Newsletter, November 2006
Contents this month
Representativeness is not the universal panacea
On 18 October the Consultation Institute ran an event in Birmingham
on the use of panels for consultation and engagement.
Sue Ritchie from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets described
the borough’s residents’ panel. Although the panel
has several interesting refinements, such as a link to various
outreach programmes targeting hard to reach groups, it is basically
a traditional panel which, with 3,000 members, is large enough
to be statistically representative of the borough. So if 60% of
the panel members voice a certain opinion, for example “Tower
Hamlets needs more facilities for X”, you can be reasonably
sure that about 60% of the borough are likely to take this view
Clifford Middleton from the National Institute for Health and
Clinical Excellence (NICE), on the other hand, described a completely
different way to inform decision making: a structure which most
people would call a citizens’ jury. The NICE ‘Citizens’ Council’ was
an attempt to mirror the demographic profile of England and Wales
but, with just 32 people, it cannot be representative in the same
way that the Tower Hamlets panel can be.
So which of these processes is ‘better’? The answer
is neither: it is comparing apples and oranges.
The NICE Citizens’ Council is used for deliberation about
complex issues and particularly about the social value judgments
that a body like NICE has to make. The Council meets for three
days at a time and uses expert witnesses to ensure their thinking
is deep and rigorous.
As ever, it comes back to process fitting purpose: surveys using
representative samples gauge public opinion on relatively simple
issues; deliberative processes provide reliable answers to deeper
questions. Most consultation or engagement exercises need a balance
of deliberative processes and use of representative samples: it’s
important to remember that representativeness isn’t the universal
panacea for getting the right answer.