“Public policy is public good” echoed across a room of first year students at one of the School of Public Policy & Governance’s (SPPG) many plenaries. If public policy is public good, then public good must include the public’s interest. But after examining Prime Minister Paul Martin’s swift approval for gay marriage rights and, more recently, Trudeau’s unquestioned signing of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), one has to ask: does the public’s opinion really matter?
The role of public opinion in public policy is a recurring question in the courses taught at SPPG. And as it is in the classroom, this question remains up for debate in the democratic political sphere. In Statehouse Democracy: Public Opinion in the American States, Erikson et al. discuss the contention between public interest and state ideologies, providing evidence that a state’s ideology (whether it is conservative or liberal) often overrides all other variables in determining the ideological core of a state’s policies.
“Public policy is public good”
In Canada, citizens elect a party, which are often labeled by these ideologies. But, suffice to say, those who elect one party or another do not entirely identify with that party’s ideology. One might be more liberal than conservative, but not entirely so; and vice versa. Yet, as Erikson et al. note, when a party is elected, its own ideology tends to override that of the population at large. Take Harper’s Conservative Canada, for instance, in which his conservative ideologies moved the party and Canada’s democracy so right from centre, that the party is now trying to get it back to its original place – and get Canadians back on board. In fact, it was public interest itself which booted Mr. Harper out of office, as a majority of Canadians came to reject his ideology and used their right to vote to elect a new government. This is proof in plain sight that public interest does indeed matter.
Re-framing the Question
So then, how much does public opinion matter in public policy and decision-making? That is the main question that Paul Burstein proposes in “The Impact of Public Opinion on Public Policy: A Review and an Agenda”. In his study, Burstein seeks to quantify that impact, unsatisfied with the unending debate between policy-makers, economists, and the public surrounding whether public opinion does in fact matter, and to what extent. Burstein, conscious of the fact that most empirical research that has been done on the relationship between public opinion and policy is limited to America, conducted an extensive literature review. He found that, while most studies prove public opinion to be of statistical significance in various case issues, researchers seldom prove its substantive significance. In other words, we know that public opinion has an impact, but not by how much.
While most studies prove public opinion to be of statistical significance in various case issues, researchers seldom prove its substantive significance.
This, then, continues to be one of the main issues in the debate: quantifying public opinion is in and of itself a challenge. As Burstein concludes, though public opinion does have a substantial level of importance, more attention should be given to the methodology of choosing the correct variables of measurement to prove accurate and substantive correlations. These other variables could include, but are not limited to, subject salience, the impact of the elite, political and interest groups, and voter ideologies. A similar message is corroborated by Jeffrey R. Lax and Justin H. Phillips in their study regarding the role of public opinion on state policies toward gay and lesbian rights in the United States. Moving the method of assessment beyond just opinion polls and surveys might be the next step.
On with the Debate
How long it will take until the political science world discovers a concrete method of measuring public opinion and its associated variables, no one knows. What remains important, however, is that we continue this debate and we continue to understand, and keep in mind as future policy makers, the public’s influence on the institutions that govern it. After all, there is no good policy without the public.
Anna-Kay Russell is a first year Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto. She completed her international bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology at Glendon College, York University. Her policy interests include, but are not limited to, environmental policy, implementation, municipal affairs and public opinion. An advocate for diversity, her hobbies include travelling, learning new languages and trying new recipes. She hopes to continue exploring these interests during her policy internship this summer.