18.104.22.168 Consultation Techniques
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 deliberations 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. Existing ethnic organisations such as churches can be approached, for example, although they may not be regarded as representative – as discussed in the next sub-section (22.214.171.124).
The OECD report on Innovative Citizen Participation (referred to in the previous section) offers best practice guidelines for conducting ‘deliberative democracy’ among “relatively small (but representative) groups of people”. The process “involves weighing carefully different options, access to accurate and relevant and diverse information, and participants finding common ground to reach a group decision”. The report emphasises that this can result in improved policy decisions which gain public acceptance – provided that the government is clear about the objectives, conducts the process transparently, and agrees to abide by the results.
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 (126.96.36.199), 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/edition04/6531.htm.