What Do You Think?
Public Agenda Advocates for the Use of Public Opinion in Policy Formation
In other words, don't just get information about what Americans are thinking, use it to move the country forward; Ruth Wooden writes that this country needs consensus, not partisanship.
Don't Just Survey Public Opinion; Listen to It
By Public Agenda
November 11, 2004
In this bitter election, public opinion polling has been more controversial – and more inescapable – than ever. Now that the election's over, some frustrated pundits seem ready to junk all surveys because of the problems handicapping the political horserace.
In fact, we need good opinion research to help move the country forward. But research can only play that role if policymakers and pundits stop obsessing so much about measuring public opinion and instead focus on listening to it.
There's no question that it's been a rough year for pollsters. Political operatives, convinced that polls can shape reality as much as they reflect it, have been much quicker to attack the motives of pollsters. Survey methods are an ideal topic for the instant criticism provided by bloggers and pundits. A lot of these criticisms don't hold water. Election Day showed the pre-election polls were accurate within their margin of error, which is all anyone can ask. And while the exit polls were misleading, one major reason was that they were leaked before they were complete.
But aside from the political junkies, who eat up poll figures the way baseball fans devour batting averages, what are the American people supposed to do with this information? Did all this survey work really help the average voter understand what was at stake? Did it even help the experts understand the average voter?
There have also been many debates over methodology and whether the public's changing telephone habits are hurting opinion research. These are reasonable concerns and the survey industry needs to grapple with them. But the larger problem with surveys today isn't methodology. It's that too many of the people who conduct them – and pay for them – are primarily interested in news hooks and debating points.
News organizations sponsor election polls for the same reason sportswriters keep a scorecard: to know who's ahead, who's behind. Politicians and advocacy groups use surveys as market research to find out whether the public will buy what they're selling. For these groups, discussing surveys is like watching TV in a sports bar, where half the fun is arguing over the strengths and weaknesses of the teams beforehand – and half the joy of victory comes from letting everyone know you made the right call.
Don't misunderstand us: surveys remain an essential tool for gauging public opinion. Think about it: what are the other options for finding out what the public thinks? Listening to talk radio? Asking your friends and neighbors? In a country that's so divided by geography and ideology, that's worse than useless.
The "red-state, blue-state" division may be overblown or abused to score debating points on television. But it's pretty clear that there's something to this. Different sets of Americans are looking at the world in different ways -- and translating that into politics.
Some, including Public Agenda, believe the most important benefit of surveys is to better inform political and opinion leaders about the public's concerns. With that knowledge, leaders can craft more meaningful and responsive policies. Leaders have little chance of reaching across the red-state, blue-state divide without it.
It's precisely on this point that this year's surveys fell short and this failure seems to reappear every election. The repetitive and unimaginative drumbeat of surveys asking about the horserace, the president's approval rating and the "most important issues" showed the country was divided. This is hardly news to America's leaders – and it does nothing to tell them what the American people want to do to solve those problems.
What we really need is more insightful and thoughtful analysis of the public's views. Public opinion is rich, complicated and valuable – and we need to explore it in that spirit. Otherwise, we'll never truly understand what our fellow citizens believe and the useful guidance they can offer.
The only way to find out is to conduct public opinion research that isn't geared toward scorekeeping. The goal should be to actually listen to the public, to try and figure out not just what they think about a problem but how they think about it. How hard edged are the "red-blue" divisions? What do people really mean when they say they're worried about "moral values?" Is it easier to find common ground on some issues, more difficult in others?
Surveys, used well, can give us a better idea of where Americans want their country to go and what trade-offs they're willing to accept today to build a secure and prosperous nation for the next generation. That's where researchers and their sponsors can do their best work. And that's where surveys can help bring the nation together and move it forward, measuring both the divisions in the nation and the common ground Americans share After such a bitter campaign, with such a divided electorate, that's knowledge the country's leaders ought to have.
What is Public Agenda?
Independent --- Thought-Provoking --- Always in the Public Interest
For over a quarter of a century, Public Agenda has been providing unbiased and unparalleled research that bridges the gap between American leaders and what the public really thinks about issues ranging from education to foreign policy to immigration to religion and civility in American life. Nonpartisan and nonprofit, Public Agenda was founded by social scientist and author Daniel Yankelovich and former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1975. Public Agenda's two-fold mission is to help:
*American leaders better understand the public's point of view.
*Citizens know more about critical policy issues so they can make thoughtful, informed decisions.
Public Agenda is an objective explorer of public opinion and a scrupulously fair minded producer of citizen education materials. Public Agenda's unique research explains and clarifies public attitudes about complex policy issues. Public Agenda's work shows that when presented with accurate information and meaningful choices, Americans can and do make thoughtful decisions.
Public Agenda is frequently consulted by members of Congress and by both Democratic and Republican Administrations. Public Agenda researchers and staff regularly partner with top business and policy organizations.
Public Agenda also works with communities, corporations, school districts and other organizations to conduct substantive public engagement discussions that produce civil, productive dialogue on tough issues.
Every day, thousands log on to Public Agenda Online for up-to-date information on critical issues. Journalists, policy makers, students, teachers and citizens use Public Agenda's web-based Issue Guides to find facts and figures, different perspectives and frequently-updated syntheses of public attitudes.
"Building Consensus, Not Partisanship" by Ruth A. Wooden in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the newspaper of the nonprofit world, October 14, 2004
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