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Newsletter, November 2006

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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 too.

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.


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