Deliberative Polling for Education Planning

Debate, Deliberate Decide - Education Planning

The Building Change Trust’s Civic Activism Programme aimed to bring decision-making closer to the citizens of Northern Ireland, through the use of innovative and creative engagement methods. 

The Civic Innovation Toolkit documents 29 such methods that had never or very rarely been used in Northern Ireland before. Eight awards were then made to VCSE organisations for the purposes of experimenting with one or more of these methods in relation to a named social or environmental issue. 

This series of Learning Resources documents the successes and challenges of each of the eight projects and provides practical information for those who would like to adopt these methods in their own work. 



This case study focuses on Deliberative Polling, an engagement method, or tool, used by the Integrated Education Fund to explore people’s thoughts on education planning. We hope this short guide will give you some inspiration to try some new engagement methods yourself. 

From their years of experience in the sector, the Integrated Education Fund (IEF) noticed that communities weren’t involved in education planning in their local area. The consultations appeared to have ‘left ordinary people behind’ without being heard or listened to, and the IEF wanted to find out what was going on – whether communities are involved in planning decisions, and if they’re not involved, why not? 

To explore these questions the IEF have recently tried a new process that engages and involves wider parts of the community in consultation: deliberative polling. Due to the success of this project, they are now proposing that deliberative polling could be rolled out as a new method for community engagement in education planning. They think deliberative polling is a better way to involve people in decision-making and ensures more people can participate.

The Project

So, what is the new model of consultation that IEF are proposing?

IEF carried out a community audit so that they could find out what people thought; in other words, ‘auditing’ the public to give them an overview of how people felt about certain issues. They did this over a period of time using an approach called deliberative polling. Deliberative polling means carrying out research to find out public opinion, usually on a contentious or sensitive issue, which is combined with learning and discussion to help people engage with the issue. This typically involves a few stages:

  1. finding out what people think by polling (asking people to fill in a survey or answer questions in small group interviews)
  2. Some of these people are invited to an event where they learn more about the issue, and are invited to discuss and deliberate with each other (public interaction event)
  3. After this, they are polled again to see if their attitudes have changed

Their model for consultation took the form of a community audit based upon the deliberative polling approach, and involved a process of learning, discussion and deliberation.

The IEF wanted to use this method of consultation to see if people felt they were involved in decisions about education and if public opinion changed through taking part in discussions and deliberation. The IEF facilitated discussions to identify priorities which were fed into the education planning process. They also worked with a polling and market research company, LucidTalk, to carry out the polling and the public event. They had been working with LucidTalk previously on different projects, initially focused on polling, but over time began to include qualitative methods, developing towards trialling deliberative polling. The project aimed to develop a best practice model for community consultation. The local aim was to use the deliberative polling method to facilitate discussion around local education provision and to identify key issues and gaps, that could be fed into the education planning process. The strategic aim was to pilot a consultation mechanism, which could then be evaluated and presented to the relevant managing authorities and the Department of Education, with the aim of the mechanism being adopted and used within education planning.

The audit process allowed the IEF to check in with people’s current level of understanding about local education provisions, assess their level of awareness of existing opportunities for public engagement, and gauge any enthusiasm for more public engagement in the future. The ‘model of consultation’ showed that a new way of engaging people delivered tangible and real results, showing clear opinions on how the community felt.

What Worked Well

Most importantly, the process helped more people to get engaged in a meaningful way. They were able to contribute in a way that was appropriate for them and it was a positive experience which encouraged them to be involved in the future. The final report concludes that: ‘the process also revealed an appetite locally for engagement and discussion and strong support for community involvement in decisions relating to planning’.

The engagement process reached a broad range of people through using various methods to get in touch with people: surveys, focus groups, small group interviews and a public interaction event. They successfully carried out six focus groups, five one-to-one interviews, a public interaction event with 45 participants and two large polls.

They selected deliberative polling as a tool because it was similar to the methods already being used in their research work with polling company LucidTalk. Both public forums (an engagement method bring people together to discuss issues that are important to their local area) and community visioning (a process of creating a ‘vision’ outlining what a community would like to look like in the future and what improvements need to be made to achieve this vision) could have been useful tools to use for engagement within this context, particularly for the public interaction event.

The IEF have developed a streamlined version of the model so that it could be more easily used by other organisations. It includes a poll, several targeted focus groups, and a public interaction event, to ensure that you engage with all of the key stakeholders.

This structure removes a key element of deliberative polling - that which measures opinion at the start and end of informed discussion, to assess if this has led to a change in opinion. This aspect of deliberative polling is not considered essential for the aim of this work; instead, it is the quality of informed discussion, debate and problem-solving, all of which are key to a consultation being successful within an education planning context.

What Lessons Can Be Learned

There was an initial challenge ensuring that the key stakeholders were all engaged in the work. To overcome this, they engaged with community partners and local facilitators. This was essential to ensure the IEF reached and engaged with the key stakeholders who provided an in-depth background on the area and contributed to the running of all events.

The IEF have had difficulty furthering this work at a local level and encouraging the key managing authorities to take the results on board and to continue discussions, which was a key objective of their project. However, they are in the process of piloting the model again, with the Education Authority as a partner.

More Information

All projects in the Civic Activism Programme were supported by The Democratic Society and Involve, who provided mentorship, guidance, international experience and access to a range of Learning Partners.

The Building Change Trust was established in 2008 by the Big Lottery Fund (now The National Lottery Community Fund) with a National Lottery grant of £10 million, as an investment for community capacity building and promotion of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland. This funding was both invested and spent in full by the end of 2018 when the Trust closed.

The IEF is an independent charitable trust, established in 1992, which works to support parents, schools and communities in the development and growth of integrated education in Northern Ireland.

For more information about the organisations and the project: