Since last week citizens in the Netherlands can start a referendum on any issue that matters to them. However, the outcome can easily be ignored by the government. This is an example of ‘pseudovoice’, and therefore mostly ineffective.
Classic research demonstrates that offering people the opportunity to voice their opinion has positive effects. It might enhance people’s willingness to accept decisions—compared to no-voice procedures—and can increase al kinds of positive feelings such as a sense of fairness, trust, decision control, inclusion in the group, and respect (e.g., Lind and Tyler, 1988; Terwel, Harinck, Ellemers, & Daamen, 2010). Because of these positive effects providing voice opportunity is very popular with governing bodies, especially in the Netherlands, the home of the poldermodel. A popular explanation for the poldermodel is that ever since the Middle Ages, leaders from competing cities in the same polder (low-lying land that has been reclaimed from a body of water) were forced to share their ideas in order to preserve the land and avoid being flooded. Also in organizational settings people are often given the possibility to share their opinion, for example at the end of meetings during question time (vragenrondje), or by means of suggestion boxes and employee satisfaction surveys.
Although the positive effects of voice opportunity are quite robust, offering voice opportunity can also have negative effects. Recently, a survey completed by employees and managers of a Dutch healthcare organization demonstrated that when employees perceive they are offered ‘pseudovoice’— the mere illusion of influence, because the manager has no intention to really take the input into account—they are more likely to withdraw from voicing their opinion (de Vries, Jehn, Terwel, 2012). That is, employees who suspect that their manager does not intend to regard their ideas, comments, and suggestions will not be very motivated to engage in voice behavior, and might intentionally withhold their opinion (Van Dyne, Ang, & Botero, 2003).
The results of the survey suggest that if people can voice their opinion in an advisory (non-binding) referendum while perceiving this voice opportunity as only an illusion of influence, they might probably withhold their opinion completely and decide not to participate in the referendum. If this happens the referendum overleaps itself and the initiator cannot benefit from the public opinion which, if considered, could offer support for the initiator’s advocated position.
In sum, providing the public with a voice in a referendum can be a good thing but might not be very effective when the public perceives this as pseudovoice - which might happen in non-binding referenda.