Public consultation is a means to improve democratic governance by helping governments consult their citizenry on the key public policy issues the government faces.
Public consultations are conducted with representative samples of the citizenry. Using standard scientific methods of random sampling, a sample is chosen and subsequently weighted to reflect the population census on all major demographic variables, thus producing an accurate microcosm of the citizenry.
Standard public opinion polls using representative samples can be an effective means of consulting citizens on issues for which they have already given significant thought.
The public consultation process has the potential to go beyond the limitations of standard public opinion polls and to widen the scope of possible areas on which the public can be meaningfully questioned. This requires giving respondents key information and presenting them a wide range of arguments on the issue. The goal is for respondents to have a deliberative experience that simulates that of a policymaker.
A key feature of the public consultation process is that it is, to the extent possible, developed in conjunction with policymakers, including those representing a range of views on the issue at hand. Policymakers, as well as advocates on different sides of the issue, are invited to propose and finally approve the information and arguments that are presented to respondents.
The most common form of the consultation process is through an in-depth survey in which respondents are presented key information and the opportunity to deliberate by evaluating the full range of arguments on an issue. Finally they are asked to express their views in response to a complex menu of policy options. Ideally such a process is conducted on-line so that the respondent can take all the time they need to read and re-read the presentation of information, arguments and policy options.
In some cases respondents engage in trade-off exercises in which they are required to make graduated choices among competing priorities, just as policymakers must do. For example, respondents may be asked to construct a budget by distributing revenues among numerous spending areas and considering the option of raising or lowering the level of various types of revenue.
For especially challenging or complex issues, it may also necessary for respondents to participate in citizen assemblies in which respondents meet in person for several hours to several days. In this context they have the opportunity to be briefed in depth, to ask questions of experts, and to deliberate in discussions with other respondents before finally coming to their conclusions.
Why Public Consultation is a Good Idea
Public consultation responds to Americans’ demand for greater democratic responsiveness and can help restore Americans’ confidence in government.
Polls show large majorities of the public are demanding that government be more responsive to the will of the people. This is prompted by their commitment to democratic principles. It is also prompted by the growing and now widespread perception that government leaders pay little attention to the voice of the people and prioritize serving special interests over the common good. This has led to disturbingly low levels of trust in government and undermined the public’s readiness to make short term sacrifices for long term goals. Symptomatic are chronic budget deficits which reflect the public’s resistance to paying taxes while still demanding services, prompted by the belief that a large portion of tax money serves special interests and not the interests of the citizenry.
Public consultation is a means to give the people a stronger and clearer voice in the policy process; it is likely to increase the influence of the public and to contribute to restoring confidence in the democratic process and the decisions of government.
It may be that the public has an exaggerated belief about the role of special interests and when given the chance may actually arrive at conclusions largely similar to the ones currently being made. On the other hand, it may be that they may arrive at significantly different policy decisions. In either case, having public consultation will give the public a greater voice and will create an opportunity for a real dialogue that can move beyond the current mistrust.
Public consultation can improve policymakers’ understanding of the views of their constituents.
As mentioned, government officials have limited resources for gaining information about the attitudes of their constituents as a whole. Research shows that when government officials are asked to predict how the majority of their constituents will respond to a question, they are often quite mistaken. Research also shows that policymakers tend to underestimate the willingness of the public to accept the changes necessary to address key problems. Public consultation is a means to improve policymakers’ understanding of the public and is likely to help free policymakers to be more proactive in addressing challenges.
Public consultation gives policymakers a way to test new ideas.
Right now the process by which new ideas emerge is relatively slow: they must first get attention from the media and only then do they gradually gain enough currency to be adapted into proposals for public policy and then finally to be considered by the citizenry. Public consultation gives policymakers the means to quickly and easily test new ideas for addressing current challenges, giving greater efficiency to the broader creative process by which policy develops.
Public consultation is likely to be a force for greater consensus.
The world of people who are actively involved in shaping public policy tends to be highly polarized, with individuals and groups taking strong positions and fighting hard to prevail. In the world of policy advocates and also among elected officials, on a left-to-right scale, there is a u-shaped curve with clusters on the right and left and few in the middle. Among the general public, though, mapped on the same scale, you find a normal curve, with many in the middle and fewer at the extremes. Members of the public are more likely to see some validity in both sides of the issue. Thus they tend to resist choosing one value over another and try harder to find policies that balance and integrate values. In focus groups consisting of representative samples of the public, people rarely argue and spontaneously try to find common ground. Thus public consultation with representative samples is likely to be a greater force for consensus than the existing policy community. Public consultation has the potential to mediate or between the polarized forces of the policy process.
Furthermore, public consultation can help discover the potential for consensus when it is not readily apparent. For example, when an on-line survey reveals a lack of consensus, this would be a key moment for conducting an in-person meeting in which people would have the opportunity to have discussions with people holding different viewpoints. These would be conducted by facilitators trained in proven methods for finding policy consensus.
Public consultation is a way to draw on the collective intelligence and even wisdom of the society as a whole.
Research has shown that the best approach to solving problems is to integrate the views of large numbers of people who are each likely to bring unique perspectives. The integration of these perspectives effectively pools knowledge and tends to produce conclusions that reflect a greater intelligence than is found in even the smartest individual in the group. Research has also shown that when policymaking communities, often consisting of highly intelligent and informed individuals, become unresponsive to outside perspectives they can become subject to ‘groupthink’ which can cause them to have major blind spots and to make decisions that, in retrospect, are seen as highly unfortunate. Public consultation is likely to constantly vitalize the policy discourse by giving expression to the full spectrum of views in the population and drawing on the intelligence of the society as a whole.
Public consultation can facilitate the emergence of constructive developments in society.
Contrary to widespread assumptions, the citizenry tends to be ahead of government in responding to emerging shifts in social norms and new collective priorities. For example, historically the majority of Americans was ahead of the government in supporting racial equality. Currently most Americans believe the government is not taking enough action on climate change, with large majorities supporting all the major legislation and treaties proposed over the last decade. It appears that the distribution of forces influencing the government is more committed to the status quo than is the distribution of attitudes in the public. Public consultation, by giving the public a greater voice, is likely to be a force to promote the emergence of new constructive developments.