Deliberative polling

01. decembris, 2014



On James Fishkin and encountering lack of society's interests in democracy.

James Fishkin’s interview with the European Magazine contains probably one of the most exciting views on democracy that I’ve come across lately. It is the perfect antidote for someone who feels equally dissatisfied with over-optimistic expectations of what people should be capable of doing and the resulting cynicism when the unrealistic expectations fall short. It is an incredibly refreshing experience to read how Fishkin reframes the standard issue of what to do with an uninformed and seemingly disinterested public in a democracy.

Below Fishkin sets out the bog-standard way of approaching the issue:

“The choice seems to be between politically equal and uninformed masses, or politically unequal and more informed elites. The latter undermines the idea of popular involvement in politics, and the former involves people only under conditions where they cannot think very much about the choices they make.”

I’d say it’s a fair judgment that most people overestimate their own (and other’s) capacity for staying informed. To actually sit down and read the news we need to have enough energy left over after performing our daily chores. Here it may help to remember the concept of ‘ego depletion’ that refers to the phenomenon of our willpower being an exhaustible resource. After strenuous mental tasks we are less able to make considered decisions, or simply put, most people will agree that after a long and stressful day it’s much more tempting to sit down with a sitcom rather than read complicated current affairs articles. Therefore, instead of expecting people to overcome this inherent laziness by relying only on their inner calling for civic life, deliberative polling aims to create controlled conditions that would allow anyone for to come up with informed opinions.

What they do is the following. An initial poll is performed on a random sample of citizens (usually from around 200). Following the initial poll, the citizens are gathered together for a weekend of deliberation – they are given reading materials on all sides of the issue at hand, they are given the opportunity to discuss the issue with experts or politicians as well as to take part in moderated group discussions. All of the activities are recorded and translated live or edited on television. Afterwards the participants are polled again on the same issue or issues, which allows to observe what kind of opinions the public might form given the opportunity to fully engage with the policies being tackled by the government. Stanford University’s Centre for Deliberative Democracy gives a clear summary (that I’ve relied on above) as well as outlines a couple of selected results from deliberative polling exercises in Korea, UK, and Poland.

I could go on for quite a while listing all the reasons why deliberative polling is a great idea. My inner social scientist is delighted by Fishkin‘s belief that ‘democratic reform should be based on evidence,’ and not just observational data but data derived from experiments. Their approach is also praiseworthy for using sample sizes which can be used for sufficiently accurate statistical estimates while engaging with the participants qualitatively at the level of discussion groups (it must be noted that this is an expensive undertaking, not available to everyone who shares their scientific ethos). At the same time, it’s not just a social science experiment, but also a learning tool for the participants and the wider public given that the process can be broadcast on television or online as well.

Further on, the practice can be used for gathering public opinion in the initial stages of policy design or as an alternative to referenda. It would be difficult to argue against referenda as such, but deliberative polling is a better tool for an egalitarian democracy in a non-trivial way. According to Fishkin:

“The problem is that once you open deliberations to everyone, special interests can exert a larger influence than in a randomized sample.”

While active interest groups are a great part of a pluralist society, public referenda can turn into a tool available only to powerful special interest groups instead of empowering all members of a community equally. The example of California is used by Fishkin to illustrate the point – while it is a welcome development that referenda have become an intrinsic part of political life, the resources needed to initiate them and rally supporters around one’s cause favour established and well-financed interest groups. Through deliberative polling a random sample of citizens are inserted in a controlled environment where what matters is what they think not how much influence someone has been able to buy. Admittedly, while I’m writing this it’s hard not to think that it’s impossible to completely isolate such influence or that in many cases there is nothing wrong with the way interest groups advocate their cause. Yet, I’m inclined to think that deliberative polling should constitute a bigger part of civil society activities.

A final half-baked idea that has has been nagging me since reading the interview is the possibility of relying on insights from deliberative polling to transform the way that we use media. Instead of, again, either hoping that everyone will have the willpower and the necessary interest in reading traditional media formats or concluding that our fellow citizens are a lost cause and essentially qualifiable as manipulable automatons, why not consider presenting media content in ways that makes reading current affairs an accessible learning experience. It might include a combination of traditional approaches and the practices developed in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), or it might involve some sort of life-long learning programs.

In any case, it’s worth the time to think over what James Fishkin says in his interview on deliberative polling. The practice has the potential to, pardon the cliche, disrupt our way of understanding democratic participation and help us move beyond dead-end debates. Read it.


The publication was performed in the framework of the project “PROVIDUS – a partner of state in policy planning and policy making process“.

Project is financed by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in framework of NGO Activity Support Measure.

NGO Activity Support Measure is financed with financial support from EEA Financial Mechanism and Republic of Latvia.




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