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Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy

Re-Envisioning the Role of Facilitators in Public Deliberations

Developing public issue facilitators has been a main focus at the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy (link is external) (ICDD). Facilitators play a key role in shaping how participants talk and share ideas during deliberations, making them critical to the success of the public forum. Because public deliberations involve groups grappling with tradeoffs and possible consequences of policy choices, facilitation involves far more than a passive, neutral moderator. It is up to facilitators to utilize strategies that can propel citizen deliberation to meet first order goals of issue learning and improved democratic attitudes and skills. And yet, largely absent from deliberative democracy is an in-depth discussion of the role facilitators play in guiding a group to gain knowledge, reach conclusions, or to take action. Professional facilitators and deliberative practitioners also find themselves in a similar situation. Those interested in gaining skills and experience can attend one of several moderator training workshops. But, as research (link is external) by ICDD graduate research assistant Esther Otis notes, many workshops cater to the new facilitator and not those with experience. 

Bringing the public issues facilitator back into the forefront of academic research has been the focus of Kara Dillard’s research (link is external) this year. “As I was working on my dissertation, I kept wondering why a lot of research didn’t mention facilitators. I know from having moderated forums myself that facilitators are vital to good deliberations. So I wondered, how can I make facilitation more salient to academics while giving intermediate facilitators a more in-depth understanding of their role in deliberations.” 

The result is a recently completed research report submitted to the Charles F. Kettering Foundation (link is external), titled “Bringing the Facilitator Back In.” In her quest to better understand the role of facilitators, Dillard developed a continuum of facilitator-types that can help explain how moderators lead deliberations and what types of participant talk can be expected in return. “The continuum has three facilitator types,” Dillard notes. Invisible-type facilitators act as traffic directors and have a hands-off approach to facilitation. Involved-type facilitators who act as quasi-participants. “They like to comment nearly as much as the participants do,” says Dillard. And, in the middle, are moderate-type facilitators. “I liken them to designated drivers. They spend a lot of time asking the group questions but try not to direct the discussion, unlike involved-type facilitators.”

The importance of Dillard’s work is immediately known. For academics, parsing out the different strategies and types of talk used by facilitators, may make it easier to know what to expect in terms of discursive outcomes from participants. This may help academics investigate why deliberations succeed or why they fail to create opinion change. For practitioners, having deeper understanding of what type of facilitation generates what type of participant reaction can help moderators better plan for contentious forums.

In the next few months, Dillard will be publishing an edited version of this research with the Kettering Foundation as a handbook geared toward intermediate moderators. A brief synopsis of Dillard’s research can be viewed here

*Kara N. Dillard is a Ph.D. candidate in political and rural sociology and a Graduate Research Assistant at the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University.

This slightly edited work is the result of a collaboration with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation. Any interpretations and conclusions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, its staff, directors, or officers. For more information, contact: dillardk@k-state.edu (link sends e-mail).