Let us now examine an example of how sequential choice was used by the authorities to sound out public opinion before a decision was taken.
At Hvanneyri, a small population centre in the west of Iceland, two building sites had to be chosen, one for a laboratory for the Agricultural College, the other for the farm technology department of the Agricultural Research Institute. As the property was owned by the state, the Ministry of Agriculture asked the principal of the college to recommend suitable sites. There were different opinions about possible sites. As employees of the Agricultural College and the Agricultural Research Institute, the inhabitants of Hvanneyri had to take the interest of these institutions into account; as local residents, they had to consider the implications for their community of the traffic from cars and farm machinery resulting from the siting of the new buildings.
The college principal was sure that someone was bound to find fault with whatever proposal he made, but he was anxious to retain the good will of the local people as far as possible. As chairman of the building committee, he chose to hold a referendum among the inhabitants. But how was he to express the issue when there were several possible alternatives? One way would be to get the building committee to agree to a proposal and then submit it for public approval, but the drawback with this was that no matter what the committee decided, it would probably be rejected by somebody, at least, and possibly even by the majority. Such a majority, on the other hand, would be united only in its opposition to the proposal submitted; it would be split by opposing views on acceptable sites for the buildings. The college principal decided to tackle the matter by using sequential choice to find out what people wanted. Twelve alternatives were put forward, and each inhabitant was given the opportunity of ranking them individually. A study of the results confirmed the principal’s suspicion that opinion would be widely divided.
The results of the sequential choice survey were used by the building committee and the employees of the laboratory and the farm technology department as a basis for working out a compromise agreement. In fact, the solution involved a slightly different combination of sites from the twelve alternatives proposed in the survey, but the solution was regarded as satisfactory by everyone. The college principal was convinced that this conclusion could not have been reached by any means other than sequential choice which produced the data and insights needed for reaching a compromise.
In this case, the authorities (the college principal and the building committee) were keen to avoid taking a decision that could spoil their relationship with the inhabitants. Instead, they preferred to transfer responsibility for the matter to the people themselves.
When sequential choice is used, it can easily happen that voters are faced with more alternatives than those to which they are normally accustomed. In a planning issue like the one described above, the number of alternatives may be almost endless and far larger than voters are capable of evaluating and ranking. To keep the matter within reasonable proportions, a practical solution is for those who take the initiative to present two or three alternatives initially; after that, the interested parties should have the opportunity to meet and work out a few main alternatives, these being systematically examined and supported with arguments. From this it is evident that the method promotes systematic treatment. Issues have to be presented with reasonable notice to make it possible to work out alternative proposals. Finally, by this method those who take the initiative are obliged to present solid arguments for their position after considering the alternatives, while the other participants have a chance to evaluate all the alternatives and express their own positions.
As a procedure for dealing with matters formally, sequential choice is evidently more cumbersome than the more familiar voting methods. This does not mean, however, that it makes it harder to reach a conclusion, as the Hvanneyri example shows.
When an issue is put to the vote without the voters being given the opportunity to adopt a position on all the alternatives that are in fact available, it is questionable whether the outcome can be regarded as representing the collective will. When the choice is between only two alternatives, participants are simultaneously forced to increase their differences as well as suppress them. They have no means of using their votes to show what they really want, and no way of showing that the position indicated by their vote is in fact a compromise. When elected representatives are voting on certain issues, they have a difficult time explaining to those they represent that they would have preferred to vote for something other than what, under the circumstances, they found it appropriate to vote for. This puts such representatives in a difficult position and often causes them to be unfairly criticized by their supporters. With sequential choice each participant submits his ranking of the alternatives, and the outcome shows how a compromise has been achieved. Where the voters are elected representatives, there is much to be said for making their rankings public afterwards so that they can defend their actions and be judged according to their expressed opinions.
When sequential choice could prove an embarrassment to the leadership
The principles of sequential choice were once explained to an Icelandic Minister of Finance in a government supported by two parliamentary parties and a splinter group from a third. The minister thought the method might be used by the coalition partners for preparing the budget, but said the opposition would have to be kept out of the process. The point is that the clear distinction between government and opposition would tend to become rather blurred if the opposition were involved. Elements in the coalition might turn out to have more in common with the opposition than would be regarded as being compatible with notions of loyalty on both sides and with maintaining the traditional image of keeping a clear polarity between government and opposition.
Sequential choice was described at a meeting of employees of the Ministry of Finance. The secretary-general of the Ministry pointed out that if several viable alternatives were submitted to the vote, the leadership would lose some of its influence: the normal procedure is that only one version is presented for formal approval, and the leadership is able to decide on the version relatively early in the process.