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Foreign Policy by Canadians: a unique national experiment

James Fishkin, the Stanford University pioneer of Deliberative Polling, on the first national deliberative democracy exercise held in Canada

By: /
15 July, 2021
Canadian flags at the embassy in Washington, DC. Getty Images

Most citizens most of the time are not well informed about complex policy issues. With only one voice in millions, we tend to be “rationally ignorant” because each of us can see that our individual views are unlikely to make much difference. But democracy depends upon input from informed citizens. The point of democracy is to make some connection between the “will of the people” and what is done, or who is elected. Hence, we think there is a role for the kind of public consultation that we call “Deliberative Polling.” Deliberative Polls are as representative of the population as the best conventional polls, but they offer data both before and after deliberation — before and after the sample has had a chance to consider the issue in depth. Participants deliberate under good, balanced conditions with the best information available, discussing the issues in moderated dialogue with others who have different points of view and asking questions to competing experts. Deliberative Polls are an attempt to answer the question: what would the public really think if it could consider the issue under the best conditions available?

Deliberative Polls have been conducted more than 112 times in 32 countries around the world on every inhabited continent. Most have been conducted face-to-face with participants in scientific samples flying in from all over a country (or even from all over the European Union) to deliberate together. However, recent projects have more frequently been conducted online, using the Stanford Platform for Online Deliberation. Technology permits more cost-effective gatherings and allows for the deliberations to proceed effectively, both in the small groups and in plenary sessions.

“Deliberative Polls are an attempt to answer the question: what would the public really think if it could consider the issue under the best conditions available?”

Foreign Policy by Canadians was a national field experiment (with a control group that was not invited to deliberate, but which answered the same questions before and after.) The participants and the control group matched up almost perfectly before deliberation, but after deliberation, the participants had reached their considered judgments (while the control group had hardly changed at all). YouGov recruited and surveyed an excellent sample of deliberators, nationally representative in demographics and attitudes (as judged by comparison to the control groups). The project was an attempt to use social science to give an informed and representative input to policy. It was particularly challenging in that foreign policy is an area where most of the public is less engaged and informed even than it is on domestic issues (outside of times of war or severe international crises). Hence, we would argue that Deliberative Polling is particularly appropriate as a form of public input on these topics.

This project was also distinctive in some other ways. First, all the small group discussions by the 444 nationally representative deliberators were conducted via our new video based automated moderator platform. Developed here at Stanford with Professor Ashish Goel and “Crowdsourced Democracy Team” in Management Science and Engineering, it facilitates many small groups of ten or so to self-moderate their discussions. It controls access to the queue for the microphone (limiting each contribution to 45 seconds), it orchestrates the discussion to move from one policy proposal to the next on the list, it periodically asks the participants if they have covered both the arguments in favor and against the proposal, it intervenes if people are being uncivil (a rare occurrence in these dialogues) and it guides the group into formulating its questions for the plenary session experts. This was only the second national application of the online platform (the first was in Chile this past year) and it was the first as a controlled experiment.

A second distinctive aspect of Foreign Policy by Canadians is that the agenda was formulated in both a top-down and a bottom-up manner. While a distinguished advisory group offered input on what topics were worth exploring and on the balance and accuracy of the materials, those materials were also vetted by chapters of the Canadian International Council in different parts of the country. Those meetings deliberated about how the draft materials could be improved. What was left out? Were the most important arguments on either side presented? The meetings of CIC chapters agreed on recommendations for revision and those recommendations were reflected in the final documents and proposals for discussion. I think this is “deliberative crowdsourcing” because the groups had to agree on their most important recommendations based on shared discussion. These meetings were also conducted with our automated deliberation platform.

Third, the automated platform has given the organizers instant access to the transcripts of all the small group discussions. Those transcripts provide ample evidence, as the report shows, about the reasons participants supported or opposed a policy proposal. The project combines qualitative and quantitative evidence, with the former shedding light on the latter, adding up to what we have sometimes called “a poll with a human face.” It is more than just numbers; it voices the human concerns of the participants revealed in their own words.

At the end of the deliberations, respondents were asked to evaluate the process. Ninety per cent said the briefing materials were valuable, 87 per cent said that the plenary sessions helped clarify their positions on the issues, and 97 per cent said that the event as a whole was valuable. In addition, 89 per cent thought that the discussion platform “provided the opportunity for everyone to participate in the discussion.” Sixty-seven per cent agreed that “the members of my group participated relatively equally in the discussions.” Seventy-five per cent agreed that “the discussion platform tried to make sure that opposing arguments were considered” and 83 per cent agreed that “the important aspects of the issues were covered in the discussions.” Overall, 73 per cent of the participants concluded “I learned a lot about people very different from me.” These are high evaluations for every element of the process. They are comparable to the highest evaluations achieved in Deliberative Polls in other countries convened face to face (and at far greater expense because of transportation, food, lodging, etc.). 

Speaking for the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford, I strongly endorse the conclusions of the summary report prepared by the Canadian International Council:

“Governments and societies will benefit from regularly scheduled exercises of deliberative democracy, proposing topics for discussion, briefing participants and acknowledging the results that emerge. As we have seen in this exercise, the resulting growth of confidence in Canadian democracy will expand public support. That public support, in turn, will be an additional source of Canadian power at a time when we need all the influence we can get. A government confident in the public’s support can do more to advance our nation’s interests and contribute to an international order better reflective of our values.”

What sort of foreign policy did 444 Canadians want after spending hours talking about it with strangers? Read our report here.  

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