What is public consultation?
This term generally refers to a range of methods for consulting citizens on public policy issues. Advanced forms of public consultation, though, give citizens interactive tools to help them really understand policy issues so that they can effectively express their values and priorities in relation to specific policy choices. Citizens go through a step-by-step process that simulates the process that policymakers go through in coming to policy decisions. This includes getting briefed on the issue, weighing pro and con arguments for various policy options, and then coming to their decisions. These decisions may involve choosing from a menu of options or undertaking a task, like making up a budget, that requires making tradeoffs. After going through this process, citizens can share what they’ve learned with their elected representatives in a way that is targeted and effective.
Are members of the public informed enough to make a meaningful judgment?
In many cases they are not. That is why it is essential to brief the members of the Citizen Cabinet on the issues, presenting some basic facts on which all sides can agree, then have them hear the key arguments that experts and policymakers are making on both sides of the issue, before coming to a judgment. The process is similar to what a jury hears in coming to their judgment.
Is the public smart enough to make a contribution?
It is true that the average person is, well, average. But the public as a whole is surprisingly smart. Social science experiments have been conducted in which large groups of people have been given a challenging task, such as making a difficult estimate: when their estimates are averaged the answer tends to be remarkably accurate. Another example is from the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: a study found that when contestants got stuck and asked the audience, the audience was right the vast majority of the time. Methods for tapping this collective intelligence (sometimes called crowd-sourcing) have been increasingly applied in various fields including business and intelligence gathering, summarized in the best selling book, aptly titled The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki. Yet, government has yet to systematically tap into the collective intelligence of the American people.
Why aren’t current methods, like letters and town hall meetings, adequate for the public to communicate with government?
While there may have been a time when these were adequate, it is certainly no longer the case. Organized interests have flooded money through these channels so that it is no longer clear who is really behind such communications from “the public.” Furthermore, in our busy modern times, the self-selected people who have the time and skills necessary to effectively use these available channels are not necessarily representative of the people as a whole. And, finally, when elected officials and their staffs are bombarded by all these competing voices it is quite difficult for them to get more than a rough general impression—impressions that, research shows, may be quite inaccurate. Clearly it is time for policymakers to pursue more advanced and systematic means for gaining an accurate understanding of the views of the people they represent.
Is the public really not being represented? Isn’t the government already doing what the public wants?
In fact there is an abundance of evidence that the process of democratic representation is working very poorly in America today. Studies have found:
- The correspondence between national public opinion and federal government decisions has been declining over the last decades and is now barely better than mere chance
- The way specific Members of Congress vote has little correspondence to the majority views in their districts.
Policymakers often have a poor understanding of the views of the public in general and Congressional offices often have a poor understanding of the views in their own district. The Citizen Cabinet would provide officials with a more accurate picture of the public’s views than they have ever had before, and help to restore a real connection between the sense of the people and the actions of government. While this does not mean—nor should it mean- that government leaders will follow the public in a lock-step fashion, it is likely to increase the influence of the people on government decisions.
Aren’t Members of Congress elected to use their own judgment, not just follow public opinion?
Absolutely. Americans expect leaders to lead and want Members of Congress to make their own judgments. But they also want Members to listen closely to what their constituents say and take that into account in the process of coming to judgment. If leaders are genuinely acting from their convictions, and their position is at odds with their constituents, most Americans respect that. The problem, from the point of view of the public, is that policymakers are being overly influenced by special interests, not their own conscience. Americans believe, as did the Founders, that giving the public a greater voice will help policymakers resist special interests and be more likely to make judgments that reflect their own values and better serve the common good.
Isn’t the polarization in Congress just a reflection of a polarized public?
No. Various studies have found that the public is much less polarized than Congress. For example a recent study found that it is very rare that majority views in “red” (heavily Republican) districts differ from majority views in “blue” (heavily Democratic) districts, though the size of the majority may vary.
Isn’t it better for Congress to pay attention to experts rather than the public?
When experts agree on the best approach to an issue there is rarely a controversy. But often when there are policy disagreements between experts the real issue is not about the facts, but about competing values and priorities—and no one is an expert on those. In these cases it makes sense to get the people involved in coming to judgment about what values and priorities are most important to them.
Aren’t people selfish? Won’t we just have tyranny of the majority?
This question did concern the Founders and they laid out a series of checks and balances in our system to prevent this from happening and reinforce the basic attributes of common sense and fairness that they believed the American people possessed. Extensive research in our time has shown that their faith in Americans’ ability to think beyond their selfish interest was well founded. When Americans are asked what policies would be best, most do not answer in terms of their own narrow self-interest. For example, in one recent study a representative sample of Americans was given the opportunity to restructure income tax rates for different income brackets. Rather than favoring their own income bracket, a majority of people in all income brackets favored a similar tax plan even though, for some, that meant their own bracket would pay more. This does not mean that people are unselfish in all aspects of their lives; but when asked to do so, and given the right tools, people have shown that they can and do step back from their personal self-interest and consider what would work best for the common good.