Published on May 11, 2015

Would deliberative methods have been even more wrong than the polls?

People & participation

By Amy Pollard

Dr Amy Pollard is Deputy Director at Involve. She has over 10 years experience working on accountability, policy and power, and a passion for using effective public engagement to drive positive change.


As the Guardian posted self-help articles on how to deal with the shock of Labour’s election defeat, the Telegraph was analysing why the polls had got it wrong – consistently putting the contest on a knife edge when in fact the Tories were set for a small majority.

Even in the euphoria of victory, the right are undergoing some some soul searching.  Are members of the public ashamed to tell the nice polling man that they will actually be voting conservative?  Is there actually a sea of young people who are Conservative voters, but who carry their political opinions around like a guilty secret?

My initial reaction to the polling discrepancy was that there might be an opportunity for deliberative, participative methods in all this.  So often, such methods play second fiddle in the evidence stakes to big number, quantitative surveys.  But if these methods have their own problems, perhaps there’s a stronger case for triangulation through a mixed method approach.

But as my colleague @timjhughes pointed out, it may be that deliberative methods are even more skewed than the polls.  In participative processes, the public are usually asked to explore and express their views in a social context – much more exposing than having a private word with the polling man. As Tim and my Sciencewise paper explored, questions around a ‘pro-social’ bias to such processes are common – where participants end up being more sympathetic to ideas that are oriented towards wider, community wide concerns or benefit those other than themselves, having spent time thinking about the issues in a collective rather than a private context.

It has always been the skill and the obligation of good facilitators to enable people to feel comfortable expressing their opinions, but the events of the last few days force us to reflect on a specific dimension of this challenge:  How can facilitators ensure that the opinions people feel are ‘taboo’ are nonetheless aired and incorporated into deliberation?  How can we ensure that processes are valid explorations of the views people hold privately, as well as those they are happy to volunteer in front of others?

If the right feel that a pro-social bias is intrinsically a bias against their agenda, then answering these questions convincingly will be central to the case for public engagement and participative methods.

Arguably the need for this work has never been greater.  As Britain becomes ever more divided, our political debate becomes ever more at risk of being conjured as a series of demonised stereotypes  – the selfish and small minded Tories on one side; the feckless and foolish Labour on the other; the hateful and backwards UKIPers down south; the chippy, destructive Scots up north.  With an EU referendum looming and the relationships between the countries of the Union under ever more strain, very few of the complex political issues we face are readily explored through closed questions in the polls, or by marking an X at the ballot box.  Now, more than ever, is the time for a richer, deeper conversation about the concerns and values of citizens in Britain, to ensure that our diverse communities are brought together to understand one another, and to ensure the culture of our political discussion enables everyone feel comfortable taking part.

Image credit:  Khuroshvili Ilya



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