Deliberative polling refers to a set of traditional polling and focus groups where opinions of subjects are measured as well as the reasons for those opinions and their capacity to change are analysed (Cooper 1995). During deliberative polling process, participants fill an initial opinion surveys then converse to discuss the information and explain issues in small groups and conduct the survey for the second time. The main area of focus for the participant is the change in opinions rather than opinions themselves.
With regards to community planning, deliberative polling refers to a method that can be used to resolve and manage conflicts of interest. Traditional opinion polls are important in explaining opinions and ideas but deliberate polling is useful in helping citizens make proper considerations for strong opinions and issues that are already under consideration (Cookson & Dolan 1999). The method is applicable as a substitute to the use of email surveys or regular questionnaires but can be compared to tools like design charrettes, study circles or world cafes.
During the process, people may be required to fill out a survey about ideas to a proposal for land use regulation. When the initial poll has been conducted, participants would meet in person to consider the components such as unbiased written information on the topic, have discussion in groups and conduct a meeting with experts (Cohen 1989). Small groups are usually formed after a meeting with experts to allow discussion about reactions and clarification of issues. This is followed by filling out of the post-deliberation surveys by the respondents themselves. The main difference between the small groups and the focus groups is that the latter is not placed on identifying the feelings of participants, but elaboration of the differences in views and new information that can contribute to a variation in opinions.
This approach of consultation is mainly popular during discussion of issues that require opinions of respondents and are also suited for large planning issues where there is the need to get a feedback for a set of opinions. The amount of time required for a deliberative polling process is usually two days.
How the Process is Conducted
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The main materials required before the process begins basically consist of elements that enable the participants understand the issues (Coast 1996). This is mainly applicable in the case of a televote as participants have to converse with one another and make reasonable contributions without participating in a structured group discussion.
It begins with a random polling, in which a representative sample is chosen based on target issues. This is followed by invitation of members of the sample to a single location for a period of two days of deliberation on particular legislative proposals. Balanced briefing materials are then availed to the participants at the right time to provide the proper information regarding the advantages and disadvantages of each legislative idea (Campbell 1995). This is followed by a group discussion that takes place in two stages. Trained moderators assist in reviewing the background, determination of strengths and weaknesses of each idea and identification of questions for further discussion. A joint session discussion with experts and political leaders from either side follows where questions to be addressed during the session are developed in group discussions.
This is followed by are-poll participation where the sample involved in the initial survey is asked the previous questions to assist in determining change of their ideas with discussion of information (Carr & Halvorsen 2001). The implication is that a change of idea represents the conclusions that would emerge if the participants had the ability to become more informed and involved.
Strengths of Deliberative Polling
The main advantage of this process is that participants are provided with the data and they can make informed choices. They receive the questions they are required to answer and share the information with the people in their surrounding. Thus they are able to discuss the questions to arrive at the right conclusion regarding the issue under discussion (Canadian Policy Research Networks 2000). Participants are also able to consult professionals who have the information regarding the questions they have been supplied with. This assists in getting the exact answers to the questions asked. It is also important in ensuring any mistakes, which would have been made during the initial answering process, are avoided.
Furthermore, the process is usually open and is based on informed debate. Consequently, the results cannot be easily manipulated. This is because each participant will contribute his ideas regarding the topic and the final decisions of the group are followed. Thus, any individual who has a different answer from the ones voted for by the majority of participants cannot manipulate the results to have their own ideas. In addition, the debating process ensures the most convenient answer is reached when determining the causes of a particular aspect within the environment.
There are also a number of formats that can be used to understand the questions sent to the participants. These include small groups, hearing and questioning witnesses (Bowling, Jacobson and Southgate 1993). For instance, it is a method that can be used by those who have no idea of the subject being discussed. However, they can seek the assistance of professionals that are conversant with the area of studies to obtain the correct answers to the question.
In deliberative polling process participants are representative of all respondents. The sample involved in the study is usually high quality sample that is compared with those who opt to attend and a sub-sample. Both demographically and attitudinally, there are usually few statistical differences and high modesty (Bowie, Richardson and Sykes 1995). Participants of the research are usually older and better educated and have the interest in and are knowledgeable about the topic compared to non-participants. The use of unusual incentives for participation ensures that the usual biases in self-selection processes are reduced. Consequently, participant sample such as those in the interview process tends to be highly representative.
At the individual level, there is usually a change of opinion where some participants tend to move away from one idea to another. A portion of this could be bouncing around undeveloped attitudes but generally there is usually some statistically significant net variation (Bostwick 1999). At least half of the policy attitude items have indicated a smaller number of questions with respect to vote intention.
