Polling is not an effective means of community engagement – here’s why

In a bid to simplify digital public engagement many government organizations are turning to online polls as a quick and dirty solution. But is this a turn for the worse? Are we dumbing down vital and complex public policy conversations? Do quick polls actually help us make good, sustainable, decisions?

There are a number of reasons why polling should be just one of many online tools used to broaden community engagement reach and why they should not be overused. Here are a few.

1. A poll is something you do to people not with them

You poll people. It’s something you subject them to. It’s not a process that allows the community to contribute thoughts, stories, arguments or ideas. When polling is your sole form of community engagement it doesn’t really feel like listening, it feels like voting based on choices someone else has made for you.

Polling is what we do with our children when we want to constrain and guide their choices. In this regard, it is fundamentally patronizing.

Imagine holding a public meeting, one where people actually turn up. The crowd files into the room, there’s an expectant buzz. You start the meeting by calling for a show of hands against three options and then abruptly declare the meeting over, sending the participants on their way without any opportunity to understand the issues, options or consequences in any detail. You’d never do that, but using polling as the sole source of input to an issue looks and feels a lot like it.

2. Polls do nothing to educate

When we poll the community all we are really doing is asking them to choose an answer that fits their current ideas or value set. There is nothing here that encourages listening or learning,  or that challenges preconceived ideas. If you’ve already run a more deliberative process around an issue then polling the participants may represent a valuable form of empowerment. If, on the other hand, you are just putting something out there to measure responses, the process is unlikely to add any value.

Instead why not invite the community to learn about, and deliberate upon, an issue – for example, by asking your experts questions – so they can be better informed prior to polling?

3. Why back yourselves into a corner?

If your first level of engagement is to go to the community with options and ask them to vote, then it’s unlikely that your community will have all the facts at their disposal when they indicate a preference. Nor will they have evolved a position by considering all the ideas and points of view. Community engagement is partially about taking the community through this process, polling alone does not do this. What it does do is put a ‘community position’ on the table which is then very hard to challenge.

What happens when the community votes one way but accountants or engineers are telling you there are good reasons to head in another direction? If you work in government, you have councillors, or other elected officials to make final decisions. Why would you back them into a corner? The results of a community engagement process should help their decision process not tie their hands.

Rather than poll the community, consider instead inviting discussion about issues and options, or even asking for their ideas on solving the problem? This creates an open environment, but doesn’t tie the hands of elected officials to a particular, potentially unaffordable or unsustainable outcome.

4. Do those easy to analyze results really mean anything?

Doug Sarno of the Participation company put it this way:

Public opinion is difficult to define and is just that: opinion. It is rarely the result of thoughtful analysis or deep learning……. So, next time you see the results of a poll, ask yourself “so what does this really mean, and how can I use it in a legitimate way?”

Public participation should be an exchange of views, ideas and stories. It should involve education, answering questions and interaction. A mass online poll just tells you what people think before they go through a process of participation. Those results might just be misleading because they will likely be based on false assumptions, and a poor or misunderstanding of both the problem and the solutions.

So how should we use online polls?

Polls certainly have a place in the lexicon of online engagement tools. There are a number of circumstances where they might be used but importantly this is almost always alongside other, more informative or engaging tools or face to face processes.

Some circumstances where polls are used well:

  • At the end of an engagement process to weigh opinion on well thought out options
  • A quick temperature check as part of a deeper process
  • To draw participants into a deeper discussion

Before making important decisions based on community polling data please take some time to do some real engagement first. It might save you a lot of time and money.

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