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There is a memorable scene in Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom. It is the culmination of an ongoing argument between Jim Harper and Hallie Shea: Harper is a national network TV news producer and Shea is a correspondent-turned-blogger. In the 3rd season episode “Contempt,” Harper and Shea are arguing over whether Shea was right to publish (on the blog, “Carnivore”) an account of a personal fight between them.

“Your problem isn’t with me and with the site, it’s with the audience,” says Shea. “You don’t like that they like what they like because you need them to like you. . . . I think you’re threatened by technology. . . . I want to be part of the digital revolution.”

“I’m not talking about the apparatus!” Harper interrupts, exasperated.

This is a remarkable moment, not least because it is such an odd thing to exclaim. I think of this scene often when trying to describe the way I think about political systems. To me, politics is ecological, emergent.

Especially when I am talking about what community politics consists of, and what it might mean to foster a more deliberative politics. I think about the ways “the apparatus” can intrude and occlude what I am really trying to talk about.

For instance, when I describe efforts to encourage deliberative discussions on community issues — it seems that often people hear “I am promoting NIF forums.” When I describe the idea of framing issues so that the things held valuable that are in tension are made clear — people often seem to hear “writing NIF issue guides.” When I describe framing an issue so that things commonly held valuable are made clear — people hear “three strategies.” When I describe strengthening civic capacity — people hear “civic infrastructure.” When I describe institutions aligning their routines with how citizens do their work — people hear “promoting participation.”

The Concept

All of these share a common feature. They mistake the apparatus for the the concept.

This is not to say it is wrong to talk about the apparatus. It is important and a worthwhile discussion. But this is also a challenge, because talking about the apparatus can get in the way of talking about the underlying ideas. I have come to believe it is not surmountable simply by “saying it the right way.” There is something, I believe, about the element of mechanics that short circuits the ability to see and talk about the underlying ideas.

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Photo: Niels Heidenreich via Flickr

Indeed, the very word, “system,” can become problematic. While it is the correct term to describe the ecology, dynamics and interrelationships of all the disparate actors that make up a “community,” it is easy to mishear. By “system” I mean that set of interrelationships described above. But often, the term is taken to mean something built, mechanical. It’s the same with “network.” To me, that term means a disparate and interlocking set of relationships between and among people and other entities. Networks, in this understanding, emerge. But when the term is commonly used, it is often understood in the way computer networks are understood: as built artifacts.

As I try to explain what an ecology of political life in a community might look like and consist of, people will nod and affirm, “You are talking about systems. Networks. Yes. I get it.” But as we talk, it becomes clear that they think of systems and networks as built things. (They are thinking in machinebrain terms.)

And thus the conversation turns to the apparatus, which pushes out the concept I am trying to get at.

This is an area of research for me where I work. We often talk about it as a linguistic or technical problem: “How can we talk about these ideas in such a way that they are understood?” But even these articulations let the apparatus (of language) get in the way of the idea.

It is really a fundamental question. How is it that the insights of deliberative politics can come to be understood? What blocks this? What encourages it? (Note the passive construction, which is on purpose. Not how can I say them. But how can others understand them.)

This question is articulated throughout our research program and its strategic basis in more and less direct ways. The challenges we face in this area, though, are persistent.

Some of my friends may have heard me refer to “machinebrain” and “gardenbrain” in conversation over the past few months.

This idea is taken from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, in which they argue that a new way of thinking about social systems needs to be developed. Liu and Hanauer contrast a mechanistic “machinebrain” way of thinking with an organic “gardenbrain” way of thinking.

I have found the idea to be helpful to me in understanding and sorting the mindsets of people with whom I am talking. I also discuss this in another piece about “the apparatus.”

A “machinebrain”-oriented person will often talk about tools, processes, and techniques, and they will often see deliberative politics in these terms. A “gardenbrain” person sees things as emergent, growing.

