Common Ground for Action: Experimenting with Better Ways to Deliberate Online

Back to Winter 2022: Volume 110, Number 4

By Kara N. Dillard and Nicholas A. Felts

The Kettering Foundation and National Issues Forums Institute (NIF) have been working for nearly four decades to produce materials and foster environments conducive to the creation of sound public judgment. NIF issue guides strive to name issues in ways that connect with deeply held concerns and frame multiple options for action such that tradeoffs are apparent. Since the early 1980s, groups of concerned citizens (the NIF network) have used these guides in deliberative forums taking place in public libraries, senior centers, college classrooms, church basements and other community gathering places. In these thousands upon thousands of forums, we have seen powerful results. People coming together to share their personal stake in an issue, hear from others they may disagree with, wrestle with tradeoffs, and try to make decisions as to what they and their community might do about the issue in question.

Given how powerful and productive these forums were, Kettering researchers often wondered about those who did not or could not take part for one reason or another. Certainly, there are some who are shy, others who live too far away from the forum location, some who could not get a babysitter, and others who may have just been too tired after a long day. Maybe the internet held the key to fuller participation in public deliberation? Thus, long before the internet was a household word, the Kettering Foundation has been exploring the efficacy, desirability, and obstacles to deliberating online. All the way back in 1992, former Kettering research assistant, and now acclaimed broadcaster and photographer, Scott London was writing memos about electronic town meetings.

Another former Kettering research assistant, and now prominent deliberation scholar, John Gastil was writing memos describing NIF computer forums taking place in the early 1990s through the Twin Cities Computer Network. Also in the Kettering archives are reports from 1994 when faculty and Kettering collaborators at the University of Georgia and Ithaca College were collaborating to convene cross-campus NIF forums via email listserv. Even in the days when political talk on the internet consisted mainly of chat rooms and discussion board threads, Kettering was interested in the value of these kinds of spaces in making democracy work as it should.

However, we know that the online world poses formidable obstacles to sound public judgment. A cursory glance at the academic literature on online, computer mediated political talk reveals a landscape built on decidedly non-deliberative means for creating deliberative opportunities: unmoderated discussion boards, uncivil newspaper comment sections, and social media platforms that allow anyone to say anything. Even the tools designed for collaborative, educational, or conversational purposes can fail to get participants weighing choices and making decisions together.

Clear-eyed about these challenges but determined to expand deliberation to the online world, the Kettering Foundation and NIF set out to develop an online deliberative platform. Spearheaded by former Kettering program officer, Amy Lee, the Common Ground for Action (CGA) platform was developed to mimic the qualities that make for high quality in-person deliberation. Instead of adapting currently existing technology, Kettering embarked on a multi-year research program to design, test, and redesign a new model for deliberating online. Lee and Kettering worked intensively with experienced NIF network moderators and with budget games-based software developer Every Voice Engaged Foundation to make CGA true to the ideals of how deliberation should work.

CGA online forums are small group deliberations, rooted in non-partisan NIF issue guides and facilitated by trained moderators. While moderators can convene a large number of CGA forums at the same time, each individual breakout forum is purposefully small – no more than 12 people participate in a CGA forum. The small size ensures that every participant has a chance to be actively engaged in deliberating as part of the group. To deliberate, people type their thoughts in the live group chat, which creates an ongoing record of what the group is discussing and how they are grappling with the choices presented in the issue guide. The moderator, who often (but not exclusively) has a background facilitating in-person NIF forums, helps tie together chat threads, asks questions that clarify typed posts, and works to ensure participants are engaging with the diversity of comments that participants enter.

CGA forums work just like an in-person NIF forum, with participants starting in the “lobby” where they greet one another with small talk, agree to ground rules, get introduced to the issue guide and video, and share their personal stake in the issue with each other. Then, the moderator moves the group to internal reflection and group deliberation on the issue. One of the major differences between an in-person and a CGA online forum is the opportunity to get a baseline record of how people are thinking about the issue before deliberating while also priming them to think deliberatively about their choices. After the lobby, participants are asked to register their initial thoughts about their most preferred courses of action. This allows the moderator to help participants see how much the group’s views change during the course of deliberating together. After registering their baseline ideas, participants then individually choose whether they can accept, are conflicted about, or cannot accept an action – but are also asked to consider the potential drawbacks that result from their initial choices.

