With the Brexit just behind us, questions arise about the eligibility of a referendum for asking people’s opinion. A referendum issue should stand on its own. In the Brexit case, it was clear that the EU discussion was intertwined with other issues. That’s why we’ve listed three alternative public consultation methods. 

According to James Fishkin, two fundamental questions should be considered when obtaining the consent of people. Firstly, one needs to think about whether the public opinion is “raw” or “refined”. For most public issues, a simple yes or no isn’t sufficient to answer the question. That’s why we’d like to focus on a “refined” public opinion where citizens have the possibility to share their experience and ideas. The second fundamental question is whose opinion gets consulted: citizens can decide themselves whether they want to participate, a (non) random sample of the population is taken, or everyone is consulted.

1. Deliberative polling

Deliberative polling combines techniques of public opinion research and public deliberation and measures what the public would think if it was informed and engaged around an issue. The participants of this poll are selected via a large random sample.

(+) Deliberative polls provides insights into public opinions and how people come to decisions. It actively seeks informed opinions and does not force people to reach consensus.

(-) Selected citizens should be incentivized to participate with for example a honorarium or transportation reimbursement. Although the sample size is large and random, ensuring representativeness might be challenging.

Example: In May 2009, ‘EuroPolis’ brought together 350 citizens from across the 27 European Union member states for a three-day dialogue in Brussels, Belgium. Participants considered issues of climate change and immigration in the EU.

2. Citizens’ jury

A citizens’ jury is a randomly selected group of 18-24 citizens, representative of the demographics in the area, who meet routinely over a short period to deliberate an issue. After having being informed about the policy question, they discuss the matter amongst each other. In the end they provide a solution or recommendation to the public decision makers.

(+) A citizens’ jury promotes “common good” as a societal objective and communication between the government and governed. New perspectives on the issues can be introduced and existing ones challenged.

(-) There is no formal power and binding decision accountability involved to act upon the decision. Only a few individuals participate on a resource intensive time commitment.

Example: The citizens’ jury method was first conducted in 1974 by the Jefferson Center in Minnesota. A twelve-person jury deliberated a health care reform.

Rising hands

3. Discussion groups

The last alternative consists of several public consultation methods. A self-selected group of citizens gather either formally or informally to bring up ideas, solve problems or give comments. The participants meet in real-life or online on a social network or dedicated civic engagement platform.

(+) Successful discussion groups may lead to consensus and feelings of enrichment among participants. To some extent, it serves the value of democratic deliberation.

(-) Often the conclusions are not representative of the views for the entire public. If only a particular population group is participating, it is limited in the competing arguments it will raise on policy issues.

Example:  The city of Hasselt, Belgium, let’s citizens digitally discuss ideas on the redevelopment of the park via the CitizenLab platform.

Choosing the right method

Public consultation methods are used to progress a public issue and explore a wider range of opinions. It should be noted that it may be appropriate to use several methods within one consultation strategy either in sequence, or in parallel. Strengths and weaknesses of every method should be assessed in order to maximize the “common good”. After all, public consultation provides opportunities to develop two-way relationships between government and citizens.