While there are important benefits to each way of seeing things, the latter is more in line with an “ecological” view of community politics. I have found it very hard to convey my understanding of politics to people who have a “machinebrain” outlook. The terms I use become assimilated. “Yes, I get it. I do that too!” they may say, but it is clear we are talking about different things. They think I am talking about process. The frequency with which I encounter “machinebrain” is sometimes surprising to me. I mentally seek out “gardenbrain” people, because I feel like we have the most in common intellectually, at least when it comes to talking about politics.

As I reflect, however, I have come to believe that the “gardenbrain” perspective is also not quite apt. It still assumes that the whole thing can be managed somehow.

Here is how Liu and Hanauer describe the two mindsets:

“Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presuppose stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction- “regulation”- is mechanical in origin and regrettable connotation.

“Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well-constructed and well cared-for. Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.

“Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumes to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.

“Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.

“Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.

“Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.”

In their understanding of “gardenbrain,” the gardener is still in charge. She or he must work organically, with the natural inclinations of the elements of the garden — but she or he is still the gardener. They are tending.

I would say I see community as broader than that. It is not a garden, but a forest. Larger than any one gardener is likely to affect singlehandedly.

b99bc0a942c8981ac8bd837cab9f9544I am beginning to think of this approach as “forestbrain.” And I think of the relationship that someone might have to such a forest as akin to how a ranger thinks of her or his role. In a forest, there are some built areas (a fire ring at a campsite), and there may be some areas that need tending (a denuded meadow being brought back) — but the overall thing is larger than any of these individual efforts. It is an inherently open system that reacts dynamically and on which people may act not so much from outside but from within.


RIP Bob Kingston, 1929-2016.

Bob KingstonA longtime colleague — one of my teachers in the craft and science of framing public issues — has passed over the weekend.

He was a giant in the world in which I work. I treasure the many projects we worked on together — him gently yet forcefully guiding a young man into understanding what “issue framing” is and might be. He reviewed almost all of my early work with the Kettering Foundation. He was a formative influence in my understanding of how democracy can best work as it should.

Exacting yet gracious and cordial, receiving a memo from Bob always necessitated deep thought, in trying to implement the excellent corrections they invariably conveyed. But it was when I could convince him to get out his colored pen and actually edit my text when I was the most grateful. His brilliance in turning tepid concepts into razors of insight was profound. His marks seemed to magically make my prose, and therefore my thinking, better.

A fuller memorial is posted at the Kettering Foundation’s page. In it, Kettering’s president, David Mathews, says, “Bob Kingston was one of the primary architects of the modern Kettering Foundation. He is renowned for his role as editor of the Kettering Review. To say that he is irreplaceable is an understatement. All of his colleagues and associates at the foundation will sorely miss him.”

I among them.

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am a program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

Even though it has “foundation” in its name, Kettering is best described as a “research institute.” (We aren’t a grant maker.) As a program officer, I am responsible for one or more portfolios of research. This begs the question: What does Kettering research?

We study how democracy can best work as it should.

By “democracy,” we do not mean a particular mechanism for choosing leaders (contested elections), nor popular representation necessarily. These are things that may be in place in a democracy, but they do not themselves equal democracy. Our definition is simple:

Democracy is a system of governance in which power comes from citizens who generate their power by working together to combat common problems—beginning in their communities—and by working to shape their common future, both through what they do with other citizens and through their institutions.

A shorthand for this that I use is “citizens working collectively to shape their future.” Note that this definition implies that the democracy we study can in fact take place in all manner of government regimes. It is human-scaled, expressed in communities, and fundamentally implicates people acting together in such a way that they recognize the power they have to address shared problems.

So that is the principle we are operating from. Here is how we describe the actual research:

Kettering’s research is intentionally citizen-focused. We do research on: how people become engaged as citizens and make sound decisions; how they can work together to solve problems and educate their children, beginning in their communities; and how a productive citizenry can engage governmental and civic institutions as those institutions attempt to engage them.

So we have three main areas that we are exploring: How citizens make decisions together; how people in communities work together; and how citizens and institutions engage with one another.