Once rankings have been complete, moderators then open the forum up for deliberation by showing participants the graphic that represents the judgments of the group. The moderator then uses the visual to spur participants to deliberate, to make choices together based on what they can support and agree on, but also to work through what actions leave participants conflicted. At the end of the forum, the group reflects on the stories, ideas, and choices the group has worked through, and identifies the created common ground across all of the options as well as the impact deliberating had on their views.

One of the most important contributions CGA makes to online deliberation is the unique way it visualizes the group’s choice-work and judgement. The graphic displays participants’ shifting preferences and provides a powerful opportunity to focus not just on common ground, but also on where the group is conflicted. Christelle, et al (2018) note that even though our culture tends to over-emphasize how polarized we are, CGA visually and by chat helps participants acknowledge disagreement while giving equal attention to areas where people do agree.1 Kara Dillard and Kara Lindaman (2021) argue that because the graphic shows the diversity of views in a room, it can help encourage those who might not normally attend a deliberative forum to participate.2 And because participants can register their opinion change at any time by re-evaluating their judgments, the visual shifts in real time, reflecting dynamically how the group’s thinking changes when deliberative moments happen.

In the decade that CGA has been in use, over one thousand deliberative forums have been convened by over 300 organizations. The sheer number of forums held, considering how young CGA is, speaks volumes about its positive reception within the NIF network. Yet, we needed to pose the same questions we ask of in-person forums to online forums. Many of us had seen firsthand the power or even magic of what can happen during in-person deliberative forums and wondered whether anything resembling that could occur online. So, we ask, how deliberative are CGA forums and do they have some of the same key features that are seen in high quality in-person forums? We also ask what effect CGA participation has on individuals in terms of how they think about issues with those they disagree with, and their own capacity as political actors. Lastly, we ask whether CGA forums attract a diverse group of participants where all can contribute to the forum.

Research conducted using CGA by the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) at The Ohio State University and the University of Houston suggests that “high quality deliberation can happen online.”3  In analyzing hundreds of forums, these researchers have found that CGA participants surface tensions between core values and evaluate difficult trade-offs, two markers of robust deliberation. They also find evidence of attitudinal effects or the creation of what Hannah Arendt or Immanuel Kant would call an “enlarged mentality.” Moreover, they find that CGA participants often leave forums with a greater understanding of the issue at hand and a greater appreciation for the views of those they disagree with. Further, participants overwhelmingly note that the sessions are positive, helpful to democracy, and something that elected officials ought to take note of. Lastly, CGA forums have attracted a diverse group of participants. At the same time, the online nature and design features of CGA seem to erase some of the inequalities that often plague in-person discussion, although some inequities still remain.

This work shines light on the unique value of CGA in the sense that it is able to do what many other online spaces struggle with. Namely CGA encourages diverse groups of participants to work through tradeoffs to actions, to talk with each other about what they can live with and what they cannot live with, and to forge common ground together on some of the most difficult problems of the day while encouraging a variety of views and stories. Moving forward, many research questions remain as to the impact of CGA participation on how people think and reason together about political issues. This sort of research is especially valuable as a global pandemic continues to shift so much of public life online. As Kettering and NIF continue collaborating with Every Voice Engaged Foundation to make CGA easier, more engaging, and more deliberative, we hope that readers will be encouraged to conduct their own experiments with the software.

Kara Dillard is an assistant professor in the School of Communication Studies and co-director of the Institute of Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue at James Madison University. She is also the Common Ground for Action operations and moderator trainer specialist for the National Issues Forums Institute. She is an expert in online deliberation, having developed innovative programs and curriculum to convene civil discussions online using the CGA deliberation software.  

Nicholas A. Felts is a program officer at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation.


1 Andrea Christelle et al. 2018. “Common Ground for Action Software and Professional Development to Support Online Deliberation in Classrooms.” Journal of Political Science Education 14(1):  134-137.
2 Kara Dillard and Kara Lindaman (2021). Deliberating online to bridge divides and navigate“niceness”:  Experiences with national-level multi-campus online deliberative forums. Paper presented at the American Political Science Association annual conference. See also Kara Dillard (2021). Innovations in the Online Deliberation Experience: How Common Ground for Action Changes the Deliberative “Game.” Paper presented at the National Communication Association annual conference.
3 While some of this research is in the pre-publication stage, the article published by Kennedy, et al is illustrative of the impacts of CGA. See: Kennedy, R., Sokhey, A.E., Abernathy, C., Esterling, K.M., Lazer, D. MJ., Lee, A., Minozzi, W. & Neblo, M.A. (2021). Demographics and (equal?) voice: Assessing participation in online deliberative sessions. Political Studies, 69, 1, 66-89.

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