Hidden Common Ground

Election-Year Forums & More

Are there areas of public life where Americans can agree and work together to solve problems?

We’ll tackle this question in our election year research and deliberation project called Hidden Common Ground. The project will include national press coverage from USA TODAY, opinion research from Public Agenda, and, through the network of the National Issues Forums, opportunities for people across the country to deliberate and exchange ideas about issues like divisiveness, health care, immigration, and the economy. Hidden Common Ground is a joint project of USA TODAY, Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation, and NIF. 


1. What will be happening?

Beginning in December 2019 and lasting through the 2020 elections, Hidden Common Ground will focus on issues Americans across the political spectrum care deeply about.

  • Public Agenda will research and explore the issues, publishing its findings on one issue every few months beginning in December 2019
  • The National Issues Forums Institute will encourage other sponsors to join the NIF network and also provide online forums that will be available to everyone through the Common Ground for Action platform. The nonpartisan forums will be sponsored by libraries, educational institutions, and civic organizations all across the country. The issues will be those USA TODAY has selected for its elections coverage, starting with Partisan Divisiveness and the Collaborative Divide, and how it might be bridged, and followed by health care, immigration, and the economy.
  • The Kettering Foundation will research, develop and publish issue guides on each of the topics. These will be used in the forums nationwide and available for download.
  • The USA TODAY Network will publish stories and opinion pieces on each issue and the associated research, as well as surface “Strange Bedfellow” stories of people in communities actually working together for the common good across partisan and other divides.

The project will tackle these four urgent national issues 

  • December 2019: The division in our country
  • February, March, and April 2020: Our health care system
  • June, July, and August: Our immigration system
  • September, October, and November: Our economy

Timeline for Hidden Common Ground

Four issues: a year of public deliberation

NOTE: Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely alter the timeline of events.

December 2-4, 2019

Public Agenda opinion research on divisiveness in America
USA TODAY reports on research

December 4, 2019 – January 10, 2020 NIFI Common Ground for Action online forums on divisiveness
Related USA TODAY coverage of issue
February 4-6, 2020 Public Agenda opinion research on health care
USA TODAY reports on research
February 10 – March 13, 2020 National Issues Forums on health care
NIFI Common Ground for Action online forums on health care
Related USA TODAY coverage on issue
May 2020 COVID-19
June 29, 2020 Police Reform and Racism
September 24, 2020 Economic Opportunity and Inequality
October 20, 2020 Strange Bedfellows


Hidden Common Ground is an unprecedented opportunity for the NIF network to invite Americans to deliberate on four urgent issues. USA TODAY’s coverage, Public Agenda’s research, and the NIF issue guides will all be focused on helping us discover where we have common ground and where we’re divided and still have work to do.

During this year-long project, conveners will be able to organize local or online forums in the context of significant media and leadership attention. It’s a chance to build and sustain interest in deliberative forums on these four issues—divisiveness, health care, immigration, and the economy—and, we hope, other issues down the line.

We invite the NIF network to hold as many forums as possible during each phase of the project. As in the past, NIFI will provide special packages of forum materials on each issue without charge for forums held within the designated time frames.

NIFI and the Kettering Foundation will issue an interim report on the public deliberations in May 2020 at the annual DC conference, A Public Voice. We will also release a final report on the results of these public deliberations at the project’s conclusion.


2. How can I take part?

We don’t get that many chances to focus on the areas where Americans agree and can make progress, so participating in the year-long project is important—and it’s easy. You can:


3. How can I get materials?

Throughout the year, the Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums will be offering issue guides on four Hidden Common Ground themes. For individuals, these will be available in downloadable formats without charge. For conveners, professors, and teachers, group sets (20 issue advisories and 2 issue guides) will be available for scheduled forums. Order Form for Free Materials. The issue guides are:



4. How can I participate in an online or in-person forum?

NIFI will be offering online Common Ground for Action forums on the issues during the scheduled periods. This is your chance to talk to people from around the country on the issues that challenge and divide us. You’ll be deliberating in small, moderated sessions using the NIF issue guides.

The network of NIF conveners across the country will be organizing in-person forums in many communities, often in partnership with local USA TODAY network newspapers or other local media. Click here to see what’s happening around the country.

