Wednesday 9 September 2020

Civic knowledge

The Initiative commissioned a poll earlier this year, pre-Covid, checking on whether voter knowledge about some basic civics had improved since the last iterations of the New Zealand Election Survey.

It hasn't. 

Our report on it came out this morning; I chatted about it with Duncan GarnerJenny-May Clarkson, and Mike Hosking.

None of the results were particularly surprising for those who pay attention to voter knowledge surveys. The NZ Election Survey regularly finds that roughly half of voters don't get how MMP works; we found the same. NZES often finds 16-17% of voters not knowing the lead party in the governing coalition; we found a bit over 30% can't identify which parties are in Parliament. As usual, Green Party supporters had more political knowledge than supporters of other parties. In prior work on the NZES, that looked to be the case even accounting for Greens' higher education levels; in this one, it looked to be explained by those higher education levels. 

I had thought that this kind of thing was more common knowledge, so I learned something too! I didn't know that it wasn't!

We made a couple of suggestions about ways of improving things. Civics education is the standard one, but I'm a bit of a pessimist on that one. Nearly ubiquitous civics education in the US hasn't seemed to have done much there for civic knowledge, and one rather neat experiment found that what is taught washes out a couple years after the classes are over. In that experiment, a civil liberties group tested whether an intensive instructional module on the US Bill of Rights might improve appreciation of civil rights. They found it did nothing to change student views on civil liberties, and only increased understanding of the Bill of Rights, as compared to a control group, shortly after the course was done. Two years later, there were no differences. 

So maybe it's worth trying, but only as an experiment: try it in a few spots, see if it works, see if the knowledge holds, and see whether it's crowded out instruction on other things. 

We had a bit more fun with another suggestion, stolen shamelessly from Bryan Caplan and adapted to local circumstances. Basically, you need to improve the incentive to acquire political knowledge. Rational ignorance is a tough beast otherwise. We suggested a few options, but one fun one would just have the Electoral Commission publish ads with some of the civics basics, then give a prize to the enrolled voter who, on getting that morning's random-draw phone call, successfully answered a question drawn from those basics. Even a $10,000 daily prize would only cost $3.65 million over the course of a year - plus the cost of the ads and the staffing of course. But the all-up costs wouldn't be that high relative to curriculum pushes, for example. 

You could even think about an extended version, like I'd discussed in Newsroom a while back (ungated), that would add in questions drawn from the headlines of papers and outlets covered by the press council.

The Herald covered the report here.

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