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The deliberative poll offers new hope

By Tim Dunlop - posted Wednesday, 28 February 2001

I recently gave a conference paper in which I praised the concept of deliberative polls. A well-known senior academic in the audience (a pretty scary figure for a mere post-grad like me), come question time, asked me if I knew that "Deliberative Poll" was a trademarked term owned by Professor James Fishkin of the University of Texas, at Austin; did I know that Issues Deliberation Australia (IDA), the organisation that runs deliberative polls in Australia, was associated with Newscorp; did I know that it had a lot of corporate sponsors; and did I know that there was criticism of the way they selected the experts who participated.

The implication was that these facts undermined the legitimacy of the poll itself.

While I wouldn’t dispute that it is handy to know these things (and they are hardly secret), I couldn’t go along with the implication that the process was undermined. What I saw watching the tapes of the first deliberative poll ¾ on the subject of Australia becoming a republic ¾ was 350 pretty happy-looking citizens who had participated in a process that all considered worthwhile and that included them in the political process in a way that, I’m pretty sure, none of them had ever experienced before. They not only looked happy, they looked inspired.


So it is fair to say that I’m a fan of the concept of a deliberative poll. I do have some criticisms, but hey, I’ve got some criticisms of my mum too. I’ll give an outline of how such a poll works, what the thinking is behind it, what it aims to do, and why I think it is a worthwhile project.

What is a Deliberative Poll?

A deliberative poll tries to find out what people think about a topic, not off the top of their heads, but after they’ve been given the time and information to consider the pros and cons, and after they had time to discuss the issue among their peers and with various experts on the topic. As James Fishkin, the inventor of deliberative polls, writes: "A deliberative poll attempts to model what the public would think, had they a better opportunity to consider the question at issue".

The mechanics of a deliberative poll are as follows: the organisers (in Australia, Issues Deliberation Australia, with the help of Newspoll) choose a random and representative sample of about 350 people. These people are then given a carefully prepared "brief" that covers various approaches and opinions on the topic and they have about six weeks to study this material. They are then brought together over a weekend (at Old Parliament House) and divided into a number of small groups. A trained moderator is appointed to each group, and they discuss among themselves the issues at hand. Over the weekend, they also participate in a number of plenary sessions where they question a panel of experts on the topic. This is a formal meeting presided over by a chairperson, and each group is allowed to ask a question. As well, there is a more informal aspect where anyone, more or less at anytime, can ask a question from the floor. The plenary sessions are televised live (in Australia by the ABC ¾ who else?). Participants are flown to Canberra for the weekend, put up together at a hotel and paid a small allowance. (I should add that for the deliberative poll on reconciliation there were a number of "regional deliberations" held, the aim of which was, I believe, to give fair representation to an Indigenous population rather more spread out than the white population.)

Participants are polled before and after the two days of deliberation and the results are compared. So the before results resemble the sorts of outcomes you would expect to get with a regular opinion poll. The after results purport to show what most Australians would say had they had the same opportunity to consider the matter in detail.

The theory behind deliberative polls

Other than voting every so often, few of us get a direct say in government. A deliberative poll attempts to address this "democratic deficit" by giving "ordinary citizens" a voice in some important topic. Deliberative polls, or deliberative democracy more generally, presumes that citizens should have a more direct say in the running of their country and seeks to provide a way for them to do this. It presumes that such public participation and deliberation is a good in itself, and that it is one of the defining characteristics of meaningful citizenship. As such, it presents an idea of citizenship that has roots in the polis of Ancient Greece. Again quoting Fishkin: "…the deliberative poll can be thought of as an actual sample from the hypothetical society ¾ the deliberative and engaged society we do not have."

Most polls seek to predict behaviour. A deliberative poll seeks to recommend particular behaviour. That is, if the sample is properly representative and the participants have not been unfairly influenced in any way, then we can presume that most of the population would come to the same conclusions as the participants if they had the same time and the same access to information. We can therefore take the results of a deliberative poll to be representative of the "ordinary citizen’s" views in a much more meaningful way than we can the views expressed in a regular opinion poll.


Do deliberative polls live up to these aims?

As you would expect, deliberative polls have their fans and their critics. Some of the complaints are more justified than others. For instance, I think we should give little credence to those critics of the deliberative poll who are simply not happy with the outcome. Some monarchists and direct-election republicans made a fuss after the deliberative poll on the republic when the participants swung heavily behind not just an Australian republic but one with an appointed president. Their criticism rings particularly hollow when you remember that they had been heavily involved in the organisation of the poll in the first place, approving the reading material and the selection of experts for their side of the argument.

