Kettering Conversations: Bringing Public Judgment In, A Conversation with John Doble

One of the problems of democracy is the tendency for citizens to make hasty decisions or poor judgments.  Kettering’s long-running experiments with deliberative forums were designed, in part, in response to this challenge. Each year Kettering and NIFI commission issue guides and reports to offer a frame that can support public deliberation about a specific public challenge. These reports help illuminate how the public thinks about an issue when they are confronted with tensions in making a decision about a wicked problem, such as healthcare. To better understand this process I recently sat down with John Doble to discuss the state of opinion polling and public judgment. Jack Becker: During the October Dayton Days research session, you raised the issue of the difference between public opinion and public judgment.  What prompted this observation? John Doble: Leading up to the election I had been listening to some very savvy pollsters on CSPAN discuss how irrational and confused public opinion is on many public issues. The problem was that they chose to talk about public opinion as a simple and motionless process. There was no talk about public judgment. There was no mention of it. There is a difference between opinion and judgment and many pundits who have primarily short-term goals are trying to advance a specific cause and don’t seem interested in acknowledging the long-term process of public judgment. These people might use focus groups and polls to find words that they can use for political purposes, like the death tax, rather than the estate tax. That’s troubling, but what’s more troubling are the people who are really trying to understand the public, people like David Brooks of the New York Times, Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post, Andrew Kohut at Pew Research—I don’t just mean these people specifically, but pundits like them. Most of these people have all read Yankelovich and are familiar with it and understand it. But they don’t write about where we are in the process of public judgment. So at the national level, within the bubble of Washington, the distinction between opinion and judgment does not seem to have penetrated. Jack: Will you explain Dan Yankelovich’s idea of public judgment? John: Dan Yankelovich’s original seven-stage model helps us understand that public opinion on various complex issues has to go through stages before reaching a final judgment, just as we do in life about anything. If you are home at night with your partner and you’re asking each other, what are we going to do tonight? You will go through several options about what to eat and other activities that include negotiating and working through— in essence, deliberating—over what we should do. It’s a clear example of people coming to judgment. Dan applied that thinking to public issues and found that pollsters were measuring one thing, public opinion at one point in time, instead of understanding how public opinion occurs as a process over time. For example, when we look at public opinion on health care over time we see how opinion is still shifting. Sometimes people are in the middle of this process and are in-between public judgment on issues. Polls often are measuring something in motion at a single point in time. Opinion polls don’t often pick up the undertones of reservation that people have when they have yet to fully wrestle with the tradeoffs and consequences of an issue. That is the kind of stuff we pick up on in deliberative forums, and in our focus group research. The “boundaries of public permission” is another important idea from Dan. Sometimes the public solves a problem on its own and other times they define the boundaries so that policy makers can, within limits, tackle the problem. For example, during the 2008-2009 healthcare debates, the administration proceeded as if the boundaries of political permission were very wide and the public would go along with anything. But the NIF forums in 2008-2009 showed that the boundaries were narrower than the polls suggested. That is almost impossible to ascertain if you don’t understand the difference between opinion and judgment. Another example would be Bush trying to privatize social security after his reelection. That idea was dead in a second, but you would never have known by looking at the polls. Jack: In light of Yankelovich’s ground-breaking research, what has Kettering learned over the years about public opinion and public judgment? What we’ve learned at Kettering is that polling has its limitations. There is conventional wisdom that can be found in polls and then there is deeper judgment that forums help us uncover. In forums, but also over time, people confront the tradeoffs of issues and decide what they think is the best way to solve a problem. Jack: Those who say the public is uninformed, shortsighted, and even irrational are loud and—whether they are academics or political pundits—seem to be the dominant voices in this conversation. What do you say to them? John: The short sightedness of public opinion can be a real factor.  People are relatively uninformed on a topic if the bounds of the question are about something technical. But instead of saying that people are irrational or uninformed, what it says is that it is something you aren’t thinking about, and haven’t learned about. This is especially true if the question is framed from the expert point of view. If you define how knowledgeable the public is about expert issues on expert terms, then of course they aren’t informed. But if you think that peoples thinking is generally connected to their values then people are actually quite reasonable, open, and pragmatic. People are generally good at finding what’s fair to everybody.  