Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 101 - 119)




  101. May I formally welcome you to the Committee this morning? Jonathan Rees, you are described here as Director, Modernising Public Services. Is this not the Service First programme? It is now called Modernising Public Services?
  (Mr Rees) Yes, it is, indeed.

  102. And Ben Page, who is Director of MORI. A director or the director?
  (Mr Page) No, I am not the director, I am Director of Government Research at MORI.

  103. Perhaps not quite as impressive as it sounds here but nevertheless awfully impressive. Thank you very much for coming to talk to us and help us with our inquiry into innovations in participation. I understand that you would like to make a presentation to start with and we can ask questions about it afterwards. Off you go.
  (Mr Page) If you are happy with that.

  104. That would be excellent.
  (Mr Rees) (figure 1) As you say, I am Director of the Modernising Public Services group in the Cabinet Office, which is the group which is responsible for improving the quality and responsiveness of public services. As such we report to Ian McCartney and Dr Mowlam. Another way of putting it is that we were responsible for chapters 3 and 4 of the Modernising Government White Paper. That is some of the context. What we thought we would do is we would give you a very brief overview of the People's Panel, why we set it up and so on and then Mr Page will talk about some of the first results. (figure 3) We set up the People's Panel in the summer of 1998. It was a decision of the new Government to set it up. It is run for us by MORI; we have a contract with them. The Panel itself comprises 5,000 people who, as it says there, are representative of the UK population in as many different ways as we can make them representative. We can use it for either quantitative research, big opinion surveys, or qualitative, smaller focus groups. All the results are published. So that in a nutshell is what the Panel is. (figure 2) I thought I would set out a little of the context in which we set up the Panel, why we went for a Panel, how we set it up, what we have used it for, what we do with the results and our future plans. (figure 4) The overall objective was set out in the Modernising Government White Paper with which you will be familiar, which is that we want public services to be more responsive to both groups and individuals. It was in that context that the decision that the Panel should be set up was taken. (figure 5) It is not the only new initiative that the Cabinet Office is taking forward. For instance, Ministers have spent the last six months running a series of listening to older people events up and down the country. We have a programme called Better Government for Older People, which has 28 pilots which are experimenting in different ways of trying to engage people about public services generally. There was an exercise which was run by another bit of the Cabinet Office, the Women's Unit, Listening to Women, which resulted in a publication which the Prime Minister launched at the beginning of October. We have Charter Mark and that has been around for about eight years now, but that is another of the mechanisms for encouraging different bits of the public sector to be more responsive to their users. So successful organisations have to show that they have consulted users and got complaints handling processes in place. We issue best practice from the Cabinet Office on how you go about consulting users and we have done a lot of work with the National Consumer Council on what the right mechanisms are. The White Paper said that we were going to introduce a new consumer test which Ministers will be making an announcement about quite soon, which is designed to try to ensure that for central government and its agencies the consumers' interests are put first. Then we have the People's Panel. Broadly speaking there is a range of different ways in which we are trying to find new ways of getting to people and making sure that their views inform what we are doing. (figure 6) The People's Panel itself was set up because Ministers took the view that they needed a new mechanism to try to find out what people thought, particularly about public services and what needed to be done to improve them. Why a panel rather than any other form of research? I think the Panel has three key advantages. One, it enables us to track views over time; you are going back more or less to the same people, so you can see how their views have changed. Secondly, by going for a Panel of 5,000 we have a group of people whom we have asked about their usage of public services. If you want to talk to people who have used the legal system in the last year or you want to find out what people think about bus services in the North East, it is relatively easy for MORI to pick those people out and for us to ask them specific questions. That is a sort of second advantage. The third is that it enables us to do what we call here cross-sectoral research. We are talking to people about their experiences of government as opposed to what they think of the Benefits Agency or what they think of the Employment Service. That is a third advantage. Finally, it raises the profile of consultation. There is a lot of consultation, a lot of research which goes on across government. The People's Panel is one of the mechanisms which has perhaps attracted a bit of public attention. That is why we set up a panel. (figure 7) When Ministers decided they wanted to do this, we consulted fairly widely about how best it was to be done. We also had a pilot to see whether it worked before we began the main recruitment. That all took place in the spring of 1998. We then recruited the full 5,000, who are representative in terms of age, gender, regional distribution and so on. Unlike some of the local authority panels, where you can if you want apply to be a member, in this case, as Mr Page will explain later, recruitment is totally random so that is why we know it is a representative section. It was recruited between June and September last year. (figure 8) It is available for use across the public sector, so it is not