The Deliberative Polling Model
What is Deliberative Polling?
Citizens are often uninformed about key public issues. Conventional polls represent the public's surface impressions of sound bites and headlines. The public, subject to what social scientists have called "rational ignorance," has little reason to confront trade-offs or invest time and effort in acquiring information or coming to a considered judgment.
Deliberative Polling? is an attempt to use television and public opinion research in a new and constructive way. A random, representative sample is first polled on the issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available.
The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the weekend deliberations, the sample is asked the same questions again. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had a good opportunity to become more informed and more engaged about the issues.
Developed by Professor James S. Fishkin, Deliberative Polling is a technique which combines deliberation in small group discussions with scientific random sampling to provide public consultation for public policy and for electoral issues. A number of Deliberative Polls have been conducted in various countries around the world, including Britain, Australia, Denmark, and in the US, some national and some local. Typically, about 300 people are brought together for 2-3 days to examine and discuss an important issue. At the end of their deliberations, they are polled for their opinions and positions.
The deliberative poll is especially suitable for issues where the public may have little knowledge or information, or where the public may have failed to confront the trade-offs applying to public policy. It is a social science experiment and a form of public education in the broadest sense.
Each Deliberative Poll conducted thus far has gathered a highly representative sample together at a single place. Each time, there were dramatic, statistically significant changes in views. The result is a poll with a human face. The process has the statistical representativeness of a scientific sample but it also has the concreteness and immediacy of a focus group or a discussion group. Taped and edited accounts of the small group discussions provide an opportunity for the public to reframe the issues in terms that connect with ordinary people.
History of the Process
Nineteen Deliberative Polls have been held in the U.S. and abroad. There have been five national Deliberative Polls in Britain conducted by the television network Channel Four. Two national Deliberative Polls have been conducted in Australia, the first before the November 1999 referendum on Australia's possibly changing from a monarchy to a republic and the second, on reconciliation with the Aboriginals in February 2001. These events, a collaboration with Issues Deliberation Australia, involved national random samples of Australians brought to Canberra for three days of discussions on national television in dialogue with experts and key political leaders.
In August, 2000, the Center also collaborated with the Danish publication Monday Morning and scholars at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense to mount a national Deliberative Poll before the Danish national referendum on the Euro. The weekend's proceedings were televised at length by Danish Broadcasting.
In the U.S., there have been two events at the national level as well as ten local versions. The National Issues Convention, a collaboration of the University of Texas, PBS, MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, was broadcast from Austin in January 1996. In 2003, a national deliberative polling event was held as a part of MacNeil/Lehrer's By the People project. Also as a part of this project, the world's first Online Deliberative Opinion Poll was held, enabling 280 Americans to discuss the role of the United States in world affairs.
Eight regulated public utilities have conducted Deliberative Polls in their service territories in cooperation with the Public Utility Commission of the State of Texas: Central Power and Light (Corpus Christi), West Texas Utilities (Abilene) and South West Electric Power (Shreveport, La.), El Paso Electric (El Paso, TX), Houston Lighting and Power (Houston), Entergy (Beaumont, TX) Southwestern Public Service (Amarillo) and Texas Utilities (Dallas).
The success of those polls led the Public Utility Commission to require that the public be consulted on public utility policies after it has had an opportunity to become informed on the issues. In November 1999, the Nike Foundation and Oregon Public Broadcasting conducted a Deliberative Poll on education issues with students drawn system-wide from the Portland public school system. In March 2002, a local Deliberative Poll was held at Yale with the 15 towns in the New Haven metropolitan area on regional economic cooperation between the city and suburbs.
The Center for Deliberative Polling and the Center for Deliberative Democracy
Housed in the Dept of Government at the University of Texas at Austin since 1996, The Center for Deliberative Polling (www.la.utexas.edu/research/delpol/) is devoted to research about democracy and public opinion obtained through Deliberative Polling. Professor Robert C. Luskin of the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin is research Director of the Center.
Professor James Fishkin is now directing The Center for Deliberative Democracy (http://cdd.stanford.edu/), which is housed in the Department of Communication at Stanford University. The Center for Deliberative Democracy is also devoted to research about democracy and public opinion obtained through Deliberative Polling.