Alinksy Method / Delphi Technique
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:
by N. Dalkey, B. Brown and S. Cochran, Rand Corporation, November 1969
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.