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PPG2013H: Public Opinion and Policy Making

Course Description

The main objective of PPG2013H in the MPP program is to provide senior students with a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between public opinion and public policy from theoretical and practical perspectives by examining the nature of public opinion, how it is measured, and how governments and other public domain institutions in Canada reflect public opinion, influence public opinion, and use public opinion research.

Objectives

One of the defining features of democratic government is that it is responsive to public preferences or the “public will”. Public opinion is an important consideration for public domain institutions: it informs governments of the larger forces at work in the society and economy, and is used by governments in policy development, communications development and program evaluation. The main objective of this elective course in the MPP program is to provide senior students with a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between public opinion and public policy from theoretical and practical perspectives by examining the nature of public opinion, how it is measured, and how governments and other public domain institutions in Canada reflect public opinion, influence public opinion, and use public opinion research. The course will examine recent developments in research techniques and the opportunities and challenges inherent in the current public opinion research environment.

Course Themes

The course will be divided into three main sections.
The first section, over the first three weeks, will examine the nature of public opinion and its relation to public policy from a theoretical and conceptual perspective. We will examine critically the view of public opinion as an “organic entity” and assess its relevance. We also probe the elements of public opinion in terms of magnitude, strength, change over time and the possible sources of change. We will discuss segments of opinion including knowledgeable publics, “target groups”, “opinion leaders” and others, and how these conceptualizations assist us and challenge us in understanding the phenomenon. We then examine whether public policy should be responsive to public opinion in terms of democratic theory and, finally, the extent to which public policy is responsive to public opinion, focusing on Canadian academic research.
The second section, over the next three weeks, shifts focus to examine the methods used to measure public opinion including critical developments. We examine established and evolving practices (especially on-line applications) in survey and focus group research, and newer methodologies including data mining and micro-targeting, and the implications of these developments. If time permits, we will briefly touch upon “direct democracy” initiatives, citizens’ assemblies, referenda, and “deliberative polling”.
The third section, over the next four weeks, builds upon the first two sections of the course. First we probe in more depth and with examples across subject areas, the ways that governments use public opinion research in “environmental scanning”, policy development, communications development (including social marketing) and program evaluation. We then critically examine the extent to which other public domain institutions (political parties, the media, and interest groups) reflect public opinion, influence public opinion, and use public opinion research.
The remaining two classes will include examination of an extensive case study, a review of the learnings and issues arising from the course content, and student presentations.

Academic/Intellectual/Policy skills that students can expect to achieve

Students emerging from this course should be able to:
1. Understand – and reflect on – the subtleties of public opinion and how much public opinion should, and does, affect public policy
2. Understand how public opinion research is conducted, analyzed and interpreted
3. Critically assess the public opinion research that they will commission, conduct or encounter in their professional settings and in media reports of public opinion research

Term
Fall (2nd year)

Instructor
TBA