Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)




  120. So if people expect services to be rubbish, and they are rubbish, then this is how it is reported.
  (Mr Page) No, I would not say that at all.
  (Mr Rees) There is clearly a link between satisfaction and expectation. What we need to do is to see what that link is at any one stage and then we need to go back in two years' time and we will ask questions about whether people's expectations of services have gone up and also whether their satisfaction has gone up. What we are showing you here are some of the results. We could show you a more detailed breakdown and analysis. The fact is that older people, unsurprisingly, are much more satisfied with public services than younger people. I do not think that means that the services we provide for older people are better than for younger people. It is part of understanding that, which is what we are trying to get at here.

  121. All a bit soft and flaky, is it not? We will perhaps ask some questions when you have finished.
  (Mr Page) (figure 28) One-stop shops. Public vastly supportive of the idea of one-stop shops they can go to to transact their business with government. Just as an example, looking at electronic government, new ways of delivering services. Do you agree or disagree that new technology will make it easier for you to deal with the government? Sixteen per cent disagree and older people are proportionately more likely to disagree with that statement. Again, one can break that down by region or indeed whether they have already adopted new technology themselves, whether they have internet access already. These things are interesting to look at, but also to see how they change and to see which particular groups. Some of the headline figures again are not particularly surprising but it is how it breaks down at regional level, by age group, by occupation, etcetera, that is important. Just reminding ourselves that if we offer people telephone as opposed to electronic or interactive communications the telephone is infinitely more popular and will remain so for some time. We are not all going to be switching over to the internet to get information. Again, middle class people far more interested than any one of these, than people who live on low incomes or on benefits. In terms of perceived benefits of electronic government, the public and the Panel are saying it is all about saving time and making things much more easy to use. Some of the messages from this, for example, would be that it is all very well introducing a website or encouraging people to transact with you electronically, but they are not going to want to do that unless it is much, much easier to do so than actually going into an office or using the telephone. Forty-two per cent say they can deal with the government at more convenient times or more convenient locations. Drawbacks? They are worried that the equipment might cause errors, that is ahead of fear of losing confidentiality, and 37 per cent are worried that the technology might actually break down. So not absolute confidence in new technology, particularly older people worried about finding it difficult to use and 26 per cent, again particularly older people, find it very impersonal. Some people actually like queuing, not because they like queuing, but because they meet people in the queue and can talk to them. (figure 33) On health, we have looked at people's perceptions of what the key priorities ought to be to improve the country's health overall. They stick poverty up there, very, very high up the list. Access to health services. They are very keen on government campaigning over drug misuse ahead of things like cancer, heart disease and stroke. Of course these are perceptions.

Mr White

  122. Is that prescribed drugs?
  (Mr Page) I think they are probably talking about illegal drugs; perhaps a little bit of both. Again, one of the things here is that this is what the public is interested in. Health professionals may wish to tell them something else, or say that it is actually more effective to focus on diet or something, but if the public are interested in this it is worth knowing that in terms of how one presents messages. The other issues with panels, which it is just worth touching on, is that of course there is a danger, first of all that people get fed up with answering the questions, or that they go native. They become advocates for the people running the panel, the organisation running the panel. That is something which with this particular panel we have been absolutely determined to avoid, so we have limited to a certain extent the information we have actually given Panel members. One of our worries was that by becoming a Panel member, they would become extremely enthusiastic about finding out about everything government was doing, public services, read the newspapers avidly and become different in some way. There is an issue about attrition in that people, because they are not getting a lot of information back or drinks vouchers for Victoria Wine, as some local panels provide them with, after a while, as they do not necessarily immediately see amazing transformations of services on which they have commented in the survey, some people do become more difficult to get to and the groups which become more difficult to get to are working class and younger people. What we are doing at the moment is actually topping up the Panel to replace some of the younger people. It is not so much they do not want to take part, it is that they are quite difficult to get hold of, they are very mobile and they are at home less. Having said that, in each of the waves of research we have done, we have a representative profile, but it becomes more and more difficult. In terms of conditioning, there is an issue of whether these people are actually representative. They may be representative at the time they are recruited, but do they remain so? What we have done is compared the base line survey with other surveys of a similar period but with other cross-sectional samples of the British public. So you can say these people were asked this question, so were these, these were on the Panel, these were not, is there any difference in their views? I will show you some examples of that in a second. In each wave we also have control questions. When MORI has recently asked the question of the general public we check to see whether, when we asked the Panel the same question, we get a similar answer, and again separately from that to make sure it is not just MORI comparing MORI with MORI. The Cabinet Office have also commissioned separate research using other omnibuses and general public to make sure again that the results are broadly consistent. This shows just on age profile that in the recruitment and the response to the first telephone survey, the actual profile of the samples, although there are difficulties in getting people onto People's Panel, we have actually managed to get the correct proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds onto it, etcetera, etcetera. (figure 37) This is, finally, before I stop, just showing you some trend data from work which was done on complaints handling in the public sector on behalf of the Cabinet Office in 1994 and again in 1997 and then the blue line at the bottom is actually the results from the People's Panel. What is interesting is broadly how consistent the answers to the first three questions are, given the sample sizes and the margins of errors which one would expect. Then that one difference at the bottom which does seem to suggest that perhaps people are slightly more positive about public services' ability to deal with complaints following a fair amount of attention to that in the last decade or so. On all the things MORI has looked at there have not been dramatic differences which we cannot explain between the views of the Panel at any point in its evolution and the views of the public as expressed through similar media in opinion polls. I shall stop there and take questions.