Paddy McGuinness’s recent criticisms of the deliberative poll on reconciliation can be seen as a pre-emptive strike. A long-time critic of an apology and a treaty, McGuinness, no doubt fearful that the 350 deliberating citizens would come out in support of both, went to press before the poll had even taken place predicting that the outcome was a forgone conclusion. As it turned out, the change in attitude that occurred was not nearly as dramatic as it was for the republican version and not nearly as dramatic as McGuinness seemed to expect. Nonetheless, he did raise a couple of valid concerns.

He criticised the use of "moderators" to run the small-group discussions that are part of the weekend deliberation. The argument in favour of using them, I think, is that when you bring together a bunch of strangers unused to deliberating in this fashion, there is going to be a tendency for people to be nervous and unsure and perhaps even unfocused. A moderator can help relax people, get the discussion going and keep it on track. However, there is a fine line between this and actually guiding a conversation and the use of them does perhaps under-rate people’s ability to cope with the situation.

Relatedly, but far less convincingly, McGuinness also suggests that all the deliberative poll shows is that "the forces of conformism in any group of Australians are very strong". In other words, people are likely to "go along" with what they perceive to be the majority opinion. Not only does this underestimate the ability of "ordinary Australians" to make up their own minds, it is simply not borne out by any impartial viewing of the process. Dissent from the floor was common during the plenary sessions, and it is completely unclear to me how, in a room of opposing experts, this conformism manifests itself and conveys itself to participants. Where a strong opinion was apparent in the deliberative poll about a republic was in the preference for a directly elected president. However, the conformism argument is blown out of the water by the fact that, the "after" poll on this topic showed the biggest single change of position. That is, if conformism was at work you would expect the minority in favour of an appointed president to fall in line with the majority: almost the exact opposite happened.

McGuinness also criticises the use of Barry Jones and Ian Sinclair as chairpersons of the plenary sessions and I’m inclined to agree with this. It is nothing against the two men themselves, just that they have become something of celebrities in their own right and I felt, especially in the second deliberative poll, that they detracted from the seriousness of the event. There are plenty of senior academics or corporate types who could run such an event without becoming part of the process in quite the way that Jones and Sinclair did and that would be all to the better. Plus their views on the topic(s) at hand are well known. I would like to see more neutral, less visible chairpersons.

In fact, I would say the second deliberative poll was much less impressive than the first in a number of ways. I don’t think the panel of experts was as well-balanced as in the first deliberative poll, though not nearly as biased as McGuinness would have us believe. In general, I would like to see a slightly less conservative choice of experts, though I realise that IDA are sometimes limited in that not everyone they ask to be involved is available. I also think the final plenary session in the second deliberative poll tipped over into advocacy with Ian Sinclair leading participants in a pantomime of "looking forward" and "looking backward" and generally "rah-rahing" in favour of reconciliation.

The final criticism I would offer is that deliberative polls do not, at this stage anyway, have the "recommending power" that the designers suggest they should. When asked by a reporter if the outcome of the deliberative poll would affect government policy, reconciliation Minister, Phillip Ruddock, gave a pretty definitive "no" response. Unless those in power give credence to the representative nature of a deliberative poll, it will tend to have a pretty marginal status. However, this is more a political problem than something that is inherently wrong with deliberative polls.

My conclusions

None of these criticisms undermines the concept of a deliberative poll. What I really like about them is that they provide a way for ordinary citizens and experts (I prefer the term intellectuals) to come together as equals, as citizens. In an unmediated forum, the intellectuals will tend to dominate discussion simply because people tend to defer to their expertise, because they (the intellectuals) are much more comfortable dealing with such issues in public, and because the mere use of a title (Doctor, Professor etc.) can be intimidating. The deliberative poll goes a long way to equalising this power imbalance by seeing to it that the intellectuals can only speak when spoken to; that they can be told to shut up by the chair; and that the chair openly encourages interventions from the other participants. In fact, deliberative polls provide an excellent (though flawed) model of intellectual practice where the role of the intellectual is to merely make themselves available for public deliberation and not to come in offering ready-made solutions that ignore the wishes or thoughts of ordinary citizens. They go a long way to bridging the so-called "elite/popular divide" by recognising the intellectuals’ expertise, while still recognising that no-one is an expert on "outcomes" (or ends) in a democracy.

The most telling recommendation comes from the participants themselves who, in every interview I have seen or read, feel that they have learnt something and feel inspired to become more involved in political/social discussion in general. For this reason alone, I would say that they are a welcome addition to the political landscape and my challenge to the out-and-out critics would be to come up with something better.

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About the Author

Tim Dunlop is a writer based in Adelaide. His PhD dealt with the role of intellectuals and citizens in public debate. He runs the weblog, The Road to Surfdom.

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