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The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation defines surveys as "a method used to collect information from a specific population. Surveys are used to gauge the level of public information about an issue and provide a 'snapshot' of attitudes and ideas at a particular time. They can be used to determine community attitudes or target a particular group." (NCDD 2008).

Problems and Purpose

There are two general instances in which a survey may be of use: when there is need to determine broad, general information on a large number of people or when one is interested in answers to more specific, issue-based questions among a smaller, targetted group of individuals. A survey can capture or generate qualitative information (facts and figures) or to source qualitative responses (opinions and values) (NCDD 2008). The survey can, therefore, be either closed or fixed answer (multiple choice, preferential ranking) or open-ended questions.


Surveys were not a development of the deliberative turn in democratic politics but have been employed by governments, business organizations and individuals for centuries. 

In the field of democratic innovation, perhaps the most well-known use of surveys is that of James Fishkin's Deliberative Polling technique which uses opinion surveys to guage the level of attitudinal change among participants before and after a deliberation.

Participant Selection

The selection of survey participants depends on the intentions of the survey organizers. For example, if one was looking to get an overall picture of a community's attitude towards a particular issue, a randomly selected group of residents may be sent a survey through the mail or (less commonly) email or opinions may be collected door-to-door or over the telephone. In the case of deliberative polling, surveys are often only given out to those who participate in the deliberation (before and after) although they may also be administered to a control group depending on the intent of the event organizers.  

The NCDD points out that participant selection may be restricted due to high costs. A well-conducted survey administered to a large number of randomly selected individuals is costly but can be generalized to a larger population. More affordable is the administration of a smaller scale survey distributed to an opportunistically selected group. This however, may not generate generalizeable results and, therefore, may be of little use depending on the aims of the organizing entity.

If one has the resources, it is possible to engage a very large demographic. For example, census surveys are used to collect demographic information from a population. The Canadian 2016 census survey - which was mailed to citizens but also allowed for electronic reporting - had a response rate of over 98% (Smith, 2016). 

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

The main point of interaction between participants and initiative organizers are the survey questions themselves - whether administered in-person or on paper. It is therefore of utmost importance that questions be expertly formulated so as not to produce biased or skewed responses. As the NCDD puts it, "poorly constructed surveys produce poor results" (NCDD 2008). 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects


Analysis and Lessons Learned


Secondary Sources

NCDD Resource Center, "Survey" (2008).

Smith, Wayne R., "A message to all Canadians from the Chief Statistician of Canada".

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