We never do our research on citizens, communities, or institutions — always with someone. Some group or coalition is experimenting with changing how they work so as to increase the control citizens might have over their future. They share with us what they are learning, and we share with them what we have learned over the years of exploring these questions with a wide variety of others. So our work takes place in a learning exchange.


I am asked to talk about what I think are some of the most important elements of public deliberation to different groups from time to time. Public deliberation is just one way of describing people working together to weigh options about what we should do about a difficult shared problem.

One aspect of this involves the question: What problem should we talk about? This shows up in different ways. For instance, groups that seek to work in civic engagement often have a problem on their minds that they believe the community must address. “How will we get people to come to such meetings?” they may wonder. Or in other cases a group thinking about fostering public dialogue has the sense that there is something that is bothering people throughout the community, but aren’t sure exactly what it is. “What do people think the problem is?” such groups may wonder.

These are all different ways of talking about naming. By that term, when applying it to public deliberation, I simply mean: What is the problem that we all agree we must talk about? If I want people to come to my meeting, I need to present a problem that everyone agrees is important to discuss.

But for groups trying to foster public deliberation, it doesn’t stop there. Not all such “shared problems” are actually suited to public deliberation. Why? Deliberating together is necessary for problems where collective (complementary) action is required in order to move forward. This isn’t the case for all problems — some problems, while widely seen as important, can be solved by one or two agencies or organizations, or the solution is clear and it is technical.

(Note that these aren’t the only important dimensions, but they are high on the list. Public deliberation is called for where the nature of the problem is in dispute, where solutions involve tensions between things held commonly valuable, and where any solution necessarily involves multiple actors. Some people refer to such problems as “wicked” problems.)

Evernote Camera Roll 20150225 200531I recently began thinking about different ways to convey the nature of problems that are suited to public deliberation, and I had an insight that I could draw a picture of those two different dimensions. I scrawled this down on a scrap of paper, but more recently I’ve tried to make it clearer. Below is what I came up with. Click it to see it larger and more legibly.

Notice that I have notionally spread out different kinds of “shared problems” to show how it works. You might dispute my placement. It’s really just illustrative — my point is that there is an important difference between the issue of “crime” and “pedestrian safety” in the minds of most people. Indeed, each dimension on the graph represents the broadly held sense in the community about the problem. (So it isn’t precise and isn’t meant to be.)

(click for full size in new tab)

Problems toward the upper right on these scales are more likely to require public deliberation — so groups seeking to support such public work will likely be best served by focusing on such problems.

What this means practically is that a group may think that the community needs to talk about, say, healthy school lunches. But it is easy to imagine that among community members there won’t be broad agreement that we MUST deal with this issue, nor broad agreement that working together is necessary to tackle it. During concern gathering where the group asks community members what concerns them about the issue, they may hear people talk about food deserts, difficulties in finding healthy food that families experience who are struggling, and worries that poor health is creating problems more broadly in the community. In listening carefully to such concerns, the organizing group may come to the conclusion that people in the community are more willing to believe that “obesity” is a problem we ought to or must deal with, and that progress will take many different people.

In a learning exchange where I recently discussed this way of looking at problems, a number of people suggested different dimensions, or making it three-dimensional. Those are valid ideas and I think the concept is worth playing with.

2014-11-07 10.20.08-1When I arrived at my office this morning and saw the cover of The Wall Street Journal, I knew I had to write a post about the difference between the dominant political narratives of issues, and the more nuanced way that the public sees the same issues — in this case, having to do with immigration. The president and the speaker are at loggerheads on this already (or still, depending on how you look at it). Just those juxtaposed images tell the story of exactly the kind of political stalemate that Americans are incensed about.

This from my post at Inside Public Judgment:

Kettering research over decades suggests that the way difficult issues like immigration are framed by policy leaders and experts is often at odds, or at least out of step with, the way in which people see those issues. Where the dominant political discourse frequently sees conflict, people in communities are wrestling with tensions among the things they hold valuable. This is not a question of one solution versus another. Instead, the question individuals must wrestle with is, what am I willing to give up—and under what conditions.

