IF an informed electorate is the foundation of democracy, Austin may be the most democratic place in the nation during the next few days.
In the first event of its kind in the United States, 600 Americans - representing a microcosm of the country - will gather at the National Issues Convention Jan. 18 to 21 to study society's most pressing problems.
This exercise in citizen activism comes at a time when polls show voter apathy and antigovernment sentiment to be at an all-time high. Still, the televised convention promises to give the selected citizens an opportunity to rub elbows - and share viewpoints - with several presidential candidates.
Convention attendees will grapple with public policy regarding the economy, the family, and America's role in the world. A highlight of the four-day event is a new polling method that will measure participants' pre- and post-convention views on these issues.
Developed by James Fishkin, the University of Texas political scientist who organized the convention, a ''deliberative poll'' shows the power of information to change minds. In a deliberative poll, participants give an initial opinion. Then they study the issues and discuss the tradeoffs. Afterward, they are polled again to see how their study affected their views, Dr. Fishkin explains.
Fishkin previously conducted two such polls in Britain. The result: a measurable shift of opinion after participants were exposure to unbiased, nonpartisan information. For instance, 57 percent of the British participants initially regarded prison as an effective deterrent to rising crime. After group discussions, just 38 percent did.
The $4 million convention is funded primarily by private foundations and corporations. The Public Broadcasting System is picking up the tab for the radio and television simulcasts Jan. 20 and Jan. 21, and for a wrapup program Jan. 26, when poll results will be released. The National Issues Forum, a nonpartisan network of citizen organizations that regularly deliberate public-policy issues, is supplying moderators and briefing materials.
Some pollsters and social scientists, though, regard the convention as of little value. A political scientist in Houston says the convention is ''a noble effort,'' but he questions the idea that an informed voter makes better decisions.
''Even uninformed voters make reasonable decisions,'' agrees William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. He cites the tendency among some voters to choose a candidate on the basis of character rather than issues.
Others, however, say the convention demonstrates the possibilities of having an informed public. ''Say that [the convention] did generate some consensus views on important issues today,'' says Calvin Jillson, director of the John Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. ''That might enrich conversations among voters and politically aware people.''
Fishkin says that deliberative polling corrects flaws inherent in other kinds of opinion sampling. For instance, while pollsters can question a representative sample of the public, they elicit what Dr. Jillson calls ''shotgun, off-the-cuff responses.''
On the other hand, a meeting like Ross Perot's conference of independent voters last August provides an opportunity for deliberation. But because participants are self-selected, their opinions are not representative.
Fishkin says a deliberative poll corrects both problems: It yields considered opinions from a representatively selected group.
But Dr. Schneider believes the deliberative poll has its flaws. ''Somebody's paying their bill,'' he says of the participants' all-expenses-paid trip to Austin. ''They're on television. They don't want to appear stupid. It's such a completely artificial setting, remote from the ordinary process of political decisionmaking, that I'm not sure it has a lot of value.''
With only four of the nine GOP presidential candidates slated to participate, the convention will not be a big media draw, Schneider says.
But Jillson says the candidates are secondary to the event. ''It can do most of what was intended for it if none of them attends,'' he says. ''Well-informed, sensible people working out their own views on important matters - that would be interesting enough.''