Their values are connected to their opinions and their thinking changes slowly over time. In fact, we can consistently say that Americans are pretty reasonable and pragmatic. The fact that government officials often aren’t pragmatic, however, frustrates the public. Jack: Is all opinion polling bound to show an inconsistent and transitory public? John: No, if a poll is done well, it can be a crystal clear snapshot of something in motion. Polling can be right on target in measuring judgment. It is very valuable and almost invaluable in giving us a snapshot of what the public thinks at any point in time, but it doesn’t tell us how they are thinking about it. To the extent that pollsters and pundits don’t discuss where the public might be in the process of judgment, they do the public a disservice. The forums help us understand the unfolding of the process of public thinking. Jack: Why haven’t these ideas penetrated deeper into popular thinking and media coverage? John: One reason is that leaders don’t distinguish opinion versus judgment.  They also do not often acknowledge, or act based upon, the boundaries of permission, or the concept of working through. Because of that, leaders’ actions are often based on misunderstanding what the American people want. I discussed two very good examples being health care and social security. I’m not just talking about elected leaders and national policy making, but leaders at all levels. At the state level, we have what Kasich did in Ohio (with Senate Bill 5 that attempted to restrict collective bargaining rights). These are examples of basing a policy change on sand instead of a solid foundation of what the public thinks. The leadership side of the problem is often related to a deficiency in presenting choices to people. Leadership needs to be presenting issues in ways that highlight clear consequences and tradeoffs. When we look at much of our newspapers and TV news channels we don’t see much of this. We don’t have the institutions that help us do that. All this stems from an incomplete understanding of what public thinking is. The other problem is actually getting people to reach better public judgment. There aren’t mechanisms or institutions that name and frame public issues in public terms that help people see the tradeoffs and help people begin to work through issues. What we increasingly have are institutions that promote particular points of view, so people are getting siloed. The result is that it can be challenging to hear other points of view that are reasonably expressed. We have more “point of view” journalism than we’ve ever had. What’s clear to me is that the Foundation and its partners have made some big discoveries over the years about public thinking and that those ideas are not acted upon by people in the media, in Washington, among leadership groups, and even in institutions around the country. Jack: You mention “working through.” Yankelovich has simplified his seven stages into three: 1) consciousness raising, 2) working through, and 3) resolution. News media and technology are accessible mediums for consciousness raising, and there are a variety of institutions that help with the resolution of problems, but you mention how few institutions we have to help people reach better public judgment. Might Centers for public life provide potential remedies to this problem? What role can Centers fill? John: Some have talked about “deliberation day,” as a way to promote thinking about public judgment, but I think it needs to be smaller scale. One of the reasons that Centers are so important is because of their propensity for public building. Betty Knighton, the Oklahoma and New Hampshire folks, Margaret Holt, all these people are involved in public building. That is a vital role. Second, Kettering and others can learn from these Centers to further our work. Third, these Centers help citizens in their communities, some Centers are community wide, some Centers work primarily with students, but what’s important is how theses Centers can help them develop more complex judgments on issues. Fourth, they can help get more people involved in the process and help them understand the importance and complexity of public judgment. Jack: What do you look for in opinion formation? Is there something to measure? John: You look for multiple things. If you are looking at opinion polls on health care it says people want everything: they want universal healthcare, they want better coverage, and they want lower rates and this pretty quickly indicates that you don’t have judgment on the issue. That’s one of the first indicators. Then when we do qualitative research and bring everything else we know about an issue to bear we find other indicators. For example, for years the polls showed that people thought the crime rate was too high and was rising. So we did some focus groups. We went to Philadelphia and asked how bad crime was, and the people talked about muggings. Then we went somewhere else and asked about crime and they said drugs. Then we went somewhere else and they said home burglaries. The potential remedies to the problem also changed depending on what crime was to the people we asked. This has implications for advising the mayor or police chief and for policy making. So qualitative work plus polling can help us understand more deeply where the public is on an issue and what their understanding of it is. In my work with Kettering we emphasize finding common ground instead of focusing on individual opinions. We tend to focus on the social relations between citizens. Initially, we put a lot of stock in the questionnaires people filled out before and after NIF forums. We were looking for numerical shifts in opinion, but we found that people don’t shift their opinion in a two-hour forum in any way that can be quantified in a poll. Dan has written that it can take one or two decades for people to arrive at a judgment on an issue. Of course, it doesn’t always take that long. The more people participate in discussing public issues and problem solving the more they begin to change as people. When you are exposed to this stuff you acquire a new way of thinking. Most of the shifts are subtle, like relationship building and perspective taking, but they are often enduring. You can measure them but you most certainly wont get them all. Some of the impacts seem clear and immediate, but others are very difficult to see. Jack Becker is a research assistant at the Kettering Foundation and recent graduate with the Center for Public Deliberation and Communication Studies Department at Colorado State University. He can be reached at jbecker@kettering.org. John Doble is a Senior Research Fellow at Public Agenda