just something the Cabinet Office uses. To date eight other government departments have put questions in either one of our quantitative surveys or done qualitative work with us. Secondly, we are committed to being totally open with the results. All the results are published on our website. We produce a four-page or a six-page summary of the results which we try to circulate widely and we have sent the Committee copies of those. We have what we nicely call a support group. This is a group of people to help advise us, both from other government departments and from outside. We have some academics on it and we have a representative of the National Consumer Council, designed to try to ensure that we are tapping into other research that is going on in government but also that we are asking the right questions. Finally, as the Panel is a new approach, we are committed to evaluating it. Ministers said that it would be set up for three years. We are in the process of conducting the evaluation at the end of the first year to try to see how it is working. That is part of the overall process. (figure 9) What do we we use the Panel for? We have done three fairly major quantitative surveys. The first wave was as a result of consulting all 5,000 people. Since then we have not needed to consult 5,000. The second and the third waves have both been around 1,000 people. The first wave asked generally about people's usage of services and was part of the recruitment exercise, but it also asked about things like attitudes to electronic government, one-stop shops and so on. The second wave included questions from DETR about local democracy, complaints handling, transport. The third wave, which we published in July, included some general questions about public service standards, how long you would expect to wait for a reply to letters and so on, as well as research which helped inform the DETR's Urban White Paper, Housing Green Paper. All of those three waves have tended to be an amalgam of a range of different questions, in part to keep people interested when they are being asked. We have also done a fair degree of qualitative work with focus groups, with smaller groups of people on issues like biosciences and Modernising Government. Before we produced the White Paper we asked a selected number of people about their experiences at certain life episodes such as bereavement or when they needed care, just to find out what the public perception was about how joined up government was, how responsive it was. We have used it for things like that. The Women's Unit have done a number of focus groups with it to try to define what women's real concerns are. I thought you would probably ask me about the cost so I would say that the cost in total of the Panel to date is about £632,000, of which the Cabinet Office has spent about £500,000; the remainder coming from the other departments which have used it. (figure 10) What do we do with the results? Clearly we publish the results. We are also wanting to use the results to inform the policy-making process. I mentioned the example where we had asked people about their experiences of government as they saw it. As a result of that, it has helped prompt the setting up of some action teams which are looking at life episodes from the users' point of view. DSS used it and they used the results to help determine how they should take forward their own modernisation programme. MAFF, for instance, carried out some qualitative research into an information booklet on GM foods. They got a group together, showed them the booklet, asked them what they thought about it. As a result the booklet is to be rewritten. There is some evidence that it is informing policy making but clearly that is one of the aspects we are going to be looking at in the evaluation. There is a time lag between getting the results and actually seeing the results in policy making. Clearly it is only one of the aspects. There is consultation, there is research, other research, there is a whole range of other issues which Ministers take into account. (figure 11) Looking at the future, we shall be publishing shortly, probably early in the new year, some research we have done on older people's attitudes to public services. This is an example where we have taken evidence from the first three waves and actually looked at it through the eyes of a particular group, in this case older people, to see whether their attitudes are different from the general public's. That will come out. We are engaged at the moment in what we call the fourth wave, the fourth main quantitative wave. This is looking at the key issue of demand for 24 x 7 services, that is services seven days a week, 24 hours a day, where do people see the greatest need for extended hours. This is again fulfilling one of the White Paper's main commitments. We are also using it to look at public awareness of Charter Mark. The fifth wave will repeat some of the questions we asked in the first wave, so we shall be able to see what the change is, but it will also be a base line in some senses for where we stand on modernising government across the board, against which we shall be able to compare in three years' time. Finally, we are engaged in what we call an ethnic minority booster. Although the Panel is representative of the population as a whole, clearly some groups, though representative, will be fairly small. So the number of Bangladeshi women will actually be three or four as a representative sample. If we want to look at the particular interests of those groups, we need to boost them. That is why Ministers decided to do an ethnic minority booster which will enable us to tap into the views of that group more closely. (figure 12) In conclusion, we like to call it a world first at national level. We are not sure any other country has done it, though there are about 100 local authority panels in this country. It is flexible. It can be used in a number of different ways. We have used it in some of them; there are other things we still have not done with it. It is a key part of the overall Modernising Government drive. If you are happy, Mr Page will now run through some of the technical aspects.

