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Donald Lenihan

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Public Opinion Polls: Useless in Our Volatile Society?

Posted: 06/19/11 09:41 AM ET

Public opinion research (POR), such as polling, focus groups and surveys, is likely the most influential policy tool of the last few decades. It helps clarify public debate by providing a methodologically rigorous way of assigning weights to different views, and, as such, helps guide strategists, planners and decision-makers. But will it continue to enjoy this privileged position in the future? There are good reasons to doubt it.

As the term "public opinion research" suggests, POR measures people's opinions or views on an issue. Not so long ago, knowing a lot about people's views at one moment told us a lot about what their views would likely be later on, maybe even 10 years later on. Opinions were more stable and, as a result, the future was more predictable.

The reasons are well known. Societies like Canada and the U.S. were culturally and racially more homogeneous; the public was less well educated and far more deferent to leaders and institutions; people often lived and died in the same community; the world moved more slowly; things were simpler and less interconnected.

This is changing. Globalization, new technologies, education, travel and immigration are dissolving many of the bonds that held societies together, fragmenting views and rendering public opinion more volatile. In practice, this means there will be less coherence and resilience in the public's views, making POR a much less reliable guide to interpreting them. Even where a relatively clear message exists, the chances that it will shift unexpectedly are growing.

The recent federal election and 2010 municipal elections in Calgary and Toronto may be harbingers here. In the former, the polls failed to predict the rise in support for the NDP. In the latter, candidates whom the polls suggested had virtually no chance of winning at the outset unexpectedly roared ahead to become the new mayors. We now know that the use of social networking tools such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are major contributors to this kind of volatility. Explosive growth in their use suggests this volatility will intensify.

These changes have major implications for politics and government. Leaders can no longer count on the kind of stability and cohesion they used to take for granted. Nevertheless, effective planning requires both. As a result, strengthening social cohesion will almost certainly be an emerging concern.

If so, there is really only one viable strategy for this. Communities of all sorts can adopt goals that their members -- businesses, organizations and/or individuals -- will plan and organize around together. This, in turn, will create new relationships, and new forms of stability, cohesiveness and resilience to change. This mirrors what we do in our personal lives.

As children, our social environment is defined by the routines our parents and care-givers establish. As we mature, we interact more with the outside world, which, in turn, exposes us to new things and makes our world less stable and more complex. As we become adults, we move out into the world and, as we do, we must make choices about the kind of life we want to live. For example, we will likely choose a spouse, a career, a place to live, plan for a family or save for retirement. All these activities involve setting goals, then organizing around them. This gives our life direction and purpose and, at the same time, builds relationships and creates stability and resilience to change.

The same is true for our society. In the past, as in childhood, choice played a less critical role. The key forces of social cohesion -- forces such as culture, language and religion -- were passed down from generation to generation through institutions and practices. By and large, people did not choose their core values, social roles or basic beliefs. They were acquired passively through participation in a culture and a way of life. Someone who was born an Irish catholic in the early part of the 20th century likely also died one.

As a result, our grandparents were called on to make far fewer life-defining choices than us. That is changing. As our environment becomes less stable, we must make more choices to compensate by creating stability. Moreover, if the current generation is called on to make more life-defining choices than their grandparents, then their children will be called upon to make even more than them. The trend is accelerating and there is no end in sight.

A key challenge for the future will be to counterbalance this historic surge in centrifugal forces, not just as individuals, but also as communities. Policy is an important tool here. If communities can set long-term goals, this can help provide stability. However, for this to work, community members must arrive at these goals together, through deliberation and dialogue. If the members have had no real part in making the choice, they will not feel committed to the goals, and so will be far less likely to mobilize around them.

This brings us back to POR. Although the methodology is no less valid than before, the conditions that made it so attractive to decision-makers are changing. Increasingly, POR will not answer their needs. Not just because the findings are less reliable, but because, as a leader, it is no longer enough to know what people's views are. Leaders must challenge them to go beyond simply having opinions and ask them to start making decisions- together.

This is where public engagement comes in. If POR provides a methodology for weighing views, public engagement provides a methodology for turning views into shared goals; and that is the overarching challenge for the future. The question now is whether our leaders are ready, willing and able to take us there.

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