  123. That is all very helpful and I apologise for the interruptions. May we now ask you some questions about this? I will fire a few off to start with. On your publication about the People's Panel you say that it is a world first at national level, which of course is interesting for us in looking at our inquiry on innovative techniques in citizen participation. May I just ask you about the next bit, which says, "Central government is increasingly using innovative consultation methods, and the People's Panel is part of a much wider and long-running initiative to involve citizens in government"? Could you in a nutshell—I am sorry to be brusque about it—just tell us about that context so that we can see how the People's Panel sits?
  (Mr Rees) In terms of it being a world first, clearly there is actually quite a lot of interest from other countries in whether or not they want to set up something like a panel, particularly from the European countries and the Canadians. In terms of how it sits within the context, what we have done is to look at different ways of encouraging people to consult. So I mentioned that the women's unit in their Listening to Women exercise held seminars up and down the country, they had a postcard campaign and they did focus groups using the People's Panel to find out what are the issues that women are really most concerned about. Similarly with the exercises we have conducted on listening to older people. That is part of a pattern of trying to find different ways of consulting people. The second half is clearly to make sure that the structures are in place, which encourage public sector organisations to do that. In local government we have Best Value, which broadly speaking requires local authorities to consult their population. The consumer test we are introducing in central government for its agencies, NDPBs as well as departments will go in the same direction. What we have is not just a two-pronged approach, we have a multi-pronged approach to try to find different ways of getting in views both by individual organisations and some of them done centrally.

  124. May I perhaps ask one or two unworthy questions before we ask some high-minded ones? You have described the genesis of the People's Panel, but I wonder whether you could just tell us a bit more about it. I asked whether you pay the Panel members, for example, but I am struck by the fact that when MORI approaches members of parliament to answer questions, it stumps up a nice fat fee. Yet here are these people who you say are difficult to get to, these working class people. Why do you not give them some money?
  (Mr Page) There are two reasons. One, with the greatest respect, is that you are even harder collectively to get hold of than are even the hardest groups to reach in the British public, with perhaps a few exceptions, probably people on the run from the police. The other thing is that obviously government and indeed industry rely very heavily on collecting the views of the public for a huge range of reasons and if the costs for whoever needs this information, be they a public sector body or a private company, if companies like MORI, or indeed the Office for National Statistics which does the same exercise, started regularly paying the public £10, £20, £30, whatever it is, the cost both to the public and indeed to commerce would be enormous. Secondly, the public are quite willing to give feedback on their views of things which after all they pay their taxes for and in some ways they are more willing to give information about this than they are on baked beans if they believe it is acted on. It is a mixture of reasons, but quite frankly, we pay people where we absolutely have to. Millions and millions of interviews are carried out every year across Britain, probably much more so by the private sector than the public sector, but if the market research industry were collectively to start paying everybody, either there would be much, much less of it done, which you might say was a good thing, but also there would be a lot less information just available. It just would not be possible. For a local authority to interview 1,000 people for example, just as an example of public consultation, which they are increasingly obliged to do, as Mr Rees says, under Best Value, if it costs £20,000 and you are going to pay them all £10 each for giving up half an hour of their time, you are now going to add 33 per cent to the cost of that immediately. I should quite like to pay everybody, but we are talking about huge sums here.

  125. Perhaps you could give MPs a pen and transfer the money to the people you cannot get hold of. Just an idea. What do MORI get out of this? I understand what you said about the setup, but did this go out to contract?
  (Mr Rees) We had a public tender. When we were setting it up, we engaged in widespread consultation with all of the people who might have an interest, not just research companies, but universities, think tanks, who are also interested in the broad concept. Then we went out to tender in accordance with the European Community Official Journal rules. We had a proper competition, MORI won it in terms of being best value supplier.

  126. What do they get?
  (Mr Rees) The contract is actually a framework contract.

  127. What does that mean?
  (Mr Rees) It means that we have agreed rates for particular sorts of work. They get paid for doing the work, they do not get paid for simply being the contractor. When we do a focus group, or when another department does a focus group, there is a set rate in the framework contract as to how much that is going to cost, how much it would cost to do a telephone interview for 1,000 people or a face to face interview for 1,000 people. That is the way the contract is framed.

