The three reasons why deliberation is more than a poll

“What would citizens think if they really thought?” This quote from James Fishkin a leading figure in the world of deliberative democracy gives a pretty good idea on the profound difference between those methods.

Our ambition and work for over 20 years is to improve the dialogue between citizens, stakeholders and decision-makers, for better collective choices and better decision-making. The deliberation plays a key role in that mission as it aims at bringing out collective intelligence in a co-production process.

Polling: expressing a poor opinion on everything

People who are asked to complete a survey are requested to answer a question by telephone, in print or online to measure the most popular opinion at a given time. Even when the quality of the questions and the have been carefully considered by the polling company or the media, so called “cognitive biases” have a significant impact on the responses.

To make it clear, lets’ take two examples. Most of the time, the “overconfidence effect*” invites us to express an opinion on everything, even without knowledge of the subject. Very often too, the framing effect pushes respondents to decide on options based on whether the options are presented with positive or negative connotations.

Deliberation: learning, exchanging, reasoning, deciding

So what are the main differences between a poll and a process of citizens’ deliberation?

Firstly, deliberation aims at giving enough information to participants. The essential prerequisite for a good deliberation is to share the state of knowledge and discussions in the given field.

It is only afterwards that the participants are invited to discuss and build an opinion individually and collectively. This is the second major difference: deliberation invites each participant to adjust his or her opinion by listening to the others and by articulating their own view. Deliberation allows for the emergence of a public judgment that weights the pros and cons and is able to consider complexity. It is not a pure quantitative aggregation but a sum that is more than the parts.

Thirdly, deliberation put the people in the center of the process: Particular attention is paid to the contributors, individually and collectively. The mission of the facilitator and moderator is to accompany all participants and to welcome any reluctance to help each person to construct his or her opinion and express it freely. Not to extract information from them.

The added value of deliberative processes therefore lies in:

  • The quality of the response, which is itself the result of the time and method given as well as the exchange of views. This idea has been developed through listening to others.
  • The journey of the participants, who feel listened to and taken into account, which is likely to renew trust. Democracy is played out in the recognition of the capacity of inhabitants and stakeholders to be actors, to set themselves in motion, including mentally.

The long-term benefits for the individual and those around him or her are difficult to assess but are powerful. Participants are recognized for their everyday expertise but also for their ability to develop a point of view on complex issues that might have escaped them at the beginning of the process. This emancipatory path is very enriching from an individual and collective point of view. The experience is a learning for elected officials, participants and organizers alike.

Towards a Public judgment

Instead of speaking confidently about an unknown subject, participants mature a point of view. They enter complexity, they doubt, their even despair at some point. But through careful discussion and exchange substantiated points of view emerge that can really inform the decision-making process. No pollsters’ opinions should influence the policy decision. This becomes obvious with a simple perspective by Carl Jung: “Even if the entire population decreed that the sun rotated around the earth, this would not change the path of the sun or the earth.” How do you make a decision based on such data?


*The Dunning-Kruger effect, also known as the overconfidence effect, is a cognitive bias whereby those least qualified in a field overestimate their competence.
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