California's Latest Experiment in Democracy: Deliberative Polling

By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
December 19, 2011
California is once again experimenting with its democracy, this time with new approach to helping the public understand reform proposals.
Image courtesy Flickr user °Simo°

Ever the pioneer in the political process, California is once again experimenting with its democracy, this time with new approach to helping the public understand reform proposals. Conducted earlier this year, the What’s Next California Project is California’s first state-wide deliberative poll, in which a random sample of the population is polled on important public-policy issues, then gathers to discuss those issues and is polled again. Deliberative polls have been conducted around the world, in Britain, Australia, Denmark and the U.S. The inaugural California poll covered four basic areas: the initiative process, the state legislature, state and local relations and tax and fiscal issues. Thirty proposals were deliberated by a scientific sample of 412 participants.

How it works:

  1. Random polling. A random, representative sample is polled on the targeted issues.
  2. Convening. Members of the sample are invited to a single location for a weekend of deliberation on specific legislative proposals.
  3. Balanced briefing materials. Carefully balanced briefing materials are provided to the participants in advance, to provide background and information about the pros and cons of each legislative proposal.
  4. Group discussions. Participants engage in two stages of discussion:
    • Group sessions with trained moderators to review and consider the background, strengths and weaknesses of each proposal, and identify questions for further discussion.
    • Joint session with experts and political leaders from both sides of the issues, who address questions developed in group discussions.
  5. Re-poll participants. Following the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions to determine whether opinions have changed with information and discussion.

The idea is that any changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach if people had an opportunity to become more informed and engaged. As you might imagine, the California deliberative poll yielded some fascinating discussions about how citizens feel about the important structural issues facing our state. Discussions helped the groups to think through their arguments for and against proposals; in the end, support for all four of the initiative proposals increased following the discussions.

Is this the future of polling? Perhaps a way to craft legislative proposals to remake our state government? Unfortunately, deliberative polls are expensive, especially when conducted on a statewide basis. Not only is rigorous sampling and screening necessary, but participants must be sequestered in a single location for a series of conversations — not an inexpensive proposition when bringing 500 people from across the state. On a more local level, however, there may be promise for the deliberative process. Testing local or regional initiatives could simultaneously contain the cost and streamline the process. Still, the cost is significant for any issue compared to more traditional methods.

As the dust from this inaugural session settles, what comes next?

Join us for a discussion of the California deliberative poll results >>
Our January 3 forum features key organizers James Fishkin of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, Zabrae Valentine of California Forward and Lenny Mendonca of McKinsey & Company.

Learn more about the delibeartive polling process>>

Watch videos of the sessions, and read the results of the California poll at the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy.