Can high quality public opinion polls make a useful contribution to public policy making?

31 January 2022

It is often assumed that modern public policy and political decision making is overly driven by opinion polls, and that opinion poll-driven decision making can have a negative effect on the willingness of political leaders to make decisions in the public interest.

However, less opinion polling is conducted by governments and political parties than is often assumed, and where it is done, it is subject to significant limitations that curb its effectiveness as a tool for understanding public sentiment and the acceptability of different policy options.

The Susan McKinnon Foundation funded the newDemocracy Foundation to conduct three public opinion polls. The purpose of the three polls (collectively referred to as ‘the Pilot’) was to explore the potential for opinion polling to improve the quality of public policy decision making in Australia.

The Pilot involved the conduct of opinion polls with distinct methodologies. The results of these polls were then shared with relevant stakeholders, including Members of Parliament, government agencies and other interest groups (the Customers).

Public polling can influence policy outcomes by:

  • Ensuring policy decisions are more representative of the public’s views.
  • Informing the public debate by providing greater visibility of how the public views an issue, avoiding the risk of proxy voices (such as media commentators or special interest groups) having a disproportionate degree of influence.
  • Guiding the government agenda setting by bringing visibility to the most important or urgent issues.
  • Helping decision makers decide the best framing of an issue, for example by creating an understanding of the trade-offs that the public may support.

Public opinion polling can also be used for overtly political purposes, such as measuring support for a particular politician. However, this was not within the scope or aligned to the objectives of this Pilot or the objectives of the Susan McKinnon Foundation or the newDemocracy Foundation.

Three public opinion polls were commissioned as part of the Pilot. These were used to test the capacity of high-quality public opinion research to support more informed public policy debates and better decision making by government.

Each poll was undertaken by a different expert researcher and involved developing a unique methodology. The polls each took a different approach to how the question(s) were framed (in consultation with the Customers), how the research was undertaken and how the findings were analysed.

Customers were briefed and later interviewed to understand the use, value and benefit of the research to their decision making.

The Pilot required an approximate national sample size of 2,000 to 3,000 people per topic area. The methodology required the inclusion of a poll of some form and encouraged the use of other approaches such as focus groups or interviews if considered beneficial.

The Pilot was designed to explore whether there were new or different ways of polling that better aligned with the objectives, by developing a more nuanced understanding of public opinion. These included:

  • Testing the strength of views
  • Testing the level of knowledge behind those views
  • Providing context and testing the impact on responses
  • Presenting trade-offs and asking respondents to choose between a limited number of options
  • Testing how the framing of the question can influence responses.

Three topics of interest were selected for the Pilot:

Topics were chosen using the following criteria, designed to maximise the likelihood that the polling would have an influence on policy outcomes:

  • Issues that are important and non-trivial; i.e. focus on material issues that would have the biggest impact on policy outcomes.
  • Issues that relate to a specific policy issue or decision, rather than a general attitudinal view or values statement.
  • Real issues, but ones that aren’t so “live” that policy positions are already established or entrenched.
  • Topics that don’t appear to sit clearly on traditional political or ideological lines.
  • Areas where public opinion polling is not well understood e.g. where there hasn’t been other polling, the issue is complex or decision makers appear to hold assumptions about public opinion that haven’t been tested.

Further details, findings and insights are set out in a research report published in January 2021.