On immigration, Kettering research suggests that people see this issue in a more nuanced way than the binary amnesty-vs.-tough-borders way in which the issue has been portrayed in the media. Their concerns center on a range of things that are held commonly valuable by all—our self-image as a welcoming nation, personal and national security, and the reality seen by many that our prosperity depends on immigrants. These concerns became the basis for the options in a guide for public deliberation that Kettering prepared for the National Issues Forums Institute, Immigration in America: How Do We Fix a System in Crisis? Three options are outlined, each rooted in a different view of the problem:

1. Welcome New Arrivals. A rich combination of diverse cultures is what defines us as a people. We must preserve our heritage as a nation of immigrants by shoring up our existing system while also providing an acceptable way for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently living here to earn the right to citizenship.

2. Protect Our Borders. Failure to stem the tide of illegal immigration undermines our national security, stiffens competition for scarce jobs, and strains the public purse. We need tighter control of our borders, tougher enforcement of our immigration laws, and stricter limits on the number of immigrants legally accepted into the country.

3. Promote Economic Prosperity. To remain competitive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to acknowledge the key role that immigrants play in keeping the US economy dynamic and robust. This option favors a range of flexible measures, such as annual adjustments to immigration quotas, that put a priority on our economic needs.

The difficulty of immigration lies in the tensions between these things. One reason this issue is so intractable is that these tensions must be worked through by the public before there can be any durable policy solution.

Read the whole piece here.

I’m excited to announce the newest report from the Kettering Foundation, Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums. It’s a handbook for anyone interested in creating materials to support deliberative conversations on difficult public issues.

30813.inddThis report has been a long time coming. It was one of the first things I was asked to complete when I came on staff at Kettering.

Our aim was to collect what we have been learning about “issue framing” and make it accessible to people so it didn’t seem like such a mystery. Throughout the dialogue field, people often talk about issue framing as some kind of specialized skill that only certain people can do — or that takes huge amounts of money, people, time, and other resources. But we’ve learned that it is relatively straightforward and really just takes a careful attentiveness to a few principles and key ideas.

Developing Materials is available here on the Kettering Foundation web site, or you can download it here: Developing Materials for Deliberative Forums

It’s also available for free in hard copy! Just drop me a line at and let me know you’d like a copy.

Here is an excerpt:

When issues are named and framed in public terms, we can identify the problem that we need to talk about (naming) and the critical options and drawbacks for deciding what to do about that problem (framing). . . .

A framework that will prompt public deliberation should make clear the options that are available for addressing the problem and the tensions at stake in facing it. It should lay bare what is at issue in readily understandable terms.

Three key questions drive the development of a framework for public deliberation:

  • What concerns you about this issue?
  • Given those concerns, what would you do about it?
  • If that worked to ease your concern, what are the downsides or trade-offs you might then have to accept?

Responses to these questions, together, can generate a framework that makes clear the drawbacks of different people’s favored options. Facing these drawbacks and coming to a sound decision about what to do is the ultimate concern of deliberation.


I’m delighted to announce the publication of a new report, a joint effort by the Kettering Foundation and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), of which I am the author. Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability: A Relationship of Respect and Clarity explores how the field of organized philanthropy might think about responding to a growing movement for accountability and transparency.

Philanthropy_and_the_Limits_of_Accountability_FINAL_pdf__page_1_of_20_The report is available as a free PDF download from PACE, where the paper is described like this: “The paper grew out of a conversation we began with PACE members over year ago about how the issues of transparency and accountability might soon impact the field of philanthropy. PACE and Kettering convened three roundtables of philanthropic and non-profit leaders, and talked to dozens more one-on-one. This report is a distillation of what we heard and the issues that were raised.”

I am proud to have worked on this important research. An early preview of our findings, published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy a few weeks ago in an article by me and PACE executive director Chris Gates, outlines the main points:

    • Philanthropy is at a crossroads as it experiences increased pressure from all sides to solve public problems and to be more accountable for outcomes.
    • Transparency may be a necessary component of accountability, but it is not sufficient and too often may be obfuscating.
    • Strategic philanthropy may paradoxically tend to make philanthropic organizations seem less accountable and more risk averse.
    • Accountability isn’t just about data transparency. It’s also about relationships.

