The Kettering Foundation long ago identified a disconnect between the 'public' and 'politics.' People in communities all over the country felt estranged from their elected representatives, from their public institutions, and most importantly, from each other. A significant portion of this disconnect focused on how issues in communities got named and framed. Kettering surmised, correctly, that if a public issue was named in such a way that the public could not identify with it, then the public would have a difficult time supporting it. However, if the public could identify a public problem together (naming) and then discuss choices on how to solve the particular problem (framing), then the likelihood of greater community action increased ten-fold.
So the Kettering Foundation wrote a short book on how to name and frame problems in public terms. The Kettering Foundation has also been instrumental in framing issues across a whole spectrum of public problems so that the public could come together to deliberate over the value tensions and trade-offs in the issue. Hence, Kettering has a number of issue books that have been used through the National Issues Forums and other organizations/institutions all over the country for a number of years. Recently, the Foundation sought to explore why some issue books spark the vital insight for a public to come to see public problems and why some do not. What we found was striking.
Kettering found that if the public could identify a public problem together (naming) and then discuss choices on how to solve the particular problem (framing), then the likelihood of greater community action increased ten-fold.
By examining our issue books that have been published over the last five years, we found that the issue books are not uniform in what they ask of the public, and in some instances, our issue books make it difficult for the public to not just solve a particular problem, but also difficult to even determine what the issue was in the first place. We identified three different types of issue books.
Type One books, such as the issue book Money and Politics was classified as a "meta-issue" book. A meta-issue book asked a broad question such as, "what is the problem that needs to be addressed" in each of the competing approaches. Our forums using these books tended towards competing definitions of the problem and how best to name the problem. The implied actor in these books was the public.
Type Two books, such as Protecting Our Rights, names a specific issue that is addressed in each of the competing approaches. Each approach tends to describe a causal framework or a solution to the problem. The implied actor in these books, rather than the public, is typically the government or some other institution. Hence, whatever role the public had in the issue, it was largely indirect.
Type Three books, such as Alcohol: Controlling the Toxic Spill, have a well-defined problem that is consistent throughout the choices, but the focus, rather than on causes or solutions, is on values and trade-offs. These books are meant to provoke discussion over what trade-offs citizens are willing to make and which approach best matches what the citizens holds to be valuable. These book have a wide variety of implied actors that include both the public and institutions.
Of all the three types, only type three issue books capture what the Kettering Foundation normatively holds as provoking deliberation. Only by critically evaluating our own research are we best able to discern why some books work well and others do not, but also to learn the importance of issue frames and public action. We feel that any organization that is involved with developing guides to provoke public deliberation or are using any number of guides to provoke public deliberation understand what the guide is asking of the public, and what goals the organizations itself has in studying/provoking public deliberation.