Furthermore, there is typically the possibility of participants gaining information. Usually, questions are asked regarding factual information possessed by participants about the topics under discussion. In order to tap to the general knowledge, a question is added regarding the general political knowledge such as those of the party’s location on a liberal-conservative or left-right dimension (Bellah 1985). Deliberative polling also increases single peakedness, as a matter of fact, on issues that are not generally highly salient and on matters where single peakedness is considered. It may not be possible for the participants to agree after deliberating, but they may consent in this sense with regards to what they agree or disagree about. The significance of this concept is that single peakedness results into a reduced possibility of Arrovian preferences marginalising the meaning of the majority rule.
Deliberative polling tends to promote balanced learning. Since facts may support one side of the argument more than the other, deliberative polling provides evidence to support this argument. In certain cases of deliberative polling, it has been observed that some of the factual information may be conforming to one side while other data supports another side (Beierle & Konisky 2000). This allows participants in one camp to learn about happenings in their camp in comparison to those in another camp. Furthermore, deliberative polls lead into a reduced collective confusion of mass democracy by creating shared public environment to enable people to contribute their public opinions. Consequently, the claim that deliberative polling results into confusion and antimonies of rational choice is exactly wrong. If anything, the need to avoid preference cycles argues for deliberation, anxieties about cycles have been overrated from the outset.
In case televote is used, the main advantage is that it does not depend on the capacity of resources within an organization such as in the case of deliberative polling. Thus, organizations that have limited resources are able to achieve the goals of the project irrespective of the amount demands for the research process (Beierle & Cayford 2002). Furthermore, it acts as a representative of the entire exercise. This results into avoidance of using a large amount of research to arrive at the conclusion for the research. It also leads into more confidence in the final answers since the findings from participants are compared and discussed to arrive at an agreement regarding the nature of the study.
The main strength of deliberative polling is that the public is made more willing to deliberate. When selected individuals are provided with the right documents, they are able to think about the structure of the questions and analyse possible answers they have come across in their environment (Beierle 1999). This leads into the possibility of providing the most accurate answers to the questions contained in the research proposal. The process of engaging citizens is considered a direct response to discontent among the public with the past participation process as well as the loss of defence in trust and public officials. Experience from the participation in deliberative exercises has resulted into observations that participants have showed positive attitude towards becoming informed about their conditions, despite their concerns for the process.
The other strength of deliberative polling is that participant in the process are provided with balanced briefing materials that provide the main arguments for and against the proposals that are well-organized for professional discussion. The arguments contain both empirical premises that can be debated upon and are likely to provide factual information while the document is availed to the public to provide a starting point for discussion (Abelson, Lomas, Eyles, Birch and Veenstra 1995). Generally, it enables the operation of advisory board, which vets it for balance and accuracy.
During the process of discussion of issues, participants are divided into small groups that are headed by trained moderators. This ensures that the atmosphere of civility and mutual respect is maintained and supports airing of arguments for and against them in the briefing document. In addition, instead of representing an accurate depiction of opinions of the public, deliberative polling can also be useful in achieving the creation of counterfactual opinion. In this case the results of the polls provide a projection of the force, which recommends dissemination into the broad public (Abelson et al. 2001). A counterfactual representation can be used to suggest to the rest of the population certain facts about a particular issue that needs to be taken seriously because it comes from a relatively reliable proxy. This has been considered a different method compared with the one proposed in an attempt to correct conventional opinion polls, but it also presents a set of experiments in other countries that have contributed towards acceptance of deliberative polls.
In addition, when deliberative polling is used on the national level, there is the advantage of developing a fairly diverse microcosm of the total country, ready to create a confrontation with the trade-offs and a range of issues and provision of a guide to others who need to follow the right opinions (Cooper 1995). This has been specifically true in areas where events are combined with national broadcasts and vast media coverage. The process of widespread dissemination of results allows participants, who had not participated in an event, access the conclusions and major concerns of deliberators and apply them for their individual political behaviour. These events are generally expensive, and most deliberative polls have not been ambitious to that degree. Thus, they operate mainly on the local levels where it is possible to conduct face-to-face interactions in the polls followed by a broader and more casual debate on a later date.
There is also a balance in onsite discussion while the discussion groups are usually heterogeneous (Cookson & Dolan 1999). Anticipatory deliberation is usually quantitatively superior as well as quantitatively different from deliberate ideal. There is a balance in briefing documents and expert panels and the existence of moderators ensures a balance during small group discussions and random assignment enables consideration of alternative arguments and points of view as well as sharing them with others that are not very similar.
