Throughout the world, policy makers who wish to consult the public appear to face a persistent dilemma. On the one hand, if they consult mass opinion directly, they will get views that are largely uninformed. Most citizens, most of the time, in most political systems, know little about the details of policy options or public policy. Even in systems with active electoral competition, each citizen can easily conclude that his or her individual opinion is unlikely to make much difference. Anthony Downs coined a term for this phenomenon, “rational ignorance” (Downs 1957). On the other hand, if policy makers do not attempt to consult the mass public directly, but leave it to policy elites and organized interests to speak for the people, those elites may have different interests. They may be out of touch with mass concerns. We seem to face a forced choice between politically equal but relatively incompetent masses and politically unequal but relatively more competent elites.
The dilemma is actually worse, in that most efforts to consult the public directly encounter difficulties over the issue of which members of the public are consulted: how are they selected? If one just invites the public to open town meetings, the appearance of mass participation may belie practices in which organized interests actually dominate. Organization is an unequally distributed resource and open forums can be captured through efforts at mobilization. On the other hand, if one conducts scientific polling via random sampling, then it is possible to get the views of a representative sample of the entire population. However, the views solicited will be uninformed or even non-attitudes (if for example, the public has not thought about a question at all, they may almost randomly pick an answer rather than admit that they “don’t know.”)
The research program we call Deliberative Polling is intended to respond to this dilemma. It achieves both political equality and deliberation at the same time. By employing random sampling of the mass public, it counts everyone’s views equally. But by providing good conditions to effectively motivate ordinary citizens to become informed, it overcomes the problem of rational ignorance. Of course everything depends on what we might mean by “good conditions” and questions about the success or failure of this initiative turn on the empirical evidence about what actually happens when citizens deliberate.
Thus far, Deliberative Polling has been conducted mostly in established Western democracies ranging from the US, Britain and Canada, to Denmark and Australia. One Deliberative Poll has been conducted in Bulgaria and another is scheduled for the fall of 2005 in Hungary (for an overview see http://cdd.stanford.edu). While the range of countries and policy contexts has been expanding, there is one notable omission. There has not yet been a case in which a government, rather than a private organization or a television network, has actually conducted the Deliberative Poll itself and then has gone on to implement its conclusions in actual policy. In the context of electric utilities regulation, a number of companies in Texas and elsewhere have conducted Deliberative Polls about how to provide electricity and those recommendations have been implemented. But those DPs were conducted by profit making private companies, not the government itself.
The Deliberative Poll described here, in Zeguo Township, Wenling City, China, is the first to our knowledge that was conducted by the government itself and then actually implemented as a way of making public policy. We believe it is the first case in modern times of fully representative and deliberative participatory budgeting. It harks back to a form of democracy quite different from modern western style party competition – Ancient Athens. In Athens, deliberative microcosms chosen by lot would make important public decisions as part of the official operations of the government. But this solution to the dilemma of public consultation was lost in the dust of history. Random sampling was revived by opinion polling in the twentieth century (what is a random sample, at bottom, but a lottery?). But with opinion polls, the random samples do not deliberate and become more informed. Hence we think that the experiment described here is notable in the context of the long history of democratic reforms, in that it shows how governments, without party competition or the conventional institutions of representative democracy as practiced in the West, can nevertheless realize, to a high degree, two fundamental democratic values at the same time–political equality and deliberation. If the effort is successful, then local democratic efforts can thus achieve responsiveness to informed and thoughtful public opinion. There is a way out of the dilemma, a path suggestive of Ancient Athens, but one that has now surfaced in China–and in a way in which the Chinese case shows an advance over all previous efforts of public consultation.