  105. Yes, thank you very much.
  (Mr Page) (figure 14) I do not know how much detail you would like on the methodology, but Mr Rees has given you some of the key figures. I can give you a few slides on the absolute detail. People have been recruited face to face in their own homes, so we are trying to get people's considered views in a properly representative spread of locations right across the UK, which is very, very important. The interviews are actually captured on computer so that we can process the information accurately and quickly.

  106. Do people get paid?
  (Mr Page) Do the people get paid for taking part? No. I know it looks like a long time. The British public, as long as they understand why they are being asked to do it, are amazingly sympathetic towards taking part in very long interviews. Some government departments actually run interviews which take an hour and a half.

  107. MORI of course gets paid.
  (Mr Page) MORI gets paid because the interviewers collecting the information need to be fed and watered, yes.

  108. So MORI is getting paid but the punters are not getting paid.
  (Mr Page) The punters do not get paid, no.

  109. It is a good system, is it not?
  (Mr Page) You are welcome to try it. It does not pay as well as others.
  (Mr Rees) The punters do get paid for certain sorts of things. If you are going to do a focus group, the convention is that you will pay people to attend the focus group say £10.
  (Mr Page) More than that; it has gone up.
  (Mr Rees) We do not pay them for being a member of the Panel. We do give them a free People's Panel pen when they become members.

  110. Gosh. I can see why you are not short of volunteers then.
  (Mr Page) If people give up a whole day to come to an event, we would actually pay them £50 and get them there. It is commensurate. In terms of the sample design, it is a random selection of enumeration districts; these are the small buildings blocks of the census. These have been selected at random and we made sure we had the correct proportion in each region, the correct proportion of different types of housing, different types of neighbourhood. Within each one there is a random selection of addresses so that we are not just allowing the interviewers to go to the ground floor of the tower block because he or she does not like to climb up the stairs because the lift is not working. If the flat selected is at the top of the tower block he or she will be sent to the top of the tower block and not allowed to interview anywhere else. It is also very important in stopping us just speaking to people who wish to take part or who have plenty of time to take part. The samples are clustered in enumeration districts which is important. This exercise, as with all of these things, is always a tradeoff between absolute accuracy and cost. Also, if one wishes to go back to people, if one has a pure random sample right across the country of one home selected on the Isle of Muck, the cost of sending an interviewer back to visit that person on the Isle of Muck by ferry is extremely important, but the clustering means we do have a proper spread of locations and in aggregate it is representative. In terms of recruiting the Panel, some of the piloting work was very interesting in seeing how people react to an approach by government to engage with them. Many people find that quite a threatening experience and because of that we wrote to people who lived in middle class areas, because they were quite keen to join and to tell the Government what they thought of them, but we found people living in more working class areas were rather suspicious. So the initial contact there was by the interviewer with a letter and explanatory brochure as well. We left all the people whom we recruited a brief leaflet detailing the approach, why it was being done, how it was going to be used and of course the famous pen as a small incentive to remind them they now belonged to the People's Panel. (figure 16) Once we actually get to each home, a person is chosen at random. It is not the person who has lots of opinions on everything and who will tell us what they think, it is one person at random within that household. If it is a couple, it does not mean that it is always the husband or always the wife who is chosen, they are selected at random. The interviewer is making up to five calls back to find the selected person. If the selected person was not in, the interviewers would actually keep calling back to get the correct person, because if one does not do that, one ends up with a sample which disproportionately represents the elderly and the unemployed and people who tend to be at home more. If people said no, we sent back a different interviewer. So we are trying to minimise refusals all the time, not by antagonising people, because that is not good for either MORI or the Cabinet Office, but to try to make sure that all the time we are getting a representative cross section of people to join. We have been very careful in terms of the representativeness of the sample. We perhaps do not have time to go into it today, but I am more than happy to provide you with figures on the exact profile. (figure 18) The data which is collected covers all of the things on that chart: gender, age, ethnicity, in detail, disability, the actual income, the qualifications of people in the household, which newspapers they read, whether or not they have access to the internet, their e-mail addresses. We tried to get a very broad picture about these people so we can dissect the groups in any way we need to for future research, very cost effectively to target people who work part time. If you do not ask that question at the start you will not know which ones to go back to.

