This article deals with public opinion, which is an essential ingredient of the democratic process. With it, those holding political offices are able to assess or gauge the feelings of the people towards public policies.
Public Opinion is a barometer by which public office holders measure public response to their action or inaction. A democratic government cannot therefore afford to ignore public opinion unless it is living in a fool’s paradise. But what is public opinion may be no more than the views, of a vocal few or of the promoters of media outfits.
As part of the explanation of this phenomenon, we shall look at the definition,formation, measurement and functions of public opinion in this article.
Definition of Public Opinion
Public opinion is a combination of two operational words, namely, ‘public’ and ‘opinion’. The word ‘public’ means the whole society, the people or the nation or a part of the country regarded from a particular viewpoint. In a democratic state, there may be several ‘publics’ instead of one ‘public’. Public in this context stands for the whole society.
Opinion refers to the verbal response of an individual to a question and his belief about a particular person, object or event. Since everyone has a view on almost every subject, then it follows that people have opinion on political issues.
If the two concepts are combined, then public opinion symply means the aggregate or sum-total of the views of people living in a country concerning issues, of national concern. It is the end-product of a process of public discussion leading to the formation of a widely-held opinion concerning a government policy or an issue of national importance.
But since this public is not necessarily homogeneous, the public opinion on a particular issue may be no more than the views of powerful groups or a few powerful people. That is, the opinion of a group may be projected as the public opinion. For instance. It is only a few students who usually take part in political activities and agitations in university campuses, but because these few students are active and vocal, their views on university administration and national politics are often taken to represent the opinion of the whole student population though this may be incorrect.
Opinion shared: Public opinion deals with an issue affecting most citizens of a particular countly and every citizen has to participate in expressing opinion.
Public issues: Public opinion involves public issues.
Expression by private person: Private individuals express public Opinion. It is not the govemment or any public institutions.
Communication; Communication and information play a significant role in public opinion formation.
Issues: Opinions expressed by the public are mainly on Specific issues rather than on a general public issue.
Not Static: It is dynamic and changes from time to time.
Formation Of Public Opinion
Through elections: Political parties educate the people on important public issues during campaigns, rallies, etc, and by this, opinions are formed.
Mass Media: Public opinion can be formed through mass media such as radio, newspapers, television.
Pressure groups and Political parties: These two groups help in the fomation of public opinion.They are capable of shaping the views of the people on matters of public importance. This can be done through their manifestos, conferences, debate, etc.
Bureau of information: This bureau is established by the government to inform the public on the activities of government. It helps the public to form opinions on policies made and implemented by the government.
Symposia and lectures: It can be formed through holding of lectures and symposia, where ideas on matters of public importance are expressed.
Individual’s Influence: Members of the community, friends and relatives can also influence one’s opinion about public issues.
Measurements of Public Opinion
Channels of communication: Government can determine people’s opinion through exploring all the channels of communication e.g. opinions expressed in newpapers, radio, television.etc.
Opinions expressed by leaders of thought: It can also be determined or measured through Opinions expressed by local leaders of thought or leaders in the representative assemblies.
Letters to government: Citizens may write letters to government agencies expressing their Opinions on a particular issue of national importance.
Response to government policies: Government can also take notice of public response to its policies. lt could be through mass protests and demonstration for or against its programmes.
Referendum or plebiscite: Government may conduct a referendum or plebiscite to determine what the people want on any particular issue. It determines the acceptability or not of proposals put forward by the government.
Telephone Uses: Most of the radio stations in different countries (Africa precisely) today, adopt this method by presenting phone-in-programmes. A sort of random sampling of the opinions of the public.
Opinion poll: Government may use opinion polls to determine the mind and views of the people on a given issue, by interviewing a cross section of the public. Those interviewed will then represent the opinions of the citizens.
Elections: It can be measured through the outcome of elections. The result of an election could help to determine how popular or unpopular a government and Its policies are.
Policies and activities of government: Public opinion helps the govemment to know the feelings of the people concerning its policies and activities.
Needs of the people: The people’s problems, needs and desire are known to the government through public opinion.
Good policies: Public opinion helps the government to formulate adequate policies that will meet the demands and alleviate the suffering of the people. Checking the excesses of government: Through this method, the government is made to account for its actions.
Cabinet reshuffle: Public opinion can bring about the removal of a minister or his movement to other departments.
Support of the people: It determines the extent of support the people have for such government.
To be watchful: Public opinion helps the government to be watchful over its actions or activities as it relates to the people.
Disadvantages Of Public Opinion
Difficult to measure: It is difficult to measure the opinion of the people on a particularissue. .
Manipulated: Public opinion can be manipulated by a few influential individuals in the society for their own selfish ends.
Bias and Inaccurate: Public opinion may be the views of very few powerful and influential individuals in the society and not the voice of the mass.
It may give wrong picture: It may give wrong, confusing and distortful picture ona given issue.
Not often reliable: It is not often reliable and therefore not advisable for governments to rely on it.
Views exressed by a cross-section of the society cannot be adequate: They are few and as such cannot adequately represent, the opinions of the citizens, that are in the majority. Such does not make for a consensus of opinion as long as the majority is not involved.
Factors That Can Promote Public Opinion In a State
Press freedom: The use of the mass media should be maintained.
Bureau of information: This should be established to receive, compile and disseminate information.
Speech and association: By encouraging and allowing freedom of speech and association.
Activities of pressure groups: By encouraging the activities of pressure groups and other voluntary organizations.
Opinion polls: Encouraging the use of opinion polls on issues ofgeneral importance.
Existence of political parties: Will help to mould the opinion of the people.
Responsible and responsive: For e.g. Social institutions such as families and religious centers should be able to demostrate these .
Definition Of Opinion poll
Opinion poll is a scientific method of measuring the wishes/choice of the people on a given social, political and economic issues. For example, popularity of a government or predicting election results.
Why Opinion Poll Is Not Reliable?
Lack of expertise: Officials conducting the polls lack the necessary expert knowledge.
Absence of reliable technology: This may produce innacurate results.
Illiteracy: High level of illiteracy and ignorance among the people can make the conduct of public opinion unreliable.
Problems of analyzing statistical data: This can also make the conduct ofpublic opinion unreliable.
Lack of objectivity: This is highly noticeable among respondents.
People are scared: Many people are not ready to cooperate with the officials conducting the polls because they are scared of being interviewed.
Poor communication network: This has the capacity of making the conduct of public opinion unreliable in West Africa.
Manipulation: There is the possibility of manipulating the fi gures generated or gathered during the exercise.
Traditional sentiments: Respondents may be highly influenced by cultural, religious or traditional sentiments.
Selection of sampling: The selection of the sampling may be misleading, if it cannot produce the desired results.