The Roles of Public Opinion Research in Canadian Government


258 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-9377-9
DDC 320.6'0971




Reviewed by Paul G. Thomas

Paul G. Thomas is the Duff Roblin Professor of Government at the
University of Manitoba, the author of Parliamentary Reform Through
Political Parties, and the co-author of Canadian Public Administration:
Problematical Perspectives.


Many informed observers have come to believe that governments spend too
much public money and assign too much importance to public opinion
research. Polls allegedly cause politicians to follow rather than lead
and produce attempts to manipulate public opinion. The Government of
Canada spends approximately $20 million annually on polling. The
spending is justified on the grounds that it enables government to be
more responsive to citizens.

This book argues that enhanced responsiveness to public concerns might
arise sometimes. However, it finds that the main uses of polling data
are to help set the decision-making agenda of government and, even more
importantly, to help governments communicate with citizens in order to
increase public understanding of, support of, and compliance with the
policies and actions of government. The book reaches this conclusion
through three case studies of the policy process: the patriation of the
Constitution and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; the
adoption of the Goods and Services Tax, and the strengthening of gun
control rules.

The three cases cover different time periods and different political
parties in office. The cases are thoroughly analysed so as to offer a
fascinating insight into the inner workings of the policy process at the
highest levels. Reliance on polling is found to be greatest on
high-profile issues, because such issues can potentially affect the
political fortunes of governments more dramatically. Each of the cases
fell into the high-profile category. In each case, polling shaped
communications strategy and tactics after the policy was decided and
played a limited role in the formulation of policy. The final chapter
examines the potential and the problems of polling.

This is one of very few careful examinations of the role of opinion
research within government. Written originally as a doctoral
dissertation, it will appeal mainly to students of the policy process
and, to a lesser extent, practitioners in government who want to learn
what works and what not to do when it comes to relying on polls.


Page, Christopher., “The Roles of Public Opinion Research in Canadian Government,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 25, 2024,