One of the main points of this chapter is that to make the transition to sustainability in a safe and timely manner we need to identify the public wisdom on sustainability issues.


First, because it will help governments to make the decisions we need them to make. The public wisdom can give the government the kind of “mandate” or authority it needs to tackle divisive issues and make tough decisions, even when doing so may be going against the tide of public opinion as measured by the polls.

Knowing the public wisdom on the matter may also help swing public opinion.

This potential benefit was behind Julia Gillard’s recommendation, in the 2010 election campaign, that a 150-person Citizen’s Assembly be convened to develop some rational consensus around climate change policy.  She apparently believed that identifying the considered opinon of the public on the issue would help break the political impasse.  The proposal had some intrinsic merit but was, as Lyn Carson has described, ridiculed from many directions, with such rejection driven by many different agendas and misunderstandings.   One lesson of this episode is that we need institutions and mechanisms capable of articulating the collective wisdom without requiring any support or approval from the powers that be (see below).

Second, because on many issues, the public wisdom would be best guide to the truth of the matter.  If we’re serious about making the right decision, then we must find out what the public really thinks.

Consider an issue like whether we should have more large dams to better manage scarce water resources.   This simple-sounding question sits on top of a complex web of issues, involving not just factual and technical matters but diverse competing interests and conflicting values.  Certainly many individual experts and interest groups are highly knowledgeable about particular aspects, and their input should be given due consideration.  However such folks always have a particular perspective; they see only their part of the larger elephant.  The wider the involvement – the more diverse and comprehensive the selection of participants – the more chance that all the relevant information can be brought to the decision, and the relevant interests and values recognised and accommodated.

Note that I’m not claiming that the public’s considered opinion is the best guide on any complex matter.  Many issues clearly are matters of specialist expertise, and the general public is in no position assess the merits of different theories.  An obvious example is the science of climate change.  Only the body of climate scientists has the knowledge and competence to settle the scientific issues.  Neither laypeople individually nor the public as a whole have any business trying to make up their own minds on this topic.

However on major sustainability issues there are no individuals or special groups in a uniquely privileged position to discern the truth.  These decisions are matters of interests and values as much as they are matters of knowledge or expertise, and the Australian people are the relevant authorities on what their interests and values are.

But we don’t know what the public wisdom is

The problem with the public wisdom is that we almost never know what it is.  That is, on any given major issue, we don’t know what the collective considered opinion is.  Indeed, that wisdom usually doesn’t even exist, in the sense that nothing has been done to put it together.

We do have many windows onto public opinion, but they’re all either ineffective (don’t deliver public wisdom) or impractical (too cumbersome and expensive).

For example standard opinion polls, for reasons described above, don’t tell us what the public wisdom is.

Well-designed surveys are a step up from standard opinion polls (Reser).  However, these surveys provide little opportunity for the respondents to engage in any sustained reflection, individually or collectively.   They are just more sensitive ways of identifying the attitudes people happen to have.  Ideally, such surveys would play a much larger role than they currently do in the gauging of public opinion.   However they can’t identify the public wisdom, in the sense described above.

Deliberative polling, and why it is not enough

By far the best mechanism we currently have for ascertaining the public wisdom is deliberative polling.  It is summarised on the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy website as follows:

A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.

Over the past few decades, dozens of deliberative polls have been conducted around the world.  In Australia has had a handful, on topics such as republicanism and reconciliation.

Australia would benefit greatly if deliberative polls were held much more often, and if their results were more influential in major decisions.

However, deliberative polling, in its standard form at least, can’t meet the need to deliver the collective wisdom for the purpose of guiding timely decision making on major sustainability issues.

The critical problem is that deliberative poll is a cumbersome exercise and is costly to stage.  This has a number of consequences:

  • There aren’t enough of them.  The large cost is one major reason there have been so few deliberative polls since the idea was first propounded over two decades ago.  It may be that the frequency of deliberative polls is increasing, which is a surely a good thing, but deliberative polling currently and for the foreseeable future can address only a fraction of the issues which properly ought to be guided by public wisdom.
  • They take a long time to set up.  It can take six months or more to set up and run a deliberative poll.  The time from conception – the moment when it is recognised that having a DP on a certain topic would desirable – is far longer.  And of course most deliberative polls that have been conceived simply haven’t been run (yet).
  • Once run, they’re finished.  The public wisdom identified in the deliberative poll is frozen in time.   It becomes outdated and irrelevant as circumstances and information change.

The latter two points may not be such a problem for relatively timeless issues such as whether Australia should become a republic, but they constitute a severe drawback when decisions need to be made quickly on issues which are heavily shaped by circumstances arising at a particular moment in history.

For example, should Australia adopt the Gillard governments carbon pricing scheme?  This is not the general issue of e.g. whether Australia should take action on climate change, and whether it should institute an emissions trading scheme.  Rather it is whether a particular plan should be adopted at a particular historical juncture.  The debate is raging as this is being written, and ideally we would be able to divine the collective wisdom right now.   A deliberative poll on the topic would be great, but it isn’t happening, and practically speaking couldn’t happen for many months.  By the time a deliberative poll was staged, it may well be too late.

A more philosophical quibble with deliberative polling is that, as standardly conducted, it doesn’t deliver public wisdom in the fullest sense.   The primary output of the deliberative poll is the poll results – i.e. a tabulation of individual opinions.  Granted, these individual opinions have become more considered through quality deliberation, and are thus worthy of more respect than the attitudes tapped by standard opinion polls.  However there has been no deeper aggregation of individual judgement into a coherent collective viewpoint.   It is as if the IPCC reports were to consist of an exit poll of climate scientists’ beliefs, rather than a carefully drafted and agreed statement.

This post is the second part of a draft chapter What Do We Think? Identifying the Public Wisdom to Guide Sustainability Decisions, in preparation for the volume 20/20 Vision for a Sustainable Society, being put together by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.


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