Mongolia adopts deliberative method developed by Stanford professor

May 4, 2017, 11:56 p.m.
Mongolia adopts deliberative method developed by Stanford professor
The Mongolian government has adopted Stanford professor James Fishkin’s “deliberative polling” method (Courtesy of Stanford News).

A method of public opinion-gathering developed by a Stanford communication professor has been adopted by the Mongolian government, which now requires that “deliberative polling” be conducted prior to amending the country’s constitution.

Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication James Fishkin created deliberative polling three decades ago. His in-depth technique involves gathering randomly sampled members of a population together to discuss an issue in small groups with moderators. Polling participants are guided through balanced briefings and can also ask questions of experts on hand. The process, which generally spans two days, seeks to gauge more informed views than would normally be possible.

“Here we see what people would really think if they got engaged in considering the arguments for and against the various proposals,” Fishkin told Stanford News.

Those employing Fishkin’s method typically poll participants before and after the discussion process — thus revealing the difference in-depth consideration can make in people’s opinions.

Mongolia’s decision to use deliberative polling marks the first time a state has legally adopted Fishkin’s technique. But the research method has been put to use in 26 countries previously.

In one case, polling probed South Koreans’ opinions on unification with North Korea and South Korean possession of nuclear weapons; extended deliberation had a significant effect on citizens’ attitudes. Before participating in Fishkin’s process, 48 percent of citizens sampled looked favorably on unification, while 53 percent were pro-nuclear weapons. Those numbers changed to 73 percent and 34 percent respectively after the two days of discussion took place.

Mongolia incorporated deliberative polling following a meeting three years ago between Fishkin and Gombojav Zandanshatar, Mongolia’s former minister of foreign affairs and trade and a current parliament member. At the time, Zandanshatar was a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Impressed with Fishkin’s method, Zandanshatar went on to translate Fishkin’s book on the method into Mongolian and explore ways to incorporate deliberative polling into his home country.

The mayor of Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar, eventually reached out to Fishkin, hoping to leverage the process toward improved government outreach. In 2015, over 300 Ulaanbaatar residents convened to deliberate on a variety of infrastructure proposals. The exercise helped sway participants away from supporting a metro system and conveyed to the mayor the value citizens placed on improving heating in the city’s schools.

Based on the exercise in Ulaanbaatar, Zandanshatar successfully brought deliberative polling into national politics. A law requiring that the polling take place before changing the Mongolian constitution passed on Feb. 9, and the country held its first such poll in late April.

“During my whole political career, I have been seeking to establish a just and fair constitutional democratic government in Mongolia,” Zandanshatar said. “I believe in the Mongolian people, and I hope deliberative polling will give the opportunity to achieve true civic participation.”


Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

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