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Alinksy Method / Delphi Technique

    In an earlier report in 1996, Dave Ziffer described his first encounter with a facilitated school meeting using Delphi/Alinsky techniques to cultivate a desired conclusion.

    In the following message, sent to the Illinois Loop list in 2000, Dave updates his discoveries about this method, cites original and subsequent references to it, and asks the group for further information.





    Update on Alinksy Method / Delphi Technique
    by Dave Ziffer
    November 27, 2000


    A few years back I attended a very disturbing meeting that was put on by my school district. The stated intent of the meeting was to solicit opinions from community members regarding the district's educational practices. We all walked into what appeared to be a normal presentation room with a bunch of seats facing forward, and the meeting started normally with a speaker at the front. After some cheery introductory statements, the speaker asked the seated audience to start counting off from 1 to 7. When this had been accomplished, we were asked to move to one of seven numbered areas, according to which number each of us had counted. Each area, it turned out, was to be the site of a group discussion lead by a "facilitator" who was a member of the district staff. Once the groups were formed, we were told that each facilitator would ask the group members' opinions on various topics and write them down for later review at the end of the meeting, when the audience would be rejoined.

    The meeting was upsetting for several reasons. The obvious intent of the counting-off, I realized later, was to break up groups of friends who might have sat down together, thus virtually ensuring that each "facilitated" group would consist almost entirely of people who had never met. This of course placed the group members at a tremendous disadvantage and made them more prone to manipulation by the "facilitator". During the course of the group "discussion" I noticed that my group's facilitator particularly disliked my answers, because she seemed dismayed whenever I talked and almost incapable of writing any of my statements verbatim on the group's "idea list" - what she wrote was invariably not what I had said. It was very clear to me during the discussion that she was heavily steering the group's discussion in some predetermined direction, although I could not determine what that direction was, because some ideas were dismissed immediately while others were encouraged and expanded upon (my ideas were in the former group). Finally, it occurred to me at the end that the entire thing had clearly been some sort of joke on us - all the "conclusions" were quite vacuous and useless, and I had no doubt upon leaving that the "idea sheets" were being tossed into the garbage (where they belonged) even as we were walking out.

    That was in 1993. Three years later I read an email description of a similar meeting that someone else had attended, in which the author said that the style of the meeting was called the "Delphi Technique". Being still disturbed at what my district had done, I did some research and was able, through extensive searches through university libraries, to find only one definitive document on the subject of the "Delphi Technique". Fortunately this document is now published on the Internet as a PDF document:

    This document describes something quite different from what I had experienced. The Delphi Technique (named after the Greek oracle) was developed as part of a legitimate and ethical experiment conducted by the Rand Corporation (a division of the U.S. Air Force). The basic motivation was to devise a method of collecting inputs from experts on questions to which there are no known answers. Naturally there are many important questions to which the government would like to have the best possible answers. According to Norman Dalkey (the author), the usual method of collecting data from experts (which is to gather them in a room for a discussion) is fraught with problems that cause expert groups to produce less-than-optimal results, primarily because the interpersonal dynamics of group members often get in the way of the members' rational thinking processes. Rand developed an interesting method of producing a more reliable group consensus, involving the use of a "facilitator". But in the true Delphi Technique one facilitator mediates a single group of people who never meet each other. The facilitator edits and circulates written communications among group members (each of which can communicate directly only with him), doing his best to preserve each group member's intent while eliminating superfluous material (such as deragatory statements that group members might direct at each other's opinions) thereby eliminating the troublesome interpersonal dynamics that reduce the effectiveness of in-person groups.

    At the time (1996) I was very puzzled by all of this, because the name (Delphi) that people were using to describe the type of meeting I had experienced at my school district was in fact the name of something else that had almost nothing to do with what I had experienced. About the only thing my school meeting had in common with the true Delphi was that both involved a "facilitator". The true Delphi Technique is a legitimate method for improving the accuracy of a group consensus that would only be used by someone having a true interest in the group's collective opinion. In contrast, my school district meeting was obviously a public relations scam designed to mislead the public (through subsequent newspaper articles describing the wonders of this act of community involvement) that the district was actually listening to citizens, when in fact it was clear to me that everything at the meeting had been prearranged and predetermined.

    More recently I read an article by one "Lynn Stuter" who describes the school-district community meeting method, which is apparently quite widespread. Her article has been reproduced in many places on the Internet. [Editor's note: Updated and expanded versions of Lynn Stuter's articles are currently available at this link: About Consensus and Facilitation.]

    Like the others who have written about this subject, Stuter too refers to the school district meeting style as the "Delphi", but unlike other authors she seems to have read the original Delphi research report and understands the difference between the original Rand "Delphi" and this seemingly misnamed perversion that has turned up in our school districts. After introducing it under the name "Delphi", she then briefly refers to the school district version as the "Alinsky Method", presumably after the 1960s radical Saul Alinsky. In her article she says that the Alinsky Method is a version of Delphi that was specifically adapted for teachers (strange, since the original Delphi is totally different) but nonetheless the name "Alinsky" is certainly more appropriate, since Saul Alinsky was much more interested in having others listen to his opinion than he was in soliciting the input of the community.

    Recently my interest in this topic was sparked again by Lisa Leppin, who sent out a post describing her experience at one of these meetings in her community, this one supposedly to gauge the local public's opinion on reading instruction. Her description is chillingly similar to what I experienced.

    ANYWAY, the reason I'm writing all this is that it has occurred to me that there must be a very good manual describing the implementation of this technique somewhere. After all, public school staff people in different states, who have had no specific training in controlling public opinion or manipulating adults, are somehow perfectly molded into a group that performs essentially the same "act" successfully everywhere - as if they were all following the same script (good heavens, just imagine what would happen if they did the same thing with their instructional techniques). However after diligently searching the Internet I have been unable to find such a manual.

    It simply cannot be that after all these years nobody has ever gotten ahold of these obviously widely-disseminated materials and published them on the web. So my question is this: Has anyone on this Loop been trained to conduct such meetings? If so, what materials were used to train you, and where can I get them?

    Thanks
    -Dave Ziffer


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