In the National Issues Forums model, "forums" are small gatherings where people come together for a few hours to deliberate about important and difficult public problems (or issues) with the help of a neutral moderator and a discussion guide that presents several possible approaches to the problem. They are organized by a variety of organizations, groups, and individuals, offer citizens the opportunity to join together to deliberate, to make choices with others about ways to approach difficult issues and to work toward creating reasoned public judgment. Forums range from small or large group gatherings similar to town hall meetings, to study circles held in public places or in people's homes on an ongoing basis.
The National Issues Forums Institute (NIFI), an Ohio-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, hosts a resource hub of issue guides and materials developed with and by NIFI for local forums for public use (as described below), and shares lessons learned across its network dedicated network of professionals and organizations who practice Dialogue & Deliberation. Therefore, it maintains a wealth of knowledge and information for those entering into the Dialogue & Deliberation space to gather advice on organizing events, facilitating dialogue, developing materials, and understanding the importance and potential of such programs.
The Kettering Foundation is a key research partner to NIFI and seeks to address the question: what does it take for democracy to work? The Foundation's research feeds directly into the development of National Issues Forums Issue Guides, materials, and practical information for programming and more.
How to Use
Within the National Issues Forums model, 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 that participants will be wrestling with. Issue Books are intended to provide unbiased facts and research to give participants the knowledge needed for a deeper understanding of the problem.
For the next two or three hours, participants are led by a neutral moderator who encourages face to face discussion within the group. They investigate several possible solutions to the issue at hand, but are 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.
The NIFI website contains a database of Issue Guides which can help you frame questions and learn to develop your own issue guides based on both historical and current examples. NIFI also has many materials for moderators available. These range from background materials to trainings. A few particularly relevant trainings are highlighted below:
- Moderating Deliberative Forums: An Introduction
- Moderating for Deliberation: An Overview
- Moderator Training Materials
- Moderator Training Handouts
- Nine Key Elements of Deliberative Forums
- See also: Effective Facilitation for Deliberation (Spring 2014) from NIF and the North American Association for Environmental Education.