GCC’s new consultation survey – ‘baffling’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘full of assumptions and loaded questions’

As part of consultation on their re-drawn library strategy GCC have worked with a private consultation company to design a survey, which is available online and in libraries. The survey can be downloaded here: GCC_0018 QUESTIONNAIRE_PRINT

We sent a link to the survey out to the FoGL email list, and almost immediately began to receive messages from service users deeply concerned at the survey’s content/design. I have today written to GCC with these concerns:

UPDATE: GCC have responded to questions on Twitter from concerned library users, with:  “if people have specific questions about the library strategy or consultation, send them to libraries2012@gloucestershire.gov.uk They have also been advising people they should attend consultation roadshows.

Thank you for sending through the consultation survey and road show details which have now been posted on the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries blog and promoted through twitter and the mailing list. However, I have several serious concerns about the survey document.

The survey document is very complex. I am a formally trained social scientist working at doctoral level. Even so, I found what I was being asked to do in Section 2 of the form ‘A new strategy for Gloucestershire’s libraries’, where I am asked to allocate points adding up to the value of ten, confusing – there are more straightforward ranking systems which could have been used and would allow clearer instructions for completion to be given. At the least, an example answer could have been included with the first question to clarify how respondents should answer.

The survey also mixes response methods within the same question. For instance, people are asked to allocate scores adding up to ten in part A of Question 8, then are asked to tick one box in part B – this seems needlessly complex and may lead to people filling out the form incorrectly.

Overall the form appears long and complex. I appreciate that it is a difficult balance to collect feedback on complex proposal through a straightforward and accessible format, but questions are phrased in long sentences with multiple clauses. In December 2010 I spent several Saturdays standing outside the library in a deprived area, informing people of the plans to close their library, and offering them the chance to sign a petition calling for a review of the plans. I encountered people whose literacy levels were so limited that I had to read through the three-line petition statement with them and assist them in writing their own address and postcode on the petition form if they opted to sign. People in this situation, and even people with less severe literacy issues have as much right to have their say on the future of the service as anyone else, but are going to be completely put off completing this survey. The only way people in this situation will be able to complete this survey is with step-by-step support. Are library staff going to be allowed and/or encouraged to offer this support with appropriate resourcing available? Will support of this kind be on offer at road shows? How is completion of this form going to be maximised, and sufficient support provided so that everyone who wishes to have their say on the future of the service is able to do so, whatever their access issues or literacy levels?

I am also concerned that the survey appears to have been designed to generate data that will support the current draft proposals. For instance, each of the pre-written answers to Question 7 will generate data which can be used to justify the current proposals. The only room for dissenting or alternate views is the free-text boxes, which as I’m sure Vector know, people are disinclined to complete. This pattern is repeated throughout the survey. I doubt this survey is going to provide the data needed for the kind of ‘open minded’ re-assessment of the proposals at the analysis stage which we have been told to expect.

Finally, Question 19 asks how the changes to libraries could affect the respondent. How can users of proposed ‘Partnership Libraries’ answer this question when the information on the back of the form doesn’t specify when the 21/12 hours will fall, or the proposed venue for these libraries?  On the basis of this document it is likely that a reader would assume these libraries would be staying where they were. I appreciate that these details are to be negotiated through the consultation process – but why ask people questions they can’t meaningfully answer?

I am not alone in these concerns. Here is a sample of comments received by FoGL in the few hours after the link to the consultation survey was distributed:

“this is a very complex document and a large number of residents in this area will simply be put off by its complexity.  I was intending to take copies down to the Older Peoples projects this week for their input – but I cannot think of one member who is likely to sit down and wade through it!”

“It is fairly complex, with several sections involving allocation of points, etc. I am not stupid, am educated to degree level, but it’s quite baffling and I fear that I am being manipulated and that if I am tripped up and answer ‘wrongly’, i.e. allocate the wrong number of points, then the council will apparently be justified in riding roughshod over my wishes.”

