The Wellington City Council seems pretty keen to tear up Manners Mall and turn it into a bus route. As any good local body would they’ve had a round of consultation which resulted in 74% of the 722 submitters opposing the plan and 20% in favour.
You may think that would give the council pause for thought. However, they commissioned a survery of 500 constituents which suggested that 68% supported the plan. They are now using that survey to suggest that the submissions form a biased view of what the electorate wants. How can we make sense of this data and which number should we prefer?
The survey, presuming it was done properly, tells us that most people in the electorate think that having buses in the mall would be a good idea. However, remember that not all those people care greatly about the issue or have a vested interest in it. Making a submission to the council has a far higher cost than answering a phone survey question. Those people who took the time to write a submission are likely to be the ones who care most about the matter.
A welfare maximising approach would weight peoples’ opinions according to how much they value the project. In this case such an approach would seem to favour keeping buses out of the mall. Unless the council has some reason to believe that submitters are systematically biased, or misinformed about the issue then there is little reason to prefer the survey result. The council appears to be trying to circumvent the very processes which are designed to ensure that local democracy is representative of the electorate’s views.