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A Deliberative Poll, modelled after ancient Athenian democracy, seeks to examine what the public would think if given an opportunity to be informed of competing arguments and to deliberate with their peers on topics of social and public policy.

The Problem: Citizens are often uninformed about key public issues. Conventional polls represent the public’s surface impressions of sound bites and headlines. The public, subject to what social scientists have called "rational ignorance" has little reason to confront the tradeoffs or invest time and effort into acquiring information.

The Process: Deliberative Polling is an attempt to use public opinion research and television in a new and constructive way. A random, representative sample is polled on the issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants spend a good part of the weekend deliberating with each other in small group discussions run by trained moderators, weighing the costs and trade-offs of various policy options. They also engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions. Parts of the weekend’s events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the weekend’s deliberations, the sample is asked the same questions again. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach under ideal circumstances, that is, when it has an opportunity to become more informed and engaged by the issues and to work through the pros and cons of a variety of options.

The History: Professor James Fishkin at the Center for Deliberative Democracy (Stanford University) and formerly of the University of Texas at Austin, originated the concept of Deliberative Polling in 1988. Professor Fishkin has served as either Director or academic advisor of all Deliberative Polls conducted thus far. Issues Deliberation Australia / America (IDA) has refined and developed the Deliberative Polling methodology for the Australian community.  

Deliberative Polls have been enacted over 50 times in different parts of the world (including Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, Denmark and Canada). In the United Kingdom topics have included crime and punishment, the future of the British Monarchy and Britain’s role in the European Union. In the United States topics have included foreign policy, the economy and environmental policy. In Australia there have been three national Deliberative Polls on whether or not Australia would become a republic, relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples and relations between Muslim and non-Muslim Australians. Two regional deliberations have also been held in Australia on human rights in the Australia Capital Territory and constitutional reform in South Australia. 

The Results: Each Deliberative Poll conducted to date has gathered a highly representative sample together in a single place. Each time, there were dramatic, statistically significant changes in views. The result is a poll with a human face. The process has the statistical representativeness of a scientific sample, but it also has the concrete, immediate and rich data of a focus group or discussion group. Taped and edited accounts of the small group discussions provide an opportunity for the public to reframe the issues in terms that connect with ordinary people. Results from Deliberative Polls have informing power. The degree to which results have informed policy vary. Examples include: adoption of recommendations for framing the ACT Bill of Rights legislation, adoption of sustainable energy sources in Texas such as windmills; and for policy on adopting the Euro in Denmark. 



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