The National Issues Forums Institute
First rule of the NIF Institute. We’re not in control. You are.
- Don’t let the word “institute” fool you. We’re small. We do not direct or coordinate citizen activities around national issues. We don’t convene forums.
- Our unique hands-off style does two things: it sustains the organic, grassroots nature of the NIF network and shares the work done by you and your fellow citizens with everyone in the network as well as policymakers.
Elements of the NIF Institute
The NIF Network.
Where you make everything happen.
The NIF network is open to everyone interested in the practice of group deliberation. Here you’ll find conveners (those who organize forums), trained moderators, and participants from all walks of life. With the support of the institute, they self-organize into short-term groups, such as independent discussion groups and study circles, or ongoing larger groups like Network Partners created by existing community-based organizations.
The NIF Institute.
We make it possible for the network to “network.”
The institute’s central activity is to publish and distribute an ongoing series of Issue Guides and videos that prepare you for thoughtful discussion of many of today’s thorniest problems—healthcare, immigration, Social Security, and racial strife.
Moderators and conveners find our resources indispensable in organizing, leading and advertising their forums for public deliberation. We also provide guidelines for those who wish to frame their own issues.
To keep the network and policymakers current, we publish reports about forum outcomes. The NIF newsletters also help individuals and groups learn about what is happening in the network.
The Kettering Foundation.
A vital research partner
Rooted in the American tradition of cooperative research, Kettering’s primary question is: what does it take to make democracy work as it should? Its research focuses on what people can do collectively to address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation. That research goes into the NIF’s Issue Guides; it’s also shared with the network as practical information.
- The Forum and The FrameworkYou Can't Have One Without The Other
The “Forum” part of the National Issues Forums is the place where democracy comes alive. It’s where the practice of public deliberation is learned by doing. It’s an event inspired by the concerns and viewpoints of citizens, which are not just respected—they’re put to work.
Forums are neutrally moderated in a way that encourages positive interaction between people who are not expected to agree, but are encouraged to find a shared direction.
A Forum typically begins with a “starter” video related to the issue you’ll be wrestling with. The unbiased facts and research in your Issue Book give you the knowledge you need for a deeper understanding of the problem.
For the next two or three hours, you’ll be led by a neutral moderator who encourages face to face discussion within the group. You’ll investigate several possible solutions to the issue at hand. You’ll never be forced to “pick sides.”
Solutions are examined through the lens of what’s important to the group as a whole—its shared values. Because today’s issues are so challenging, every solution comes with a set of costs and consequences that must be thoroughly measured.
Only then do you know which costs your group is willing to bear. This is the outcome that’s so valuable—the individual, the group, the community and to our leaders and policymakers.
- deeper understanding of the issue and the tensions within it
- insight and awareness into different points of view
- which tradeoffs your group is willing to accept—or not
- a starting point for citizen action, both individual and collective
- effective guidance for policymakers
The “Framework” was designed for neutrality. It’s a method of discussion that removes the kind of bias we find in political parties, special interest groups and the press. It doesn’t allow one-sided lecture, polarizing positions or citizen passivity. It begins and ends with you and your deepest concerns.
In other words, the Framework puts you in charge of the problem and asks you to help solve it. After all, who knows more about the effects of both the issue and the possible solutions better than those of us who are living with it, experiencing it, in touch with it?
Questions that frame the discussion:
What is valuable to us?
What are the costs and consequences of each possible solution?
What are the tensions and conflicts in this issue that we need to work through?
Can we detect any shared sense of purpose or ways our interdependence is grounds for action?
The Framework demonstrates the most powerful effects of deliberation. It alters our reactions to differing viewpoints, and creates new possibilities for acting together.
If you are interested in organizing Forums in your community:
- 25 Years Later
Helping People Solve Tough Issues Together
The NIF began to take shape in 1981 amid concern about the low level of civic literacy among Americans. Not only did the average person lack an understanding of the issues that our elected leaders were struggling with, we had little opportunity to express our informed opinions to those in influence.
A group called the National Consortium for Public Policy Education (NCPPE) decided to change all that. Their plan was to create a Domestic Policy Association (DPA) that would develop a process for national dialogue on domestic policy issues, and a way to bring the results of such discussions to the attention of America’s decision makers.
The first step was to assemble leaders from national and local organizations interested in public policy education. They decided the new association should exist as a grassroots non-advocacy group that gathered around a common agenda of the issues of greatest concern.
The NCPPE’s next step was to consult leaders from community-based institutions who were experienced in developing issue education programs. This group contributed the approaches that had worked in similar programs, and suggested resources to create the necessary network to support the new program.
The program needed be framed around sound educational materials and invite diverse groups of Americans to discover through deliberation the values we hold in common.
Lastly, the DPA’s new Steering Committee developed the deliberation issues for the association’s inaugural year—retirement and social security, inflation, and jobs and productivity.
The new program was a success, and in 1989 became the National Issues Forums Institute.
- The Network & Network Partners
- The NIF Issues Guides
Contact the people in the NIF network who regularly hold forums for deliberation. Ask how you can be involved as a volunteer or participant.
When you decide to join a forum, this is your study guide. The material in our Issue Books is not handed down from on high, but springs from the concerns of citizens. A problem is set forth with unbiased facts, useful research, and a list of various solutions. That’s where we begin.