New approaches to researching public opinion


Public opinion research is increasingly employed by politicians not just during election periods, but also to ensure public backing of important policy proposals. The Commission’s revised strategy on communication seeks to introduce new methods of using the Eurobarometer, as public opinion research adapts to new communication technologies.

The role of opinion polling in European policymaking gained in importance even before European elections were held. As early as 1970, the Commission started to sponsor public opinion surveys in the member states of the European Community. For more than 30 years, Eurobarometer has helped to raise awareness of what European citizens think, and has become a point of reference for EU-wide public opinion.

Eurobarometer surveys take place simultaneously across the continent, using the same questions in both the 27 member states and countries applying to join the EU. The results of the surveys are published on a dedicated internet site and are accessible both to specialists and the general public.

Governments and EU institutions increasingly study the preferences of their citizens before making policy decisions, and the media uses survey information as an integral part of news coverage.

The Commission's revised strategy on communication identifies polling as a tool for democracy and seeks to strengthen the use of the Eurobarometer. "Measuring public opinion is central to what Europeans think about – and what they expect from – the EU," according to the Commission's paper.

  • Qualitative research tools

The Commission's revised communication strategy, published on 3 October 2007, foresees the introduction of new methods to be used by the Eurobarometer in order to "increase its ability to listen and respond to public opinion" and "use surveys more strategically in relevant phases of the policy process". 

Communication Commissioner Margot Wallström has, on several occasions, supported the idea of introducing "citizens' assessments", which should become part of the standard EU lawmaking process, in the same way as impact assessments already are.

More concretely, the Commission seeks to include more widespread use of qualitative research tools, drawing on experience from citizens' debates organised in the context of the Plan D projects. It also wants to increasingly use the combination of analysis of quantitative and qualitative data to give a fuller picture of public expectations.

  • Deliberative polling

One example of a new method of studying public opinion is deliberative polling. This method, developed by Professor James Fishkin of Stanford University in 1988, combines deliberation with scientific sampling to provide public consultation for policies and electoral issues.

In the first step, a random representative sample is polled on targeted policy issues. Then the members of the sample gather to discuss these issues. Members are provided with informative material and get the chance to engage in dialogue with experts and political leaders. 

After the deliberations, the sample is asked the original questions again. The results reflect the change in opinion the public would reach if they were to be more informed and engaged by the policy issues. Deliberative poll experiments have been conducted around the world and in Europe, the UK, Denmark, Italy and Bulgaria.

  • New communication technologies

Traditionally, opinion polls were conducted primarily on a face-to-face basis, but telephone surveys are becoming increasingly popular, as they can be conducted in a short amount of time.

The number of internet surveys is also steadily increasing, with online polls being able to reach out to a large number of respondents. Later, the results can be weighed according to demographic criteria to create a representative sample. However, some argue that compared to traditional surveys, online polls are based on whoever volunteers to answer the question (the so-called 'open access' poll), rather than representing a scientific sample of the population.

Communications Commissioner Margot Wallström underlined the importance of polling as a tool for democracy. In October 2006, she said: "Polls and surveys give a voice to the 'silent citizens' – the people who do not vote, do not take an active part in political life, do not channel their opinions through groups of interests or citizens' organisations."

Speaking at the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll event in October 2007, Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev stated: "The method of deliberative polling is very useful. In fact, my government intends to use it for education, healthcare and public spending policies."

Due to their recommending force, deliberative polls can act as incentives for politicians to take action, says Stephen Boucher from the European think tank Notre Europe. Such polls could also help to bridge the gap between the EU's insitutions and its citizens, and increase the acceptance of economic and social reforms, Boucher argues in an interview with EURACTIV.

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