Weaknesses of Deliberative Polling
Not all professionals taking part in deliberative polling support the ideas of its use in the polling process. There are certain objections towards the concept that have made it less popular among researchers.
Evaluation of deliberative process has resulted into uncertainty regarding the amount of information presented and the level of communication with which participants (Cohen 1989). There is also the concern regarding the ability of the public to measure the effectiveness of the information presented that is liable to be influenced by people, who have sponsored the research. In addition, the motives of the sponsors might disagree with democratic philosophies that underpin the concept of jury citizens.
There is also an unavoidable imbalance between those who are expected to have the required information and those who control its dissemination and the forum within which the debate occurs. There may also be power imbalances among participants as a result of masking from institutionalised comfort among participants who may take part equally (Coast 1996). Comfort of this kind is neither realistic nor beneficial to pursue as it prevents understanding of inequalities that exist among participants and decision makers.
In the case where events of deliberative polling are carried out in the media, many critics argue that the final result produced by the poll can be seriously flawed. For instance, it has been pointed out that deliberative polls only project the opinions of the public regarding how it can look like under certain tightly controlled situations (Campbell 1995). It has been also added that there is the possibility of scepticism regarding the accuracy of the data used during the survey process when the data is obtained through multiple polling events. This is explained by pointing out that conclusions made by participants during a deliberative polling process can be influenced by the Hawthorne effect. In controlled conditions, subjects have been observed to improve in their behavioural aspects being measured, since they are aware they are being studies and they do not respond to any experimental manipulation (Carr & Halvorsen 2001). In deliberative polling process where many events have reached considerable media attention, there has been increased concern that the conclusion arrived at by participants can indicate biases. These biases are related to the situation where subjects respond to the spotlight instead of having the increased understanding of the subject.
The other uncertainty brought by the use of deliberative polling is that when the system is exposed to complexities. There is the possibility of participants becoming sympathetic to the difficulties faced by decision makers who are involved in managing these issues on the daily basis.
The other limitation of deliberative polling process is that it requires huge financial allocations for achieving the research objectives such as mailing questions to respondents, organising discussions and comparing the answers from a number of respondents. It also requires a high level of organisational effort that results into considerable financial costs ultimately (Canadian Policy Research Networks 2000). There are also substantial expenses related to deliberative methods such as the possibility of the jury to justify their use mainly for crucial issues where there exist articulated options and a set of information. Creation of this list of open transparent process, the jury is subjected to vulnerability to interest groups, particularly in the case where clear and distinct recommendations are produced that are targets of mobilization.
In addition, deliberative processes are difficult to execute and consequently should not be used in making difficult decisions, such as choosing programs, limiting programs eligibility or closing facilities. The other challenge is that it is not easy to measure accountability of the participants for the outcomes of the process of deliberation. The process is only in one input into decision making process or if the ultimate decision is several years into the future or may not be considered at all (Bowling, Jacobson and Southgate 1993). There is also the difficulty of building an infrastructure of civil deliberation within communities and public organisations.
There are also difficulties experienced in mitigating strong vested interests that tend to use deliberative processes to sway discussions or the findings of the exercise. In addition, there is uncertainty in methods of mitigating possible biases that come to witnesses and information selection and presentation since there is usually inadequate citizen control or ownership of the deliberative process (Bowie, Richardson and Sykes 1995). Additional challenge is in achieving representative sample when there is unwillingness to participate among citizens.
There is social homogeneity in the process brought up when people tend to talk more with individuals like themselves from the same social conditions and circumstances. In addition, real-world deliberations cannot be balanced. People tend to use sources of information and partners of conversation that are already familiar to them.
The findings of deliberative polling experiments are useful in various ends based on the initial agenda of sponsoring organisations, levels of media coverage and the possibility of events being connected directly to policy-making processes. Generally, however, the most likely outcome of deliberative polling events has been the anticipated strength and accuracy of the data used in the survey in comparison to other methods of research.
As a method of conducting survey, the facts obtained through deliberative polling processes are intended for presentation of accurate outcome of events on a particular issue. It has been possible to enhance the accuracy of data obtained through comparison of initial baseline survey from the final survey by prolonging deliberation over multiple days rather than a single day. However, this paper shows that there are also a number of disadvantages associated with deliberative polling process, which include high costs of conducting the research and the possibility of the most authoritative members of the groups manipulating the outcomes of the discussion. However, the general goal of deliberative process towards accomplishment of a research process is a matter that requires considerable attention from researchers. More studies need to be done on areas where weaknesses of the process can be amended and effectiveness of the research process is improved.
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