NIF forums encourage deliberative conversations where people look at choices for addressing an issue, listen to each other, and share their perspectives and experiences. Deliberation is not about winning an argument, persuading others to adopt your views, or coming to an agreement. It is understanding and learning. Deliberation can help people overcome stereotypes and build trust. It helps us all be open to perspectives that are very different from our own. In many communities, deliberation has been the precursor to both personal and collaborative action.


5. How can I plan a forum for my community?

The National Issues Fourms Institute (NIF) makes it easy to convene a community forum. The structured issue book that help guide the deliberative discussion are availale for free. We've assemble a toolkit for conveners and moderators to help you get started.

Watch a Zoom Webinar Introduction to the Hidden Common Ground initiative

Introduction to Health Care Issue Materials - Watch a Webinar

Order Form for Free Materials

Toolkit for Conveners and Moderators

The toolkit contains the following for download.

  • Essential Elements of Moderating Forums
  • Questions that Can Support Deliberation (A series of questions that can help spur deliberation in any forum)
  • Fostering Deeper Deliberation (A brief handout that discusses some of the Kettering Foundation's basic research findings on how to foster deeper deliberation)
  • Nine Key Elements of Deliberative Forums (A short course in NIF moderating)
  • Flyer template


6. How can I work with local media?

The Hidden Common Ground Initiative is an opportunity for convenors in the NIF network to build long-term relationships with local media—newspapers, public radio, even community blogs. Beyond producing stories about forums, convenors can work with reporters to deepen their engagement with the community and discover news stories in the process. Great journalism, like deliberation, is about people struggling with the issues they care about.
Link to Portfolio of USA TODAY Local Newspapers (Gannett Brand) https://www.gannett.com/brands/

America Amplified

Watch a Zoom Webinar and View the PowerPoint Slides:  Working with Local Media

Strategies and Tips for Working with Local Media

  • If you can, introduce yourself and your NIF work to local media in the weeks before   your planned forums. Explain what's different about NIF forums: the focus on inviting participants to deliberate together on options and trade-offs for addressing an issue, rather than advocating a particular point of view.
  • Share issue guides and advisories ahead of time so local reporters get a sense of what people will be talking about at the upcoming forums. Ask local media to summarize the options and actions as part of their coverage—as a way to encourage people to attend the forums.
  • Invite reporters to attend forums in person and stay afterward to talk with participants and moderators about what was discussed. Introduce the reporter at the forum and mention that he or she may want to interview participants afterward.
  • If a reporter isn't able to attend, you might want to share some highlights, insights, and anecdotes with him or her afterward—possibly even contact information to interview participants, with their permission, of course. We don't recommend sharing raw tallies from the local questionnaires with reporters since the results are sometimes misinterpreted as standard public opinion survey data, which they are not. You can advise the reporters that NIF will release a summary report from forums nationwide at a later date.
  • Do follow up with reporters to invite them to subsequent forums and share NIF national forum reports with them when they are available.
  • Because NIF has an ongoing partnership with USA TODAY in the Hidden Common Ground Initiative, please first contact the editor of your local Gannett paper, if you have one. If he or she is not interested, you are welcome to work with any other local newspaper.

7. How can I follow the Hidden Common Ground research and press coverage?

The USA TODAY national digital edition will be covering the selected issues and offering special features and events.

Public Agenda will be releasing national public opinion research in each of the targeted areas, showing where Americans are finding common ground and where we’re divided and still have work to do. Read the Public Agenda research.

Read a USA TODAY Article and Op-Ed Piece about Hidden Common Ground

Read the Press Release: National Issues Forums (NIF) Joins Hidden Common Ground Initiative to Examine Most Urgent Concerns in 2020

Read an Op-Ed Piece by David Mathews and William Muse


8. Who are the partners and funders?

Hidden Common Ground is a partnership between USA TODAY, Public Agenda, and the National Issues Forums Institute, and the network of local organizations that make up the National Issues Forums. The NIF network includes libraries, schools, colleges and universities, and local neighborhood, youth, senior, and religious organizations that host forums in their communities.

The Hidden Common Ground initiative is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation. It is a major project of the Kettering Foundation.