“I have just completed the online survey but rather think I shouldn’t have. It is full of assumptions and loaded questions. I think it needs referring to some independent body immediately as to its validity.  (Not to mention its complexity and length which no doubt will dissuade lesser-committed souls!)”

“I’ve just filled out the online survey – it’s very badly designed and quite misleading in parts”

As discussed at our last meeting, we are very happy to encourage people to take part in consultation with the county council – we have always wanted the council to engage in discussion with service users from all backgrounds and understand their needs, views and concerns.

However, we mentioned that deep cynicism around this new consultation was likely to be a serious problem and inhibit participation. It is very difficult for us to encourage and persuade people to participate when the new survey is already being perceived as a closed-minded and manipulative exercise designed to collect data which will justify the draft strategy rather than meaningfully inform its development.

I hope you appreciate that making you aware of these issues does not stem from animosity towards the county council, but rather from a concern to assist the county council in collecting the fullest and most useful data to design a library strategy which best meets service users’ needs.

Update: We have now received a response to this letter from GCC.

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6 Responses to GCC’s new consultation survey – ‘baffling’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘full of assumptions and loaded questions’

  1. GCC leaders refused to attend a public meeting in December ‘because there were no plans to discuss’. Well, there are plans now. Why don’t they organise a public meeting to discuss them instead of wasting more of our money on this badly-designed survey form full of leading questions?

  2. Dr. Judith Wardle, co-ordinator Save Oxfordshire Libraries says:

    Faced with a biased questionnaire in Oxfordshire, we encouraged people to ignore tick box questions and write in comments. (At least we didn’t have this weird allocation of 10 points!) And local library groups ignored the questionnaire altogether and instead sent detailed critiques of the proposal. To be fair to the Council, they did ask the consultancy that analysed the responses to summarise the written submissions as well as adding up ticked answers — didn’t get us the result we wanted, but it was a better offer than what we started with.

    • demelzajade says:

      Hi Judith, We have been sending detailed critiques of the proposals for over a year now and continue to do so. Whether submissions outside of the formal consultation documentation is something GCC will consider is something they need to issue a clear statement on. Last time the only publicly available information on the analysis of consultation data was a brief and broad-brush report. It took several months, two FOI requests and an FOI appeal to get hold of the full data. Something to hide perhaps? Yes, the consultation data was overwhelmingly negative and opposed to the proposals yet had been completely ignored. They MUST do better this time, but this is not a promising start.

  3. Martin says:

    When I first came to Gloucestershire 34 years ago to undertake market research for a local firm I little thought that I would encounter the worst example of market research whilst still a resident in the county. Any barrister who tried to ask such leading questions in court would find himself in jail, or struck off. I suspect that our friends as Public Interest Lawyers will chuckle merrily to themselves when they see this blatant piece of manipulation and think about its role in the forthcoming case against the second attempt by Gloucestershire County Council to pull the wool over the public’s eyes. I wonder what Private Eye will make of this perfect set up for some caustic comedy sketches. Perhaps they will take their cue from the infamous Question 7 and ask readers:

    Please allocate your points to add up to 10 to show your opinions:
    Gloucestershire County Councillors should be committed for psychiatric care
    Gloucestershire County Councillors should be charged with fraud
    Gloucestershire County Councillors should be pilloried by the public for their plans.

  4. Eugenie Summerfield says:

    This badly designed questionnaire is a most shocking waste of public money and a blatant attempt on the part of GCC to appear to be consulting the public
    Upon what basis do GCC intend to pursue their plans?. It is a well-know fact that the response to questionnaires in general is very low and in the case of this over-complicated and devious document any response made by members of the public will be most unrepresentative of the genuine views of the entire community especially those with the greatest need of the library services due to the fact that sections of this so-called consultation document are
    quite incomprehensible – even to those of us who have Honours degrees!. .
    It would be interesting to know what percentage of the entire population respond and whether the GCC intend to proceed on this unrepresentative basis.i

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