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What the Public Would Want If It Knew Better

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

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


Submitted by Dani on
I don't know... it doesn't seem like true public opinion if you have to educate people first before they have an opinion. What purpose does a poll serve then if you have to inform the participants first? Aren't the results skewed in some way and not indicative of public opinion? I'm not an expert in this field, so please excuse these naive questions. Your title says it all. If the public doesn't "know better" whose agenda is it that they do and why?

Submitted by JJ on
Very interesting, too bad there is not a way to get all of the electorate informed about key issues the way you inform this sample. Maybe televising the session so that anyone can watch the balanced debate and hear the Q&A of regular people (rather than scripted moderators). Policy makers must find this difficult though, this process will help them understand what the electorate would think if they were informed, but the policy maker needs to act on what the electorate does think in its actual state of knowledge (or misknowledge), and how they will respond in the voting booth when no one is watching.

Submitted by foarde on
I think what people are missing here is that this asking two fundamental questions that public opinion polls don't touch on. The first is: to what extent is the public uniformed? Obviously, all opinions are dependent on information, so by providing unbiased data and access to experts, you can tease apart the issues of ignorance and intractability. Confirmation bias tells us that opinions change slowly, but presenting people with sufficient data allows them to make well informed decisions. The second is: what information can we provide to change opinions? Access to information is one of the most powerful tools that politicians use, so understanding how opinions change based on what people know is incredibly important

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