Sunday, 6 July 2008

Spinning Survey Data

As a short follow up to my recent review of the TUC's interesting pamphlet on democratising public services, I took a look at the CBI's press release demanding the pace of public service reform (i.e. the transformation of more services into money-making opportunities) be sped up. Usually they prefer fiscal arguments peppered with warnings about the credit crunch, economic slow down and the need to rein in public spending to try accelerate reform. But now the public are demanding it too, or so the CBI claims.

Richard Lambert, the CBI's director-general (pictured) claims a recent YouGov survey commissioned for the bosses' organisation makes uncomfortable reading for the government and anyone opposed to the great public services sell off. In fact, the CBI boasts "both the unions and the ministers they are targeting need to recognise how out of kilter with public mood any anti-reform stance is.” And there's more. Only a minority of the public think the government's reform programme has improved public services over these last 11 years, and around 59% have no objection to the private sector delivering services. Attached to their release is an Excel spreadsheet with the results.

To be honest, if a student handed in these bold conclusions on the basis of the CBI's data, any self-respecting sociologist would hand them a big fat fail. Let's take a look at these claims more closely. Take the claim about private sector delivery. The question YouGov asked its sample of telephone respondents was "Currently public service providers include organisations from the public (i.e. state), private and voluntary (i.e. charitable). Assuming they are of equal quality does it matter to you who provide your public services?" Talk about a leading question! Of course, the truth is that on the whole, the intrusion of the private sector into public service provision costs more, produces more bureaucracy and offers no appreciable improvement in the service in question. The waste of PFI schemes, the internal market in the NHS; the targets cultures in schools, colleges and universities; the drip-drip privatisation of Royal Mail; the sell off of local council services - the evidence just keeps piling up. Small wonder the CBI neglected to include this in the question!

Then there is the pace of public services reform. YouGov invited respondents to give their opinions on the pace of reform, ranging from 'should be much faster' to 'shouldn't be any reform'. Why should we be surprised that 66% that the pace needed speeding up in the context of a question that says nothing about the content of the reforms taking place? It is a meaningless question that elicits an equally meaningless response. To add to the illiteracy YouGov reports only 32% think public services have gotten better since Labour have been in power (45% said worse). Hold on a moment, didn't John Cridland, deputy director of the CBI note in their January report, The Market for Public Services in the UK that "over the last twenty years, private sector involvement in providing public services has been growing." Has it not occurred to our captains of industry that there maybe be a link between this deepening involvement of capital and dissatisfaction with the outcomes of their increasing interference?

What the CBI has done is not commission a serious piece of research. This is ideological foil for their warmed over neoliberalism, nothing more. But allow me to put a more credible and positive spin on one piece of data the survey helpfully provided. YouGov asked "which if any of the following ways would you like to be involved in deciding how your local services ... are delivered?" Only 15% said they wouldn't be interested in the decision-making process, while (60%) indicated a preference for customer satisfaction surveys. However, the preferences were not mutually exclusive. 62% of respondents indicated a willingness to participate in some way - 32% favoured panels, 22% public meetings and 8% some kind of councillor/volunteer role, all of which is the lifeblood for the Public Value approach and poison to markets. It's not surprising the CBI ignores this data, but despite themselves they have gifted us an argument that strengthens the socialist case for democratically accountable public services.

This is crossposted at Socialist Unity and Union Futures.

6 comments:

Robert said...

Thats why we need a socialist government sad we do not have one.

John Meredith said...

"The question YouGov asked its sample of telephone respondents was "Currently public service providers include organisations from the public (i.e. state), private and voluntary (i.e. charitable). Assuming they are of equal quality does it matter to you who provide your public services?" Talk about a leading question! "

But it isn't a leading question. Or, if it is, I can't see why. The question is presumably designed to test whether people have in-principle objections to the use of private companies in the supply of public services, and I think it works, that it does not lead. If the conclusion is that people do not, in-principle, object to private companies supplying public services, it is hardly surprising, but worth knowing.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

but the question includes the proviso "Assuming they are of equal quality" - now this is possible in theory - but in reality they are never of equal quality with the same resources they are lesser - that is why the question is so bad

John Meredith said...

but the question includes the proviso "Assuming they are of equal quality"

Yes, because the question was trying to find out what principled rather than pragmatic concerns people have, so the qualification was necessary and it is fair to read from the answer that people do not, in principle, object to the private sector supplying public services, so long as the quality of the provision is at least as good as that by pubic providers (however you define the quality). So it isn't a leading question.

Phil BC said...

But John, while this is a perfectly adequate question for a poll establishing the depth of 'in principle' acceptance of private provision of public services, this isn't what the CBI was interested in. It is about getting the government to speed up the marketisation of services and undermining opposition to them by pretending there is real ground swell support for privatisation. It is the uses to which the CBI puts this data that I find really objectionable. And they can only do this by putting a spin on it.

John Meredith said...

"It is the uses to which the CBI puts this data that I find really objectionable. And they can only do this by putting a spin on it."

I don't disagree with that and I find the CBI enormously annoying because of the way they are treated by the media as an oracle instead of a special interest lobby.