We have often moaned about opinion polls and their limited value on this blog. You know, those things where people get asked about their favorite toothpaste and that gets sold as public opinion? The question, of course, is how to do it better. Public opinion is an intricate phenomenon. We don't really know how to define the public to begin with, let alone how to figure out their opinion.
There's been a great model around since the mid 90s: Deliberative Polling. Introduced by James Fishkin, Deliberative Polls are designed to "show what the public would think about the issues, if it thought more earnestly and had more information about them,” to provide a “glimpse of the hypothetical public” (Luskin, Fishkin, and Jowell, 2002). It works like this:
- Select a national probability sample of the electorate;
- Question the sample about a policy domain;
- Provide balanced and accessible briefing materials to inform participants and get them thinking about the issue;
- Transport them to a single site;
- Provide a balanced panel of experts for questions and further information; and
- Question participants again after they deliberated on their policy opinions.
This solves the problem of expertise: Citizens don't have considered opinions about issues they don't know much about and don't care about. They gain knowledge when they read about an issue and have the opportunity to discuss it with experts, and when they speak about it at length and in depth they tend to care. Et voilà - a good solution to one of the main problems of public opinion.
Fishkin and his colleagues believe that in this design, involvement, thought, and information induce a considered and informed opinion about an issue – an opinion that at least approximates the ideal “public opinion.”
The first Deliberative Poll happened in 1994 in Great Britain, where participants deliberated about crime - it's causes and how to fight it. The researchers, Luskin, Fishkin, and Jowell, found statistically significant changes on the majority of opinion items about crime. After deliberation, participants had an increased sense of the limitations of prison as tool to fight crime, although they did not become soft on crime. They also showed an increased sensitivity toward defendants’ procedural rights, less faith in value of policing (by the police and by citizens) and turned more toward ameliorating social root causes.
Subsequent Deliberative Polls - there have been many all over the world by now, including in China and Thailand - regularly show similar patterns. The outcome of a Deliberative Poll is the difference between a marketeer calling you at an inconvenient time and you thinking about an issue carefully, weighing all sides, before making up your mind. That is the public opinion elected officials are bound by, that is the public opinion that moves reform.
Illustration: Richard Fahey