Download Philanthropy and the Limits of Accountability here.

Friends know that at the Kettering Foundation we recently started a new blog called Inside Public Judgment, devoted to sharing what we are learning about framing issues for public deliberation — a behind-the-scenes look at various aspects of developing issue guides. My latest piece is posted, which outlines some of the false starts we made as we began development of a recent popular issue guide called Political Fix: How do we get American Politics Back on Track?

An excerpt from the post:

IPJ-Political-Fix-art-main-hedThis guide went through a longer evolution than most, as we at Kettering tried to make sure we fulfilled one of the key things we have learned about framing issues for public deliberation: it is critical to start where the public starts.

For many issues, this is easier said than done. The more we know (or learn) about a particular topic, often the more expert-driven our views become about what would make a good solution. This is natural. In the case of Political Fix, we initially began with a slightly different topic in mind: money in politics.  Because of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the record amounts of money spent in recent elections, we have heard pundits discussing money in politics in op-eds and on Sunday morning talk shows for some time. But when we held research forums with ordinary citizens to see how they talked about the issue, we discovered two important things:

    • People said they see the issue of “money in politics” as much broader than simply questions about campaign finance—they believe that limiting the conversation in this way leaves too much untouched. They are sophisticated enough to believe that money plays a part throughout the current political system.
    • Just as important, people said that there are more fundamental problems in our political system than just money and power. They were interested in a conversation that goes beyond money and addresses more basic questions.

It was clear, in looking at these results, that an issue guide about the broader problem of American politics in general—and what to do to fix its current ills—could be widely useful to citizens.

Read the full post here, which describes more about the framework we ultimately developed.

As most of my friends and colleagues know, I am at program officer at the Kettering Foundation. Kettering is a research organization that studies ways to make democracy work as it should — meaning to place citizens more at the center of politics rather than on the periphery.

One of the roles I play at Kettering is executive editor of our issue guide series. These are publications we develop that present difficult public issues in frameworks that are designed to spark and support public deliberation. These guides (which we primarily develop in partnership with the National Issues Forums) are used by all sorts of organizations around the nation as well as globally. Our issue guides are some of our most visible publications at Kettering, and for some time we have been trying to make the ways in which we develop them more transparent. A great deal of research goes into them, and we thought that giving some visibility into this research, on an ongoing basis, might be useful to others.

And so we have established a new blog designed to shine light on the kinds of things that go into our thinking as we develop materials to support public deliberation — the research, naming, framing, and more. The blog is called Inside Public Judgment and we will be updating it on a regular basis.

My first post has just been published, which outlines some of the main starting points that seem important to keep in mind when thinking about deliberative politics. Here’s an excerpt:

New Blog at the Kettering Foundation

New Blog at the Kettering Foundation

Some (Not All) Starting Points for Deliberative Politics:

  • One aim of democracy is for citizens to have a stronger hand in controlling their own future.
  • There are a number of “problems of democracy”—things that get in the way of democracy functioning (that is, things that get in the way of people taking control of their future).
  • Politics can be described as a set of practices that can respond to these problems.
  • There are different kinds of problems that face people in communities. Some are technical and can be solved unilaterally (e.g., how to build a new jail), but others are much more difficult because they involve tensions between things held valuable that must be worked through (e.g., what we should do about a growing sense of personal vulnerability in our community).
  • Some of the things we all hold deeply valuable (not the only things) are often in tension: “security,” “fairness,” and “freedom.”
  • We don’t “solve” such problems—we need to negotiate our provisional solutions together, and we do this repeatedly over time. We do this by weighing options for action against what we hold valuable and against likely consequences—this is deliberation.
  • Naming in public terms and framing for deliberation are powerful ways to make it more likely (and possible) for citizens to weigh these things held valuable.

Read the full article here.