like Virginia Beach, this had more than a little relevance! As it happened, our demographics also interested NIF, and we had an observer from Public Agenda, a public opinion research and public engagement organization, attend when we held a regular deliberation with the revised guide. Many of our participants’ comments were included in the final report published by the Kettering Foundation, Public Thinking about America’s Role in the World: What Does National Security Mean in the 21st Century? Results from the 2010 National Issues Forums by John Doble.
In 2011, we followed this up with a forum using the deliberation guide on Economic Security: How Should We Take Charge of Our Future? Most recently, on January 31, 2012, we convened A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills? These topics lend themselves easily to collection displays. Librarian Stephanie Klinkenberger handled registration, logistics, and flip chart recording. Todd Solomon, HRCCE director, helped publicize to recruit participants and observed and took notes. My role as moderator was to help the participants have a good conversation by making sure everyone got to speak and that all three facets of the issue were examined.
After twenty people signed up for A Nation in Debt, we started a waiting list and promised to schedule a second forum. Not everyone came, but we had a lively audience of fifteen with wide-ranging viewpoints. One gentleman who remembered the Great Depression reminded younger participants that the government stepped in because people were desperate. A woman compared blaming the government to holding fast food restaurants responsible for her extra pounds, and said it was up to her to change her ways. A libertarian activist challenged several assertions in the NIF materials. He came armed with research, and persuaded everyone that Congress should adopt Virginia’s rule that a bill must stick to one subject only.
There were several moments of general laughter, and no one was uncivil, even when disagreeing passionately. People advocated strongly for their points of view, but most of the time they listened respectfully and followed the posted ground rules. They avoided confusing a position with the person holding it or deliberately misunderstanding someone in order to attack their ideas. In the end, I was surprised at the amount of common ground we found, though perhaps it was too easy to put blame on the government. The seven-minute video from NIF helped set out the framework for the evening and model appropriate behavior. We were able to stay on track and on time.
As the library was closing, many participants were reluctant to leave, and some continued their conversation in the parking lot. One man came up to me and said, “You ought to do this every month, only with different topics.” Todd said a participant after the session told him, “I grew up in a small town where citizen involvement was part of life. Community discussions like this are something we need to do more often.” I’d asked Todd to take photos, but he apologized, “I was just so focused on the conversation I forgot. You don’t know how many times I wanted to jump into the conversation myself. What a great group. The woman making the comparison to McDonald’s had me howling.”
What We Learned
Costs are minimal, and may include staff time, name tags, snacks, flip charts and photocopying. If you are using the free NIF guides, I also recommend that you purchase NIF’s video introductions to the deliberation topics, as they are much more succinct than a moderator’s verbal introduction might be. Library staff may also create a display of materials or a bibliography to connect the forum to the collection.
These are small-audience programs—for good participation, they need to be limited to about twenty, although you can convene multiple groups simultaneously if you have sufficient space, moderators, and recorders. We have found that weekday evenings get better attendance than weekends. But deliberative forums attract active, influential people, and they are easy to repeat.
Participants must have diverse views, thus recruiting participants may be the biggest job of running a deliberation. This is a good way for partners to help with the program, as they may be able to reach people your publicity misses. Personal invitations can be useful to assure people that they really are welcome. I have found that the more a library or other organization hosts deliberations, the more contacts it builds with a wider diversity of people.
Our forums have settled into a typical pattern. We put the link to the NIF guide in our publicity, and copies of the three approaches are placed on each of the seats (arranged in a circle) in the meeting room before the event. After the video, which describes the three approaches and explains how deliberation works, the moderator invites each participant to introduce him or herself and offer a bit of personal connection to the issue. Next participants explore approach one—its advantages and trade-offs, then approach two, and then three. The wrap-up is spent reflecting on any common ground we have discovered and on any changes in how each of us views the issue. Enough time is left for questionnaires.
NIF provides a questionnaire (PDF) for each participant that not only asks opinions on the topic, but tries to see how views may have changed. “Are you thinking differently about this issue now that you have participated in the forum? Did you talk about aspects of the issues you hadn’t considered before? What, if anything, might citizens in your community do differently as a result of this forum?” The moderator has a separate survey. The long-term outcome is to improve the quality of civil discourse in the community, and that may only be revealed by broad measures of civic health.
Additional library outcomes may be partnerships formed and advocates cultivated. Our local partner has been HRCCE, but other possibilities include the League of Women Voters, the World Affairs Council, the Urban League, organizations with a stake in the specific issue, or any others that value thoughtful conversation about public policy.
The great value of a public deliberation forum is that people hear each other and realize that reasonable and compassionate people can see things differently. It gets us out of debate deadlock and demonization of those who disagree.
One of the PLA Service Responses (PDF) chosen in the Virginia Beach Public Library’s 2010–2013 Strategic Plan (PDF) is Be an Informed Citizen: Local, National and World Affairs, and using NIF guides helps the library meet that goal. What I particularly like about holding deliberations in libraries is that it makes use of our meeting space, our collections, and our reputation as neutral ground, and it shows off our role in community building.
David Mathews, For Communities to Work. Kettering Foundation’s simple guide to the role of the public in a democracy. Available for free.
Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs, The Art of Powerful Questions. This guide to asking questions that get thoughtful responses has a wide range of uses. It is no longer free, but can be ordered from The World Café store.
Daniel Yankelovich and Will Friedman, Toward Wiser Public Judgment. Pollster Yankelovich observed that we lack social structures to help public opinion stabilize. This was a large impetus in launching civic engagement. Review and order info.
ALA offers several ways to communicate with colleagues about civic engagement, a blog, an ALAConnect community, and a discussion list (click on “View All Lists,” scroll down to firstname.lastname@example.org, then click on “Subscribe”).
Deliberation guides on various topics can be found at:
- AmericaSpeaks—opportunities to be a site for national projects
- Every-day Democracy’s Issue Guide Exchange
- A Local Official’s Guide to Public Engagement in Budgeting
- National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation Resource Center
- National Issues Forum
- Public Agenda Choicework Discussion Starters
- Uncertain Waters: Navigating California’s Water Priorities
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