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Dr Marc Pauly: ‘Deliberative polling increases citizen involvement’

29 June 2011

Government could increase citizen involvement if it were to organize deliberative polls, according to Marc Pauly, researcher at the University of Groningen. ‘Participants in a deliberative poll receive balanced information from scientists and often first discuss the subject with people with a very different opinion on the subject. This is a major advantage in comparison to other forms of civil participation. The choices made in a deliberative poll are made much more consciously.’

Marc Pauly
Marc Pauly

The deliberative poll is new to the Netherlands, although other countries use it regularly. And with success, says Pauly. ‘Policy decisions are better and citizen involvement is increased. It’s very important though that the solutions that are brought up and chosen are taken seriously and subsequently executed.’

Active participation

Deliberative polling is a research method centred on active participation of citizens. Random sampling is used to compile a group of participants. This is where the poll differs greatly from other survey methods. Pauly: ‘Referendums and neighbourhood meetings are open to all. However, usually only those interested in the subject or people holding objections will actually bother to make themselves heard. Deliberative polling is done with a group that is as representative as possible. This decreases the chance that only those initially interested will be involved in deciding.’

Greater understanding

Deliberative poll participants are interviewed in advance and then engage in a discussion with one another and with experts. Pauly: ‘People with the same social background also often have similar opinions. This means that they also run into other opinions for a change. You really see that understanding for others’ points of view is nurtured.’ Surveys held before and after such meetings show that participants have grown much more knowledgeable about the subject. ‘That means that participants make a much more nuanced decision, in any case they are better informed. In a referendum there are people voting who are totally uninformed.’

In early 2010 Pauly organized a deliberative poll at neighbourhood level. Residents of the Groningen neighbourhood provided ideas on countering nuisance and increasing neighbourhood safety. The meeting was significantly less antagonistic than a ‘normal’ neighbourhood meeting. Pauly: ‘Such meetings often have an “us against them” atmosphere. This time though, the atmosphere was considered to be quite positive. The discussion was on a positive note and much more constructive than the involved housing corporations were used to.’

Costly method

Of course there are drawbacks to deliberative polling as well. ‘The method is costly in terms of energy, time and money’, Pauly says. ‘A balanced information package must be provided, experts need to be invited to provide information and the interviewers have to be paid.’ In order to draw participants, Pauly also organizes child care and often provides a financial incentive for participants’ input. ‘However, if the decision that the poll should lead to is one with guaranteed concrete effects, the financial incentive can be kept quite low’, according to Pauly.

Increasing legitimacy

Deliberative polling increases engagement, Pauly states. ‘Because participants really get the feeling that they do have influence. That’s why it’s important for a deliberative poll to be linked to concrete decisions. The result is that some governance is returned to the hands of citizens.’

Curriculum Vitae

Marc Pauly (Germany, 1973) studied cognitive science at Stanford University. Since 2008 he has been a researcher at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Groningen.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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