11 Juillet 2012
Once upon a time, in ancient Athens, state policy was decided not by elected representatives, but by a great assembly of all eligible citizens. Five hundred of these citizens were also chosen by lot for the Bouletai, or council, which spent time deliberating the issues facing Athens and drawing up bills for the assembly's consideration.
In the modern world, a small-scale version of this selection by lot and the group deliberation that was such an important part of Athenian democracy is being resurrected by U.S. academics in the form of deliberative polls.
In a deliberative poll, respondents are chosen at random to answer questions on relevant issues, just as in a regular opinion poll. Unlike a regular poll, however, the process doesn't stop there. Respondents are invited to a weekend event where they are given detailed information about the issues at hand, hold discussions with experts and politicians, and debate various points of view. At the end of the weekend, the respondents are asked the same survey questions again and, according to the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, "The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had (the) opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues."
Deliberative polls have been conducted in the U.S., Britain, Australia and Denmark, and have recently been attracting attention in Japan as well. Specifically, deliberative polling is set to be used to help choose between one of three options presented by the government for Japan's energy future -- a weighty issue in the wake of last year's meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant.
Though the government is aiming to make a final decision by the end of August this year, this is no simple three-option choice. The issue is complicated, with questions such as what percentage of Japan's energy output should be nuclear intertwined with future electricity prices and carbon dioxide emissions. This must all be considered very carefully, and in this light, the turn to deliberative polling seems abrupt. The technique may have been tested by local governments and other organizations, but on this issue the stakes are far higher. We are talking about nothing less than putting the future of Japan in the hands of deliberative polling, a move akin to suddenly sending an experimental car on a cross-country trip thousands of kilometers long.
There are probably misgivings among researchers, too, over the use of deliberative polling. Last month, over 20 experts with experience in deliberative polling submitted a position paper to the government. In it, the experts pointed to a number of problems with the government's polling plans, including failure to present methods for choosing participants fairly and preventing their views from being steered in a particular direction, and an untenable schedule.
In the democracy at ancient Athens, only men were allowed to sit in the citizens' assembly or become members of the Bouletai council. Women, slaves and foreigners were all excluded. In other words, the Athenian system deviated from the democratic spirit from the very beginning.
By the same token, even if the idea behind deliberative polling is a just one, problems could arise in its implementation. If the deliberations are tainted with suspicions of exclusion and undue influence, they will only breed greater distrust. ("Yoroku," a front-page column in the Mainichi Shimbun)