- Deliberative Polling as the Gold Standard
The Deliberative Polls of James Fishkin and Robert Luskin represent today the gold standard of attempts to sample what a considered public opinion might be on issues of political importance.1 Those polls are also beginning to play a role in shaping public policy, as I believe they ought to do. They are an important new mechanism through which citizens can affect the laws and policies that affect them. They provide an opportunity for reflection and voice that is both more deliberative and more equal in practice than most elections. They play an increasingly legitimate role, both sociologically and normatively, in the system of citizen representation. Yet, as Fishkin points out in this new book, although Deliberative Polls have a positive effect on their participants' subsequent participation in the electoral process, they do not mobilize the citizenry. They sacrifice widespread participation for greater deliberation and political equality. They are thus only one tool in a desirable democratic toolbox.
The Gold Standard
Deliberative Polls are the gold standard today in several respects. They are strongest in representativeness, very strong on outcome measurement, and equal to any other in balanced materials, policy links, and the quality of space for reflection.
First, the Deliberative Polls today make a more significant attempt to get a representative sample than any other comparable entity. They do about as well as is practically feasible with today's technology. Getting such a high quality sample requires monetary compensation, travel, hotel rooms, repeated requests, and other support. The process is very expensive.2 Even Citizens Juries, the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly, and the consensus conferences in Europe, deliberative venues all based initially on random or representative samples, have a larger—often a much larger—self-selected component than the Deliberative Polls.
Second, the Deliberative Polls make a major and highly successful attempt to produce balanced documents and a balanced set of advocates pro and con. The materials must be signed off on by the competing sides in a balanced advisory committee.3 I know of no instance in which Deliberative Polls have been attacked for providing unbalanced materials. Like the other deliberative venues of which I am aware, Deliberative Polls do not provide the deliberators with radical left or right alternatives that are not within the currently feasible political process. Including such options is not practical in a context in which the funding and frame for Deliberative Polls and their like are provided by governments, the mainstream media, or mainstream foundations. But including such alternatives may be a desirable long-run goal. At the moment Deliberative Polls do as good a job as any of their alternatives in the quality of the options and materials they provide.
Third, the Deliberative Polls engage significant issues and often provide real links to policy-makers, so that participants can know that their voices will matter. In Papandreou's PASOK party primary in Athens, participants in the Deliberative Poll actually went into a polling booth and made the candidate selection decision after filling out the Deliberative Poll questionnaire. In the Texas Public Utilities Commission case, the relevant official decision-makers were embedded in a process that mandated strong consideration of the poll results. In Zeguo township in China, the relevant party official committed informally beforehand to enacting the decisions arrived at by the Deliberative Poll and formally submitted the results to the Local Peoples Congress, which ratified them. Now that the Local Peoples Congresses have become more independent, subsequent Deliberative Poll results have been submitted to them and to date they have always adopted the results. In many other cases, decision-makers have taken the Poll results seriously, particularly when those results have given politicians cover to make a sensible but politically unpopular move.4
Fourth, the Deliberative Polls make a major and very largely successful attempt to produce a safe space for discussion within its representative sample. This safe space has several features. The Polls provide an unusual opportunity to discuss issues with a representative sample of the non-likeminded in a space protected and facilitated by moderators. As in other such facilitated deliberative venues, the moderators damp the heat of emotions, an...