Entries for November, 2006
November 3rd, 2006
“Although the Roman empire expanded to a great territory, the Roman republicans were never concerned about the actuality of political participation by citizens living far away from Rome, where the assembly met regularly. In fact, most citizens of the Roman empire probably never attended an assembly, and the situation created a random and skewed system of representation – those living close to Rome became de facto “representatives” of other citizens of the Roman empire.” – Representative Government and Democracy, Bo Li
With all the invocation of Democracy and the Founding Fathers in this latest planning process, one thing that seems to have been forgotten is the role of representation. With all of our actual elected representatives snubbing the UNOP, it’s more and more doubtful how much backbone the UNOP will have as a “Unified New Orleans Plan,” but it’s far from certain yet whether or how much the Lambert plans or any others will bear much fruit with respect to funding and implementation either. Whatever the fate of the UNOP, it’s worth drawing some lessons from its latest venture, especially with regard to what passes for public participation, for posterity if nothing else. The first lesson, I think, is well illustrated by the quote about Roman government above: those living close to New Orleans are not adequate “representatives” of citizens in the uninhabitable or barely inhabitable portions of our city, however well-intentioned (or not). Public hearings, meetings, and comment periods are indispensable to democratic government, but they’re never a substitute for proportional representation. (For a thoughtful, multi-faceted review of public partipication, the lack of it, what’s passed for it, and responses to it in post-Katrina New Orleans – from the BNOB to UNOP’s Community Congress – it’s definitely worth reading People Get Ready’s We have more than that at the 4:00 mass on Saturday post.)
Sometimes, especially times like ours, the representation allowed for by our constitutions and charters – the mayors, city councils, governors, senators, representatives and presidents – aren’t enough; legislation doesn’t conveniently exist for the level of public involvement required for a whole region’s reconstruction. The first step is, of course, actively seeking population samples that reflect the real make-up of the city, not just waiting for who happens to show up. In an era when government models itself so much on business, is it too much to ask that we call the marketing department to see how they survey any and all demographics they want to target? It’s a challenge, to say the least, in the post-Katrina diaspora, but not one that can’t have its margin of error significantly reduced. There’s a name for the sort of “public participation” we’ve been treated to so far: Voodoo Poll. How apt.
“The most common examples of voodoo polls are those which ask for people to phone a number, or to click a voting option on a website, or send back a coupon cut from a newspaper. … The most glaring difference between a voodoo poll and a legitimate poll is that voodoo polls have self-selecting samples…”
But even if we had proportional representation of New Orleans’ citizenry, it’s still all for naught if the questions don’t represent the real issues. Plenty of poll-watchers caution that attention to the wording of poll questions is imperative in interpreting their results. You don’t have to be a bought-out push poller to ask questions that are meaningless, or worse, misleading. This is an area that’s not new ground either. Here’s one of the best articulations I’ve seen of how to approach developing meaningful survey questions, and why it matters:
“Good practice in survey research includes framing the questions in a way that people can recognize their own point of view in the alternatives that they are given by the interviewer. Polling is, after all, the art of putting words into peoples’ mouths. Objective practice demands that the words chosen for the questionnaire come close to the words that advocates of each point of view would use if they were given the chance to frame their opinion without prompting. In scientific or academic surveys, the phrasing of questions is usually drawn from published remarks by leaders of one point of view or another or from “focus groups” in which ordinary citizens are asked to discuss important issues in their own terms. At SRC [Survey Research Center] we supplement these practices by “pretesting” questions in practice interviews. If the respondents to practice interviews have a hard time recognizing their point of view in the questions, then we rewrite them. We try not to have more than one respondent in 20 say they “don’t know” how they feel on an issue unless we feel that the issue itself is so obscure that many people really have no opinion. With a widely discussed issue, a scientific poll should not have more than five percent of answers be “don’t know” (Converse and Presser 1989).
“Advocacy polls, on the other hand, frequently “slant” questions by raising questions in a way that are favorable to one point of view in a debate-
and unfavorable to another-or by posing questions that create a dilemma for proponents of one side (Asher 1990). This practice makes it difficult for persons from one persuasion to answer the questions as stated. They are typically in a quandary because they cannot fully agree with any of the statements offered them, or they cannot choose between the alternatives that are posed because they agree with both or disagree with both. Some poll respondents then refuse to answer the question or say they don’t know which alternative to choose. Others say “both?’ or “neither” as their reply.” – Wording, Polling, and Opinion, Michael Hout
Any group that has the capacity to convene Town Hall-style meetings of citizens and collect their input should perhaps be less concerned with determining citizens’ answers to policy questions than with determining the real questions for which various citizens’ groups have already proposed answers. We can stop asking what New Orleanians’ generalized Hopes and Concerns or Needs and Goals are about recovery, and start asking what are the controversies about how to address them, because the options are well-considered and have been articulated by plenty.