Mr Oaten

  111. Do you ask about their politics?
  (Mr Page) To be honest, I wanted to but I was forbidden. The reason I wanted to of course was to check and see whether I did have the correct proportion as the polls were showing at the time for the different parties. However, there are absolutely no party politics in this whatsoever, so no. On service delivery, we have looked at a range of services and tried to get detail on a great many of them, both as a base line and also to be able to go back and actually see how these people's views have changed. One of the key benefits of a panel as opposed to snapshot or ad hoc surveys you read about all the time, is that you can actually see how individuals' views are changing as opposed to the aggregate. You can see that the British public might be becoming more or less satisfied with train services, for example, but it could be that different people are becoming more satisfied. You do not know that unless you have a panel. Other things we have looked at: expectations. I am going to give you some details of some of these results in a minute. Also looking at what people see as the most important services to them. There is a whole range of things in a 52-minute interview. (figure 21) This just gives you some examples of some of the results. They really are just snippets. Overall levels of satisfaction; here are some of the very highest ones; these are net figures, those who are satisfied, minus dissatisfied, amongst those who say they use each one; very high levels of satisfaction, again consistent with other research, certainly that MORI has conducted, even on behalf of those utilities or indeed locally for libraries, for local government. Road and pavement maintenance was one of the worst rated services; again utterly consistent with all MORI's work locally and local government gets rather worse ratings than some of the services it delivers. There is a selection of scores. (figure 23) This chart is interesting in the sense that it shows some of the correlations that one is able to look at with a large data set of this type, where you can see on the X axis, the horizontal axis, how well informed people feel each of those services keep them if they use it and in the vertical axis how satisfied they are with each one. You can see that there is a reasonable correlation in the sense that there are no services where there is very high feeling that they are kept very well informed but where satisfaction is low. One of the messages which is coming out of this is that all other things being equal, the public service which keeps people well informed about what it is doing will tend to be better regarded for example than the one which does not tell you anything at all.


  112. Is not the conclusion quite the opposite?
  (Mr Page) That if you are satisfied you feel well informed.

  113. Fire and emergency services. Is that not the test case, that people do not care about being informed about it so long as it turns up when something goes wrong?
  (Mr Page) Absolutely correct, but that is one of the exceptions.

  114. But surely it is an absolutely compelling exception.
  (Mr Page) It depends very much upon your relationship with the service. You probably do not want to have intimate contact with the fire brigade every day of the week. If on the other hand you are a council tenant and your flat roof is leaking, and also there is an investment programme for your estate, and you are also claiming housing benefit from your local authority, you will be very interested in when they are going to get round to fixing the roof. The fire service is very much about "Come and put it right". Certainly I can show you separately from this—

  115. I do not want to make a meal of it, but I should have thought that the conclusion quite simply is that tenants want their repairs to be done. If their repairs are being done, they are more interested in that than being informed when their repairs are not going to be done.
  (Mr Page) They are; absolutely. I do not disagree with you at all. However, if you take two local authorities and you compare the Audit Commission performance indicators for each of those authorities and the actual level of council tax, any count of widgets one could look at in terms of what those two authorities are delivering, the one which is also keeping people informed about its plans, about when they are actually going to get the money to do the SRB programme, etcetera, will tend to be better regarded, which is what I am measuring here, than the one which does not. There are exceptions. The Health Service is one. We do not need it to keep us informed; it makes us well. We have different relationships with the Fire Service, some of these emergency services. (figure 25) I shall push on. On the whole do you think public services are better or worse? One quarter said they were better, one third said they were worse. Just some examples: 38 per cent no change over the last five years. It would be interesting to see how those views change as we go on.

Mr Oaten

  116. What date are those?
  (Mr Page) Summer 1998; June to September.

  117. Quite old data then.
  (Mr Page) Yes. The other thing is that with some of these questions you will find that there will always be people who say things are getting worse and there will always be people who say things are getting better. Do they meet your expectations? One per cent of the public say public services greatly exceed their expectations; ten per cent said they fall a long way short. Of course it is very interesting to think about what people's expectations actually are and whether they are rising. Fifty-one per cent say they are about what they expect. These are just examples. I am not developing a thesis here or anything else.


  118. You report this in your first report on the People's Panel which says half the Panel think that public services are what they would expect. What on earth does that mean?
  (Mr Page) MORI was asked to ask the question.

Mr Oaten

  119. Do you give advice on the questions?
  (Mr Page) It is an interesting question. The other point about some of these questions is that it is not the absolute answer that is interesting, it is the trend.

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