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An Exercise in Democracy: Deliberative Polling shows value of informed citizens

A new kind of opinion research could yet prove that an informed and engaged citizenry may be the essential foundation for successful and thoughtful policy- and decision-making in a democracy.

Deliberative Polling brings a representative sample of people together, provides information from both sides of an issue and then allows them the opportunity to talk about those issues. The process, developed by Dr. James Fishkin of the Department of Government at The University of Texas at Austin, provides a glimpse of the way information and discussion can change people’s minds.

“It’s a way to measure what the public would think about an issue if they were better informed,” Fishkin said. The team of Fishkin, director, and Dr. Robert Luskin, research director, is the core of The Center for Deliberative Polling at the university.

Dr. James Fishkin (left) and Dr. Robert Luskin
Dr. James Fishkin (left) and Dr. Robert Luskin of the Center for Deliberative Polling will be conducting another poll in Philadelphia focused on America's role in the world.

“There is a lot of interest in political science as to what a more informed public would be like,” Fishkin said. “There are a lot of political scientists who thought it wouldn’t make any difference, and we’ve shown that it does.”

They are about to conduct the 21st Deliberative Poll, Jan. 11-13 in Philadelphia at the second National Issues Convention. This event, portions of which will be hosted by newsman Jim Lehrer and broadcast on National Public Television, will bring together hundreds of Americans from across the country and all walks of life to discuss the role of America in the world. The first National Issues Convention was conducted at The University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

“There is a lot of social science where people have argued—not on any very good basis—that we don’t need a more informed public,” Fishkin said. “I’m quite happy to make the argument that we do, and to be able to demonstrate what difference it would make. We’ve been able to show that after people deliberate and focus on an issue their opinions change, and we’ve been able to show that the opinion change is driven by their becoming more informed.”

Fishkin said one of the strengths of Deliberative Polling is that it allows participants to be heard by policymakers and officials who take part in the event.

“We’ve been able to show that everybody can deliberate,” Fishkin said. “That is, change in the poll does not correlate with education, income, class or profession. It’s entirely democratic. We’ve been able to construct the process in such a way that all sectors of society are able to participate in the same way. We’ve also been able to show that participation in a deliberative process increases civic engagement and interest in political participation. It has lasting effects.”

In the weeks leading up to the Philadelphia event, a separate online Deliberate Poll was conducted in collaboration with the Political Communication Lab at Stanford University. This Internet-based experiment will allow the researchers to compare online and face-to-face deliberation.

The process for this and other Deliberative Polls begins with a baseline poll of a random, representative sample of the population. All of the interviewees are then invited to gather for several days to discuss the issue in question with others. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent in advance to each of the participants, who then come together to discuss the issues in small, moderated groups. At the conclusion of the discussions the participants are surveyed again.

“It is a combination of things that makes this method unique,” Luskin said. “Ordinary polls give you a picture of what people think about the issues, however little, unreflective and changeable that may be—and almost always is. Focus groups and other more intense methods give you a picture of what people may think when they start to think and learn more, but don’t use representative samples. We start with a high quality, random sample. We interview them, then inform them and give them an opportunity to think about and discuss the issues, and then interview them again.

The first National Issues Convention held at The University of Texas at Austin in 1996
Al Gore takes questions at the first National Issues Convention held at The University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

“By the second interview, their opinions rest on considerable information and thought,” Luskin said. “You get a picture of what the whole public would think about issues if they knew or thought much about them.

“An important background fact to keep in mind while interpreting the results of ordinary polls is that most people know very little about most issues,” Luskin added. “Many interviewees have never really thought about the question before and their responses are therefore flimsy. If you ask the same people the same question some time later, there is usually only a modest correlation between the two answers.”

Deliberative Polls have been conducted by the team in the United States, Australia, Denmark, Bulgaria and Great Britain, and have shown dramatic shifts in opinions of the sample population after the event. The issues tackled in these Deliberative Polls have been complex and have included crime, the adoption of the Euro and the possible move of a country from a monarchy to a republic.

The upcoming event in Philadelphia will be addressing the issues of America’s military power, human rights, globalization and world health, and environmental issues. Luskin said that while it can’t be predicted how the participants’ views will change, researchers are sure there will be change.

“They will emerge with more information and having thought more about the issues,” he said. “We know that some people will change their minds. What we don’t know is whether those changes will cancel each other out, or if there will be a preponderant shift in one direction or another.”

“I think it’s fair to say that the public, in aggregate if you give them a chance, is very wise,” Fishkin said. “Policymakers and experts are always surprised at how smart the results are when people get together and focus on an issue. And it’s usually some combination of positions that are not entirely predictable beforehand. It’s not that they move left or right—they focus on the substance of the issues and come up with some way of dealing with it that often defies stereotypes. It’s really inspiring.”

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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