Providing Information and Options: Issue Framing

If an issue is framed well, participation leaders will be better able to direct productive dialogue about the problem.

Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation Part 7

Getting people to the table is not sufficient for improved public participation. The table must also be set in a way that gives citizens more of what they want (problem solving, civility and community) and treats them like adults in the process. This requires participation leaders to think more deeply about how to provide information and describe options.

Three skill sets – issue framing, sequencing discussions and writing discussion materials – are especially useful to this work. We’ll dedicate this week’s post to the first of these skills – issue framing. Look for a discussion of sequencing and writing next week.

Issue Framing

In his book, Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann (1922), a noted writer, reporter, and political commentator, remarked that “The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do.” With this comment, Lippmann was getting to the concept of issue framing. Just as how a work of art is framed affects how we see and value it, so too does how an issue is framed affect how we perceive and assess it (for more information on framing, see the Frameworks Institute 2002).

In a political context, issue framing means presenting (or sometimes spinning) an issue in a way that is most likely get the most agreement from others.

In a public participation process, however, issue framing means something quite different. It means presenting an issue in a way that allows people to explore different definitions of the problem, different explanations for why the problem has emerged and different solutions to the problem.

Framing is critical in public participation. If an issue is framed poorly, for example in a confusing or biased manner, it is likely to drive people back to positional stances and foster or exacerbate conflict. However, if the issue is framed well – clearly, comprehensively and objectively – participation leaders will be better able to direct a productive, interest-based discussion about the problem, which in turn will improve the chances for constructive dialogue.

Framing begins with naming the issue as a problem. As a Kettering Foundation report notes, “While seemingly insignificant, who gets to name a problem—and how they name it—are critical factors that go a long way in determining how effective the response will be.”

Unfortunately, in conventional participation processes, issues are often framed narrowly. Take for example the issue of raising local taxes to support the school system. A school board might frame the issue as: “We have to raise taxes to fund our schools.” This frame is positional and narrow, and therefore likely to cause controversy and conflict. There are a number of ways to frame this issue more broadly:

  • Are our schools in financial crisis, and if so, what should we do? (This frame invites participants to become more informed, decide for themselves whether there is a crisis and weigh in on different options for raising the level of funding.)
  • Should we provide more funding for education, and if so, how should we spend that money? (This frame gives non-educators a role in deciding how funds should be allocated.)
  • How should we improve the quality of education we provide? (This frame opens up the possibility of other changes that could be made by educators to improve schools, and other actions that parents, community groups and other non-educators might take to strengthen the education system.)

As the issue becomes more broadly named, it becomes larger and more complicated – but also more open to a wider range of viewpoints, ideas and contributions.

Framing issues broadly allows the participants to address the issue from many angles, which can be important given that most societal concerns have several facets. Broad framing, and framing around interests, allows the group to more productively address these different facets.

Several organizations, including Public Agenda along with the Kettering Foundation and Everyday Democracy (and its Issue Guide Exchange), provide well-framed guides for common issues faced by communities, such as food and health, race and difference, policing and public safety, and education and economic development.

For more on issue framing, download our resource, Reframing “Framing,” written by Will Friedman.

Read other blogs in this series:

Part 1: Ten Key Talents for Better Public Participation

Part 2: Building Coalitions and Networks

Part 3: Cultural Competence and Engaging Youth

Part 4: Recruiting Participants

Part 5: Communicating About Participation

Part 6: Managing Conflict

Portions of this post were excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy by Tina Nabatchi and Matt Leighninger. Copyright© 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.


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