“Hard Times, Hard Choices”: The power of public deliberation to solve tough problems
Thursday, February 11th, 2010

When people have access to balanced information about an issue and an opportunity to talk-through policy options with others, they are willing to make tough choices and sacrifices to serve the public interest.

If you pay attention to traditional public opinion polls, it’s easy to get depressed about the public’s capacity to play a productive role in its own governance.  After all, people just want lower taxes and better services, right?


Surveys only scratch the surface and don’t give people the space to really think about a tough problem or issue facing their community.  They only gather knee-jerk or “top of mind” responses.

In stark contrast, a recent public dialogue – the “Hard Times, Hard Choices” project from Michigan – shows the power of deliberation to solve tough problems.   This was no survey.

Hard Times, Hard ChoicesThe project brought together a representative sample of over 300 people from across Michigan to recommend directions for the state’s economy and budget.  The organizers used a Deliberative Polling approach: the process starts and ends with a poll about key questions, but the interesting part is what happens between these.  Participants learn about the issues through balanced briefings, and then think through options in small groups.   By comparing people’s opinions in the before and after polls, organizers can literally measure deliberation or informed participation.

Here are a few of the results that I found interesting.  You can read the full report here.

People actually recommended increasing their taxes.  By the end of public deliberations, support for increasing income tax had gone up from 27% to 45%.  Similarly, support or raising sales taxes rose from 37% to 51%.

People also recommended decreasing business taxes.  At the end of the process, support for cutting business taxes rose from 40% to 67%.  They believed it would stimulate businesses and create jobs.

You can actually see footage from “Hard Times, Hard Choices” here.  It’s from a PBS documentary on the project.

– Ellis Westwood –

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  1. Vincent Leo says:

    Interesting results~

  2. Ellis Westwood says:

    Did you check out the full report, Vincent? Really interesting stuff!

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Vincent Leo says:

    I am reading them carefully now.