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Framing Issues For Public Deliberation

The method I use to frame issues for public deliberation. Not the only way, but it works for me.

Brad Rourke

on 21 December 2014

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Transcript of Framing Issues For Public Deliberation

Framing Issues
Public Deliberation

Naming The Issue
About Public

Good for issues where:

Answer is not technical

Answer is of broad concern to the community

Diagnosis of the problem is in dispute

In order to make progress, different kinds of people will have to act

Problems that turn on values, not just facts

There is no clear "right answer"
How do we reduce poverty?

How can we make sure all children learn well?

How should we address our energy problems?

What should go on the Internet?

How can we pay for healthcare?

How should we reduce violence in the lives of children?

How should we address the national debt?
Public deliberation = weighing options together against the things we hold valuable
How we talk about an issue determines what we talk about.

Most issues are not named in public terms, do not reflect how ordinary people think about it

Example: "Achievement Gap" is not how most people think about education. Most people name this issue something like: "How do we make sure everyone is learning enough?"

The name of an issue reflects people's concerns about the issue, not experts' preferred solutions.
Name of an issue = what is the question we need to answer together? What words should we use to talk about it?
Start by identifying people's concerns on your general topic, and probing what they might do.

Ask people in the grocery store line, ask your co-workers, bring groups of friends together, contact community organizations, talk to local leaders.

Ask these questions:

When you think about this issue, what bothers you personally?

What concerns do you hear friends and family members talking about when it comes to this issue?

How do you think other people feel about this issue? What would they say to these questions? How about people who are unlike yourself?
How do you "name" an issue?
Now, get together with a few other people. Review what you heard. Share everything, and write it down on big sheets of paper around the room, so you can see it.

Take a few moments to read over everything you've written down.

You will see "clusters" of similar concerns begin to appear. Start putting these "clusters" together.

To do this, ask these questions:

What is the deeply held principle or belief behind this concern? What is the thing held valuable here?

What do you think was really bothering the person who said this?

Keep doing this and building clusters. Shoot for 3 or 4 clusters. Each might have anywhere from 15 to 50 specific concerns in it.

Test these clusters. Ask:

Are they truly different from one another?

Could any be combined?

Now, for each cluster, write one or two sentences that captures what it is about. What is really behind these concerns? What do they say about what the problem is and how it should be addressed?
Overall issue:

What should go on the Internet?

First cluster of concerns:

"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."

Second cluster of concerns:

"The Internet is a revolutionary leap forward for democratic societies and free markets. That freedom must be protected and encouraged."

Third cluster of concerns:

"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."
Frame of an issue = what are the main options to address the problem? What actions could we take, and what are the drawbacks of those actions?
Almost done.

Now that you have 3 or 4 concern clusters, look again at your topic.

What is the question that these concerns are all aiming at? It may be close to where you started when you were doing your initial research, or it might be different.

Write down the question. This is what people want to talk about.
Once we have the main options that people cluster around, we need to flesh them out.

Because the way we have named the issue so far centers on people's core concerns or values, there will be tensions. These are "wicked problems," after all -- if the solution were easy we would have done it.

In fact, every option probably had some important downsides.

When we deliberate together, we face those downsides or drawbacks, and talk through them. We weigh them against the things we hold valuable.

The "frame" that we are building helps make those drawbacks and downsides clear, so we can really consider them.
Framing The Issue
These are sometimes referred to as "wicked problems"
How do you "frame" an issue?
Each "concern cluster" will be one of the options in your framework. Start with the sentences you wrote down.

Now, you want to come up with specific actions that would go along with each option, along with who would do it.

People love to talk about what "they" should do.

So make sure each action actually has someone attached to it.

People also love to talk about what someone else should do, or what the government should do.

So make sure you have actions with a range of actors, including individual people, community organizations, businesses, the government, and more.

To do this, for each concern cluster, ask:

"If that is your concern, what would you do to address that?"
Now we need to discover the drawbacks of each option.

Facing these drawbacks is the main job of deliberation.

For each action, ask:

"If we did that, and it worked perfectly, what would be some of the consequences that we would have to accept?"
NOTE! These drawbacks or downsides have to assume the action worked perfectly. They are not arguments against doing the action. They are consequences of doing the action.

"It would be too expensive," "we would have to raise taxes," and "it would not be feasible" are not good drawbacks.

This can be difficult!
When you are done, you should be able to lay out your framework in a grid.

Here's an example, using a recent National Issues Forums issue guide about the national debt.
A Nation in Debt: How Can We Pay the Bills?
It has become apparent to many Americans that if we do not act decisively on the nation's debt soon, our economy will be seriously hobbled and we will dump an unsustainable burden on our children and grandchildren. This issue book asks: What should we do about the national debt?
We need to compromise on our differences and act now to reduce the national debt. If this generation doesn’t make needed sacrifices, we’re simply passing the burden to the next generation. It’s time to face this urgent problem. We need to raise taxes and cut spending; neither will get the job done alone.
Agree to Make Sacrifices Now
Strengthen Checks and Balances
Invest in Growth First
We cannot just hope that personal discipline and basic legislative safeguards will control the urge to spend. Citizens willingly accept more benefits than government can afford, and our leaders are too willing to help us dig this hole. Our top priority should be to make systemic changes to increase fiscal responsibility.
We need to encourage economic growth by investing in research, development, infrastructure, and science education. Growing the economy will boost tax revenues, make the debt more manageable, and will be better for the country in the long run. Drastic cost-cutting measures would likely harm the economy as it tries to recover.
Increase retirement age for Social Security; raise tax rates across the board; reduce or eliminate tax breaks for mortgage interest; reduce defense spending.
This would compel people to work for longer; may push country into another recession; lower home values; and leave the U.S. more vulnerable.
Pass a balanced budget amendment to Constitution; reinstate "pay-as-you-go" budgeting; require sunset dates for all programs; privatize government programs.
Would result in immediate and deep budget cuts; we would lose our ability to respond to new crises if borrowing is necessary; controversial yet effective programs would forever be re-argued; some citizens may lose access to services if efficiency and profits become a higher priority.
Grow the economy by using direct spending or "stimulus;" reduce corporate tax rate; use education loans to encourage more science and technology graduates; increase research tax credit.
Risks economic turmoil by actually increasing debt short term; reduced tax rate may bring less money into the treasury at first; could result in shortages of other necessary professions like doctors and nurses.
Actions follow logically from people’s concerns.
Tensions between advantages and disadvantages are clear.
Does not lend itself to selecting “all of the above.”
Consequences are described in terms of their effects on the things people hold dear, not just in practical terms like costs.
Includes citizens and the work they must do together or collectively (not just as individuals).
Recognizes governmental, nongovernmental, and for-profit actors.
Recognizes unpopular points of view.
Each option is presented best foot forward. Negative consequences are described with equal fairness.
The pros of one option are not the cons of another.
Disrupts old patterns and opens new conversations. Should not replicate the prevailing academic, professional, or partisan framework.
Reflects where citizens are in thinking about an issue. It should start where people start.
Often leaves people stewing because they are more aware of the undesirable effects of the options they like most.
The things that people consider valuable are reflected in the options for action.
Characteristics of an Effective Framing
Here's an example from a recent National Issues Forums issue guide about the Internet.

The topic that we began with was, First Amendment and the Internet.

But, as we will see, that was not exactly the right way to put the issue.
by Brad Rourke
The Kettering Foundation
Full transcript