Scrap the Polling: Better Questions for Politicians to Ask What Citizens Want

You know the game. Your phone rings during dinner. A researcher wants to, ‘Ask citizens a few questions about…’

What they are doing is phoning enough people to confirm the biases of a politician who’s determined to beat the opposition party … ultimately, to get re-elected. A day later a headline screams, ”Mayor xyz proclaims, ‘The people of blah-blah city asked for blah-blah and we delivered.’” Other politicians shrug their shoulders and say, ‘That’s politics’.

They live the great conceit that citizens can’t come up with solutions.

Imagine there’s a furious debate going on about public transit in your city. The ‘experts’ are going to tell you that the public (and the transit operators) don’t know enough, especially about the problems of building, maintaining and funding transit to be able to make informed decisions. The issue the experts face is that they approach their various expertise from their silos, almost always at odds with each other.

There’s a way to bring co-creation of policy, strategy and implementation to the citizens and be helpful to the experts who think they know the solution and will make the ‘right’ decisions.

Help politicians and the experts notice that citizens can come up with solutions. Ask better questions!

Imagine the following scenario in which key stakeholders – the public and the transit authority – are asked better questions of this sort:

What works with our transit system? What works for the riders? What works for the transit system workers? In terms of what they want, what do the stakeholders have in common? How have we managed to make it work (faults and all)?

How does that help with the needs of the city? What role does transit play in the growth of the city?

What needs to be better, different and/or more delivered?

Assuming the city continues to grow, what will the transit system look like 5, 10 or 20 years from now? What purpose will it serve in fulfilling the city’s needs? 

And so on…

By asking better questions about the solutions the two key stakeholders want – the users and the providers – the experts can then start using their own better questions to make their recommendations and decisions.

Multi-stakeholder engagement using better questions breaks down the siloed view of the experts. Ideally, the politicians no longer have to spend their money on expensive polling to prove that what they are doing is what the people want.

Stakeholder consultation using Solution Focus


2 thoughts on “Scrap the Polling: Better Questions for Politicians to Ask What Citizens Want

  1. Anton Stellamans

    Interresting topic, Alan. There is a refreshing debate going on in Belgium on how to renew politics. One idea from author David Van Reybrouck is to organise “kitchen tables” with randomly selected citizen’s. I am sure your better questions could be an excellent tool for that.

    1. Alan Kay

      Thanks Anton, it’s not rocket science asking these questions, but for some it can be a deeply counter intuitive experience. A useful one, never the less.

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