Something happening here

Consider the impact of opinion polling on democratic politics. It has been huge. Now something even bigger is just around the corner.

Governments, political parties and advocacy groups are already using the Internet to engage citizens and stakeholders in new ways – just as they turned to the telephone, radio and TV in an earlier era.

But will these new tools strengthen citizens’ voices, making our democracy more citizen-centred, or will they concentrate more influence in the hands of party strategists and consultants, making it more elite-driven?

It would be wise here to learn from the recent past. In its early days, opinion polling involved face-to-face interviews in the street or in people’s homes. By the mid-1920s, Literary Digest was doing large-scale mail surveys to predict the outcome of presidential elections.

But polling only really took off with the telephone. Once pollsters discovered they could gather a scientific sample in a single night and broadcast the results the next day, the die was cast. For the next half-century, politics would become increasingly poll-driven. The results have been mixed at best.

For example, elected representatives used to be a central part of the democratic process. They were the direct link back to the voters. Leaders relied on them to get a sense of what people were thinking on the ground and to help them decide how the public might respond to a new policy or initiative.

Similarly, political parties once helped broker big ideas by bringing together like-minded people and trying to capture their thinking on the issues of the day. Polling changed all that.

Governments and party leaders found it cheaper, faster and more reliable to poll than to listen to elected representatives or conduct party processes. Today, their role is largely filled by a new cadre of strategists and consultants. As a result, the influence of representatives and of the party rank-and-file has declined. And politics has become more centralized and elite-driven.

Nevertheless, as a policy development tool, polls and surveys are far from perfect. They are confined to people’s responses at a particular moment in time. This can and does change quickly. Debate, exposure to the views of others or new information can all change how people think about an issue.

Focus groups are a partial answer to this problem. They allow for a real discussion in which participants can learn more about an issue, interact with one another, exchange ideas and adjust their views. But they usually involve only a small number of people. As a result, the findings are not very reliable.

The Internet is launching a new era here. Soon we will have reliable ways of engaging a representative sample of citizens, stakeholders or experts in rigorous, deliberative discussion of an issue.

uch processes could last weeks or even months. They will permit new information to be introduced along the way, let participants discuss it, review and revise their opinions in light of it, and make compromises and trade-offs.

It will be possible to track the evolution of such a dialogue rigorously. And, finally, all this will be available at a fraction of the cost of bringing them together for, say, a conference or assembly of some kind. These new tools will take us a quantum leap beyond what we can do with opinion polls and focus groups.

They also give us a chance to reverse the elitist and centralizing trend of the past few decades. Governments and political parties could use them to make the policy process more inclusive, open, transparent and responsive.

Elected officials could use them to engage their constituents in new ways, both in the riding and in parliamentary processes.

But nothing is guaranteed. They could just as easily reinforce the status quo. If we want to change the culture, governments must make a clear commitment to begin experimenting with these tools now, and to do so in ways that aim at making citizens’ voices more influential in the process.

This is not just a decision for the prime minister, premier or even the deputy. As these tools come on line, policy makers and program managers across government will be using them to connect with citizens in new ways.

Whether we realize it or not, the state of our democracy a decade from now will depend as much on how they use these tools as by what our leaders decide. Everyone’s choices count.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 060769

Don Lenihan ([email protected]) is President and CEO of Crossing Boundaries.

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