Select Committee on Public Administration Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum by Professor Robert M Worcester, Chairman of MORI

There are many forms of public consultation which can be selected depending on the criteria and end objectives of the inquiry. Cost is often an important consideration; efficacy is important, and speed is sometimes essential. The appearance of consultation is often an important consideration. Over the past few years, the traditional break down of market research into qualitative research (individual depth in research and focus groups) and quantitative studies, using representative samples of defined populations, has been augmented by people's panels (such as the work MORI do for the Cabinet Office), citizens' juries (employed by a number of local authorities), workshops, and so-called "deliberative polling". Worst of all are what I call "Voodoo polls". "Voodoo polls" began with cheap and cheerful newspaper and radio/TV phone-ins which have, although still used by some outlets, now become widely discredited. Nonetheless, they continue to be a plague, as they are unrepresentative of anything other than the views of those who choose to participate and the efficacy of the pressure groups that organise their members to manipulate them. My favourite "voodoo poll" story is of one "Desmond", who some years ago wrote to the Evening Standard to say how pleased he was that "his side had won", stating that he had "voted" 157 times himself. Another illustration of the fatuousness of such so-called "polls" was the infamous ITV broadcast on the Monarchy, which incorporated a properly conducted opinion poll with a phone-in poll (voodoo), which purported to come from over 2 million phone calls. It was rumbled, however, by the televising of Ann Leslie, columnist of the Daily Mail, who was shown on camera repeatedly punching the repeat button on her mobile phone, voting as often as she could get through.

  But the worst of "consultations" of recent years was some four or five years ago, when John Gummer, as Secretary of State for the Environment, sent out millions of questionnaires to Londoners to find out what they liked and disliked about living in London. It was a nightmare to administer and analyse and when they received it, the data was useless as research. I hoped never to see such an exercise again. I am afraid, however, the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, outdid it when he sent out 12 million questionnaires on a Wednesday, at Tesco's, NHS hospitals and NHS doctors' surgeries, with a deadline of response by the following Monday evening. Though the deadline was extended as a result of public uproar, only some 200,000 replies were received.

  As it happened, I was giving a talk to the Bookman Club, a group of publishers, on the Thursday night. When asked a question about what I thought about the exercise, I conducted a quick poll asking those who had seen the questionnaire to put up their hands. Out of 50 diners, only one hand went up. Purportedly, half a million pounds of taxpayers' money was wasted on this exercise, which resulted in the finding that the public wanted more nurses, more doctors, shorter waiting times and the like. As you know, I was asked to comment on this on radio and TV and I indicated that for less then £4,000, MORI could have asked one open ended question on its weekly omnibus survey of c 2,000 people, which could have asked the same question as the NHS questionnaire but had it analysed by gender, age, social class, region of the country, fully representative of the British electorate and much more useful and it could have been done in the same period of time or even quicker.

  Alternatively, a more detailed survey could have been done, providing more useful information using the people's panel, the service provided departments of Government by the Cabinet Office with a base sample of over 5,000.

  I hope this is helpful to the Committee. I would be glad to respond to any questions.

Robert M Worcester

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