This article is a review of three issue guides published by the National Issues Forum Institute (NIFI): 1) Land of Plenty: How Should We Ensure that People Have the Food They Need? 2) Safety and Justice: How Should Communities Reduce Violence? And 3) A New Land: What Kind of Government Should We Have? The review explains what “issue guides” are and how they can be used in the classroom and beyond to promote engagement with contemporary and historic public issues. It gives basic advice on how to run a deliberative forum and compares NIFI issue guides with other similar products.
Deliberation is an activity in which decision-makers try to reach a well-reasoned conclusion about what course of action to take to solve a problem or improve a situation. Deliberation has been recognized as an essential process of democracy at least since Aristotle described it as one of the three fundamental genres of civic discourse in his Rhetoric. Over the last twenty-five years, the topic of deliberation has assumed an increasingly important place in political science and political communication. At present, whole conferences (such as the conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation) and journals (such as the Journal of Public Deliberation) are devoted to the topic, and democratic engagement through deliberation has become a major area for grant-making. The perfection of deliberative techniques has the potential to enable people to effectively participate in making decisions that will affect their lives as members of commercial enterprises, voluntary associations, and community members. But the “perfection” of such techniques is a perennial challenge, for they must be both democratically inclusive and consistently yield good decisions.
Since it came into being in 1989, the National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), and its research partner the Kettering Foundation, have been working to promote thoughtful deliberation about key issues by publishing “issue guides” and training of facilitators to lead “deliberative forums.” A deliberative forum that follows the NIFI model is an event at which one or more groups of 6-12 participants engage in a facilitator-led discussion of an issue within the framework outlined in the NIFI issue guide on the topic. Deliberative forums can be held in many contexts, including public events staged by civic associations or local governments, as well as high school and college classrooms. NIFI issue guides have covered many topics over the years. Recent issue guides have dealt with topics that include immigration, policing and community safety, addiction, food insecurity and nutrition, and political polarization. The purpose of deliberative forums is to provide a context where participants can explore important public issues, learn how other people think about these issues, and work toward solutions that are acceptable to all sides. They are expressly not “debates” in which one group tries to “win.”
No matter what the topic, NIFI issue guides always have the same structure. They are usually about 20 pages long and include plentiful infographics and pictures. The first section describes a public problem in a non-partisan way. The next three sections present three different options for addressing the problem. The options are usually broad and value-based, but there are always examples of specific actions that agree with the values that guide the option. Each option is described in a neutral way that enumerates both the advantages and disadvantages or trade-offs associated with it. NIFI is not the only organization that produces issue guides for deliberative forums, and the NIFI model for holding deliberative forum is certainly not the only way to do deliberation, but the NIFI issue guides are a great introduction to the broader landscape of deliberative practice.