Should Polls Be Financed and Used by Federal Agencies?

The usefulness of polls to government agencies other than the legislative branch is already undergoing extensive tests. The Department of Agriculture has for several years made use of polling procedures to determine the attitude of farmers on matters affecting policies of the department. Likewise the Army, the Treasury Department, the Census Bureau, and other agencies are conducting surveys among parts of the population in which they are interested.

These agencies have assumed that if business throughout the country has found it profitable to use the sampling method of inquiring into public opinion, then this method also could be usefully applied in the art of government. For within about two weeks a sampling of public opinion can be made on any suitable subject. In other words, a referendum at small cost to the public can be made if for no other reason than to get the advice of the public on a problem.

Sometimes basic facts, such as are gathered by the Census Bureau in its regular reports on employment and unemployment are assembled quickly by the sampling method. Or administrators use polling devices to test their procedures, to find out how well their activities and their policies are understood, and to enlist the public’s help in putting government programs into operation. For example, the attitude of farmers on the government’s crop production and farm price policies has been the subject of official polls. Changes have been made in printed government forms as a result of evidence accumulated by surveys, and information has been released to the public to correct what polls showed to be “areas of public ignorance.”

So long as polls, financed with public funds, are used for administrative rather than political purposes, are they dangerous to democratic processes? If they are carefully conducted can they serve as means by which government keeps in touch with the people? Is it reasonable to expect that any organization which depends on the public for cooperation or support should make an effort to find out what the public thinks?