Consultation Techniques

There are several consultation techniques to enable politicians to gain a better understanding of complex and sensitive issues.

Governments should consult the population on issues where disagreement is likely and there is a need to reach a settlement that everyone is prepared to accept.  Three types of process are considered here: opinion surveys to guide policy making, detailed consultations with interest groups to resolve difficult issues, and referendums to obtain the agreement of the whole population.

Technology has now made opinion surveys easier, for issues which are sufficiently straightforward to be resolved by a voting process.  Nowadays it is possible for a government to gauge opinion informally, for example by using the Internet, telephone interviews, or phone-in voting in conjunction with a television programme.  These gain in legitimacy if there is a published mechanism for registering people in the affected interest groups, or if the sample size is large enough to include a statistically significant number of people in each group.  They are the cheapest of the consultation techniques.

Detailed consultation with interest groups is a good way of dealing with complex or sensitive issues.  These interest groups, as defined previously (6.4.4), often have detailed knowledge and expertise.  Environmental bodies are a good example. Existing ethnic organisations such as churches can be approached where relevant, although they may not be regarded as representative – as discussed in the next sub-section (  These consultations should sometimes be combined with opinion surveys to ensure that the ‘silent majority’ is not ignored.

A referendum can give the whole population an opportunity to choose between two options – which must be carefully defined at the outset.  It is a mistake to use one to make complex policy decisions, as described earlier (, and it may not be wise for the government to commit to accepting the outcome unless there is a very substantial majority in favour of one of the options in all parts of the country.  With questionable political wisdom or sense of propriety, Antigua and Barbuda didn’t even wait for Queen Elizabeth II to be buried before starting to discuss the possibility of a vote on whether to become a Republic – and its proposed alternative to a constitutional monarchy would have to be very carefully defined and explained before having a referendum on the issue.



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6531a.htm.