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.


Neil Welton said...

Try these very difficult questions for size:

1. Do you think that those planning horrendous terrorist outrages, which could kill members of your family, should be locked up for ninety days? Yes / No.

2. Do you believe the Government is right when it says your children should attend Trust schools so they leave education with at least five GCSEs or more? Yes / No.

3. When you collapse from a heart attack in your house should you be treated as "a top priority" by your brand new specialist hospital and diagnostic unit? Yes / No.

4. Should muggers, thieves and rapists, who do untold and life changing damage to their victims, be given tougher sentences by a tough Government? Yes / No.

5. As you know students, who drink, smoke and buy very expensive trainers, are a burden on taxpayers - do you think they should all pay their own way? Yes / No.

Hmmm. I think I will set up a new polling organisation. I could make a mint. How about 'YourAnswers' - aligning the views of people with Government in the digital age. Regulated by 'Ofpol' - ensuring the peace in your mind.

Ben Page said...

Here is Ipsos MORI's response to the Guardian piece by Liam Curtin in the Guardian

Dear Mr Curtin
We were disappointed to read your letter in Thursday’s Response section. You rightly said that the exercise at Downing Street on 3 March involved a genuine cross-section of the public (your response confirms that it wasn’t only cheerleaders who attended!), but while some of your criticisms are your opinion, others are just plain wrong.
You say that there was no room for open discussion or to add your own ideas – this is just not true. The day followed regional events where you and others discussed the issues, and involved over four hours of discussions in small groups, compared to 30-45 minutes in the voting sessions – to read your description it sounded like you were herded into a series of rigged votes, which simply wasn’t the case.
And your letter suggests that we provided you with a choice of “strongly agree”, “tend to agree” or “not sure”, which is just incorrect, as we always balance our scales in questions, and every question had the mirroring disagree options. To do otherwise would be a shameful biasing of the questions, which we would never stand for – and not even the most na├»ve would hope to get away with.
We did provide a range of options to consider – but this was not to close down the discussion, but rather give people something to react to. From a decade of undertaking similar exercises, people mostly tell us that they don’t want to start from a completely blank sheet of paper – and surely we should get reactions to government’s ideas?
Throughout we were probing for new ideas. In fact, the issue that you feel was wholly ignored – the need for “compassion” and “care” in public services – was one of THE five key themes that we drew out of the day to present to the Cabinet on the 8th of March. You were not a lone voice on this – and we have reflected this key issue prominently in our feedback to government.
And, on top of this, a second key conclusion from the event is that the more people discuss the options, the more they move away from the simple rewards and punishments that you felt we were trying to “rubber-stamp” - towards exactly the type of calls for encouragement and support you ask for. This came through very clearly as significant shifts in opinion measured at the beginning and end of the day, and we will be pointing this out too.
We’re sorry if you found fellow participants didn’t all agree with you – virtually all of them felt the exercise was worthwhile in the final vote of the day. The fact that the discussions and debate moved people towards your views won’t change your mind about the value of the exercise, but we think it really does show that deliberative events such as this do provide the opportunity for people to consider the issues and come to their own conclusions – and for these to be fairly represented.
We’re certainly not claiming they hold all the answers, but these deliberative methods are important tools to help get beyond knee jerk reactions and a tick box approach – and are here to stay.
Ben Page and Bobby Duffy, Ipsos MORI

John said...

A friend of mine who suffers from Manic Depression applied for a job, which required her to consult the "user community" concerning the construction(/refurbishment) of a centre in Leeds for psychiatric care users. At the interview she was told that a grant had been made available and that her job was to find out how the community wanted the money spent. She asked in the interview: "how do you know they want it spent on a centre?" "That's already been decided."

She didn't get the job.

Fabian Tassano said...

Sounds like a classic case of phoney consultation.

And probably also illustrates that you're penalised if you dare to question the phoneyness.