08 March 2007

Phoney consultation: I told you so

A couple of months back I wrote a post satirising the government's latest "public consultation" exercise. I suggested this was a prime example of phoney pseudo-egalitarianism — one of the key themes of mediocracy.

Appearance: The people in power are being "inclusive"; the establishment cares what ordinary people think.

Reality: Your answers are welcome, so long as they agree with what has already been concluded.

The exercise took place last Saturday. An article in today's Guardian by Liam Curtin, one of the members of the public chosen to take part, provides support for my suspicions. For example, I said the way the questions were framed could easily bias the answers in a particular direction. Curtin reports that one of the questions was "Should people who harm themselves by smoking, etc, be allowed hospital treatment?", with the possible answers being "strongly agree", "tend to agree" or "not sure".

I don't think the results of this type of questioning would be considered meaningful by anyone familiar with social survey methods. Certainly not meaningful in the way they will probably be taken to be, by our friendly, caring, accessible government.


Ben Page of MORI (the firm which organised the exercise) has left a comment, reproducing his response to Liam Curtin’s criticisms. He denies Curtin’s claim that the range of possible answers to questions were skewed towards agreeing.

He also argues that "people mostly tell us that they don’t want to start from a completely blank sheet of paper". I do wonder slightly whether this is a euphemism for offering people pre-determined attitudes which they can either take or leave, but without scope for them to suggest a completely different attitude. We know that Mr. Blair thinks the model of the state/individual relationship should be changed in a particular way; is it too cynical to think this aim was incorporated into the agenda of the consultation?

What might have been more useful, but no doubt at variance with the kind of ‘democratisation’ aimed at by New Labour, and in any case too threatening, is to have done precisely that: give members of the public a completely blank sheet and see what they come up with.