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Public Opinion Polling: The Single Biggest Obstacle To Public Engagement

by | Dec 2, 2023 | Community Development

In 1948, the polling firm Gallup reported Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman in the presidential race – a prediction made so definitively that the Chicago Tribune prematurely printed the infamously wrong headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

I mention this bit of cautionary history not to disparage all public opinion polling but to underline why I don’t like relying on surveys as a substitute for effective public engagement, especially when planning a path ahead for a community. Not just because polls can be wrong but because polls have all sorts of limitations.

They sometimes ask the wrong questions, survey the wrong people, and reach the wrong conclusions. I’ve seen opinion polls focused on whether to invest in more public parks but only ask people who used the parks. I’ve seen governments manipulate polls to get the answers they want or conversely conduct polls that are so unfocused the results are useless.

Public engagement is crucial. But you need the proper kind of public engagement. At 13 Ways, we have had many clients ask us to conduct public engagements that really amounted to doing surveys. The problem is that when you ask people what their municipal government should be doing to plan for the future, you tend to get the same top three issues: taxes are too high; council doesn’t listen; do a better job of fixing the potholes and clearing the snow.

None of that has anything to do with the future of your community or how your municipal council can be strategic in its long-term planning. This narrow feedback is not anybody’s fault in particular. Generally, the public is too busy managing their day-to-day lives to envision a strategy necessary to help their community have long-term prosperity. This in itself is not a problem but does create difficulties when political leaders, who also happen to lack a vision for the future, ask the public for direction on complicated issues. That lack of leadership means council defaults to direct-democracy and by that I mean council members give up their responsibility to representative-democracy and attempt to govern by a show of hands.

In this I have a kindred spirit in Ryan Short, the CEO of the US-based agency CivicBrand, who wrote an article published by Forbes last July entitled, Beyond the Illusion of Consensus. “It’s easy to see why many city governments are gladly embracing public input if they can, in turn, point to the data to make the hard decisions for them. It takes them off the hook when stakeholders aren’t happy and they can simply point to the engagement data and say it’s not their decision, it’s the people’s,” wrote Short. “Let’s be honest: City staff and leadership are unfairly beaten up by the public. Therefore, it’s easy for elected officials to cave to the loudest voices and want data to take a few arrows for them. We have trained citizens that their only opportunity to be heard is during their few minutes of public comment at city council meetings. All this does is encourage residents to show up and engage only when something is personally upsetting or threatening them.”

That is why so many communities wind up stuck in a rut, recycling the same old tired tropes. It is why many disgruntled voters don’t break out of a mindset that thinks only in terms of the taxes are too high, the potholes too wide, the snow too deep. That is why politicians respond in kind by lowering taxes and diverting more resources to plowing the snow and fixing potholes.

This is the political equivalent of “the customer is always right.” To keep the public engaged and prove your citizens have a voice, you as a political leader are prone to conduct more public engagements to get the same answers all over again. In the meantime, your main street dwindles, businesses close, housing prices deteriorate, service levels go down, people move away, your main street deteriorates, housing prices decline. You see where this is going. It becomes a vicious and damaging cycle that gets worse because there is no discussion or plans for the future.

We could learn a lesson from Apple founder Steve Jobs who had a philosophy where the customer is not always right. “Some people say’ “Give the customers what they want.’ But that’s not my approach,” said Jobs. “Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, “A faster horse!”’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”

That might sound a tad arrogant and if we were to apply it directly to public engagement at the municipal government level, it would indeed be arrogant. But it’s also fair to say you cannot simply ask the public for direction on complex issues when the public has not studied the issues. They have elected you to do that. Public engagement is the next step after you have done your homework to come up with viable plans that can be explained in a meaningful way so you can get meaningful feedback.

That is why when we do engagements we do many interviews with people who are happy, angry, visionary, apathetic, and so on. We engage a good cross section of people so that we can gather feedback and plant seeds and talk about the future. Effective public engagement requires a little education to go along with it. It needs to ask challenging questions and push people to think beyond their immediate daily needs.

We explain to every municipality or other organization we work with that there are four choices when it comes to engagement. You can do things for people, to people, with people, or despite people.

Doing things for people is the traditional benevolent approach. It’s the kind of leadership that finds value in being kind and thoughtful but makes people reliant on the government and unaware of why and how things are getting done for them. This is where governments may employ carefully crafted public opinion polls to convince people the government knows best.

Doing things to people is a patriarchal leadership approach. People have to have things done for their own good. They may protest but it’s only because they’re not mature enough to understand, or at least that’s how the thinking goes. This type of leadership is a surefire way to cause a revolt among your citizenry.

Doing things despite people is an autocratic approach. It requires no engagement whatsoever but more importantly it’s not even necessarily about doing things that will make people’s lives better. It’s doing things based on some ideological thinking where, in the minds of the autocrat, the end justifies the means. Any complaints from the public are not only dismissed but are viewed by this type of twisted leadership as proof the public is wrong. Public opinion polls could be used here to manufacture results purporting to show a majority of people support whatever it is the government is doing.

Ultimately, the best way to succeed is to do things with people. That means they need education and awareness; they need ample time to discuss and digest; they need to be engaged and they need to have a sense of ownership. By that I mean they need to be aware of the consequences of the decisions being made to themselves and the greater community. It doesn’t mean that everyone will go along with the decision. There may still be some people who remain disengaged, people who don’t like the decision, and people who simply generally protest everything. 

There is no perfect recipe for engagement, of course. People are as complicated as the issues they face. However, working with people will always be more productive than doing things for them, doing things to them, or doing things despite them. An engagement strategy with your stakeholders and your citizens cannot, and must not, be reduced to a public opinion survey.