  128. They get the work but not an upfront sum.
  (Mr Rees) Exactly.

  129. As I understand it, other bits of government can come to you and say they would like to use this People's Panel, then they have to pay you and then you pay MORI.
  (Mr Rees) In practice they pay MORI directly, we do not act as a clearing house. They draw up a specific contract under the terms of the framework contract.

  130. Lots of government departments are commissioning this kind of survey research all the time.
  (Mr Page) Absolutely.

  131. Indeed is it not the case that MORI itself is doing lots of other work for government departments, apart from the People's Panel?
  (Mr Page) Absolutely.

  132. What is the virtue of government departments coming through a People's Panel when they commission directly from you?
  (Mr Rees) The advantagee of the Panel is firstly to some extent we have borne some of the setup costs. So if you do want to talk to particular sectors of the population or if you do want to talk about a particular issue—as I said earlier, those people who have used the Court Service in the North East—it is much cheaper to use the Panel than it would be to ask MORI to go out and find people who have used the Court Service in the North East in the last year.

  133. But MORI and other organisations run surveys all the time which many organisations simply buy into. That model is the normal one, so why is that not one which is used?
  (Mr Page) For hard to reach groups, and if we use the example of the ethnic minority booster for the People's Panel, 1,000 members of the ethnic minority community of the UK who are willing to take part in further research, although there are omnibus surveys as you are describing which you or anybody can ring up and buy questions on tomorrow or next week or indeed other surveys being conducted very often for very specific purposes by other government departments, the unit cost per interview of finding particular groups, groups which are a bit like a needle in a haystack, if you start knocking on doors in Newcastle to find somebody who has had dealings with the Immigration Service, it will take you some time. With the People's Panel we can immediately call up a database and say there are these people, using an example, or particular ethnic minority groups. It is much more cost effective for other government departments to use that mechanism. There are also some savings to be had if you just want to ask one or two questions on perhaps one wave of the People's Panel. The other thing is that because the People's Panel survey at the start of recruitment covered a wide range of public services, you can go back to people who are dissatisfied with roads in their area very quickly and not only can you find those people but you also knew what their views were two years ago and you can see how their views have now changed. It gives you access to more than just a snapshot of opinion and also allows you to target more expensive-to-find people more cost effectively.

  134. All the People's Panel findings are published.
  (Mr Rees) Yes.

  135. When MORI does its work for other government departments, are they published too?
  (Mr Page) It depends; generally under Open Government I am sure they are, but it very much depends on the individual contracts we have with departments. Some contracts we have from some departments forbid us to say anything at all about them unless asked. It will vary.

  136. Is it not bizarre that we have the People's Panel, where findings are routinely published? Much of the data, I would suggest to you, is what you might call softish and yet MORI is being used by government departments routinely to do perhaps harder edged research and yet this is not published.
  (Mr Page) Our relationship with our clients is that we do what we are told. We have very strict contracts provided to us by government. We do what the people who ultimately pay for the survey instruct us to. Actually one comment I would make is that very often it is not that they are confidential and hidden away, it is just that they are not perhaps disseminated as widely as they might be. That is an interesting issue to look at.

  137. I am sorry to go on, but when I look at this and want to know things about government services and what people think about them and I might say to myself, I want to know whether people think more welfare benefits should be means tested, I want to know whether people think they should pay a bigger licence fee to enable the BBC to go digital, I want to know whether they think the air traffic system should be privatised or not, I cannot find any of this in this material at all. Presumably it has been commissioned by departments through MORI and not published.
  (Mr Rees) There are two separate issues here. The first issue is the question of whether departments publish the research and by and large most departments publish the research. The second issue is how accessible it is, how accessible do people make it. By starting a new project, we have been fairly certain from the beginning that we want to make it as accessible as possible. We put the information on our website. As part of the work within government that is being done following up the Modernising Government White Paper, the Centre for Management and Policy Studies will be looking at how well information is made available both within government and externally. There is an objective of trying to make it as available as possible. That is the context in which the Panel has been set up.

Mr White

  138. Have you done an evaluation of whether departments are actually asking the right questions?
  (Mr Rees) That is part of it. We have just commissioned the evaluation of the first year. One of the things we are clearly going to be looking at is some of the technical issues like the attrition, what does it feel like to be a Panel member? Another of the issues we are going to be looking at is whether we are asking the right questions and actually what are we doing with the information which is the really critical point because there is not much point in having all this information if everybody says how very interesting and nobody actually does anything with it. That is clearly part of the evaluation programme that we are developing. All I would say at this stage is that the way that policy is made is not necessarily a quick process. So we will not be able to take a full view after one year, but after three years it must be one of the key questions we ask ourselves: we have published all of this, did anybody actually do anything with that information? So I very much agree with that.


  139. Is the point of this to enable governments to do things that people want?
  (Mr Rees) The point of this is to inform the policy-making, decision-making process.

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