Public consultation is a means to improve democratic governance by helping governments consult their citizenry on the key public policy issues the government faces.

Public consultations are conducted with representative samples of the citizenry. Using standard scientific methods, a sample is weighted to reflect the population census on all major demographic variables, thus producing an accurate microcosm of the citizenry.

The public consultation process has the potential to go beyond the limitations of standard public opinion polls and to widen the scope of possible areas on which the public can be meaningfully questioned. This requires giving respondents key information and presenting them a wide range of arguments on the issue. The goal is for respondents to have a deliberative experience that simulates that of a policymaker.

A key feature of the public consultation process is that it is, to the extent possible, developed in conjunction with policymakers, including those representing a range of views on the issue at hand. Policymakers and advocates from both sides are invited to propose and approve the information and arguments that are presented.

The most common form of the consultation process is through an in-depth survey in which respondents are presented key information and the opportunity to deliberate by evaluating the full range of arguments on an issue. Finally, they are asked to express their views in response to a complex menu of policy options. Ideally, such a process is conducted online so that the respondent can take all the time they need to read and re-read the presentation of information, arguments and policy options.

The method developed by our partners at the Program for Public Consultation is conducted online using interactive technology, enabling full transparency and the potential for cost-effective scaling. Respondents go through an online process called a “policymaking simulation.” The content of each simulation is reviewed by proponents and opponents of the proposals to ensure that the briefings are accurate and balanced. During the online public consultation process, respondents:

  • are briefed on current policy proposals, often in current of Congressional legislation
  • evaluate arguments pro and con
  • make their recommendations to policymakers

In some cases, the simulation has an immediate feedback function. For example, when making recommendations related to spending and taxes, respondents receive immediate feedback about the impact of their choices on the budget deficit.

The policymaking simulation is then fielded online as a survey with a large representative sample of citizens. National samples are generally 2,400 or more to enable analysis of views among:

  • those who live in very red to very blue districts
  • various racial and ethnic groups
  • various income and educational levels

Other in-person forms of public consultations include citizen juries and citizen assemblies, which provide citizens briefings and competing arguments, but their samples are much smaller. Another promising deliberative process created by Jim Fishkin and Stanford University’s Center for Deliberative Democracy is Deliberative Polling and the America in One Room project. Their method to bring together a thousand people from across the country to deliberate in one place has proven to change policy views for some attendees and demonstrates that some common ground exists.

Why is Public Consultation a Good Idea?

  • Public consultation responds to Americans’ demand for greater democratic responsiveness and can help restore Americans’ confidence in government.
  • Public consultation can improve policymakers’ understanding of the views of their constituents.
  • Public consultation gives policymakers a way to test new ideas.
  • Public consultation can be a force for greater consensus.
  • Public consultation is a way to draw on the collective intelligence and even wisdom of the society as a whole.