Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 180 - 204)



  180. Some people do not have addresses.
  (Mr Page) I am quite happy to admit that it probably underestimates or under-represents people living in hostels, but as a percentage of the population, they are very small. Bed and breakfast will be okay, but probably hostels and people sleeping on the Albert Embankment are not on the People's Panel. I would not pretend for a minute that it is an accurate survey of homeless people. It does have, for example, a man who only speaks Cantonese in Ipswich in it. Where people did not speak English, we would actually send a translator out and we have looked at the profile and we have the correct proportion of people in rundown inner city areas in the sample.

  181. Given that there is going to be a census in 2001, what has the Cabinet Office done about linking the kinds of question you are doing in the People's Panel into the census work? If there are other innovative techniques, how do they link in to what you are doing?
  (Mr Page) The demographics we collect on the People's Panel and indeed are collecting for the question on ethnicity, on how people define their ethnicity, are consistent on the booster sample with the census and also obviously the people running the census are very good at communicating about how they are planning to ask questions in 2001. We are trying all the time to keep it consistent with that.

  182. You are actually suggesting questions for the 2001 census.
  (Mr Page) No; oh, no. What we are doing is making sure that questions on the People's Panel, in terms of how we collect demographic data for example, are consistent so they can be compared. We are using the same sort of question wording.

  183. May I ask the Cabinet Office whether they are prepared to use the census in 2001 as an addition to the People's Panel?
  (Mr Rees) It is not something we have considered. It is something we could look at. I should be happy to look at it.
  (Mr Page) Methodologically, there would be a number of issues. There is a lot of pressure on the census questionnaire already. I do not run it but I know, I am aware as a researcher of the issues. They will say you cannot just stick on some other questions about this, but you could always try.

Mr Browne

  184. What is the optimum length of time that a person should remain on the Panel?
  (Mr Page) There is no textbook on this. It depends very much on how quickly they are becoming conditioned. I would certainly think two to three years would certainly be the maximum one would want. If there were evidence of people becoming conditioned more quickly, one would probably want to keep them there for only a year. It is about cost again. In a perfect world you need people there long enough so you can go back to them to find out how their views have changed. Do you see what I mean? The tradeoff of course is that you are worried all the time that they are going native. Three years is a reasonable period.

  185. Do you have plans at the moment for turnover?
  (Mr Page) Yes.
  (Mr Rees) Yes. Clearly of the 5,000 we originally recruited some will have died, some will have moved away and so on. There is a constant need to boost them, so we have already recruited another 500 since last summer. One of the issues for us is clearly how quickly we want to replace them for the reason that Mr Page gave. The advantage of a panel is that you can go back to the same people. So if they are not the same people, it rather undermines the advantage of a panel. Equally, you must make sure that you are not overusing them and they are becoming conditioned. The general view at the moment, and it is one of the things the evaluation will look at, is that attrition, that is people dying, people moving away, is more of a problem than conditioning. That is something we will keep under review.

  186. If I have understood you, your measure for the representativeness of the Panel is the consistency of its views when benchmarked against other survey data.
  (Mr Page) And its demographic and geographic profile.

  187. Has this Panel in fact come up with any surprising information at all? Has it given you answers to any questions which you could only have got from this type of consultation?
  (Mr Rees) The answer to that, whenever you see any research is, "Oh, yes, that's obvious, isn't it?". What it has given us is a much better insight, which we can actually use for certain purposes of international comparisons. For instance we asked the same questions as the Canadians did in terms of how quickly people would expect a response to a letter or response to an e-mail to a government department, a fairly straightforward task. What it showed is that Canadians have much higher expectations than people do in this country. That is something which you need to build into in terms of where you are going. It is not surprising in the sense of people actually wanting to have responses to letters quite quickly. There is nothing yet, but we are still asking different questions, where you say, "Gosh, I'm really surprised by that". What is more interesting are the distinctions between regions, Scots being much happier with their public services than people elsewhere, certainly in England, but also looking for instance at people in London's views of public services and the differences between age groups, which again is one of the features that we can do.

  188. May I say at this point as a Scottish politician who spends part of his life in London, it does not surprise me?
  (Mr Rees) What we can do is begin to break down information, including how recently people have used the services. One of the things we have always found with public services is that most people's attitudes relate to the last time they used them. A lot of the comments on public services come from people who have not actually used them, have not been to a Benefits Agency or an Employment Service for years. Again it is one of the factors which we can take into account, looking at whether attitudes depend on how recently people have used the service.


  189. Just to make the point, if after three waves of research it is still not possible to point to any surprising data, someone might say £632,000 buys quite a lot of things. We know it has been pure gain for MORI, but have we had £632,000 of value from this?
  (Mr Rees) The answer is that we will evaluate whether it is cost effective. It has given us information which has helped inform policy making. £632,000 is a lot of money: it is less than one quarter per cent of the Cabinet Office's budget.
  (Mr Page) May I just take issue with the word "surprising"? One is not surprised when one reads it but if I had asked you to fill in a questionnaire and predict what the public's answers would have been to a number of questions, which we sometimes do with politicians at a local level who always say they knew what the answers to the poll would be, very often it may not be "surprising", but actually the answers which the public give are different from the ones the politicians themselves might have anticipated. For example, young people are particularly enthusiastic about elected mayors. I do not know whether that is surprising but that has interesting messages for people looking at political structures in local government.

  Mr White: Having been a victim of that, I can confirm it.


  190. Part of the difficulty we have with this, and your Canadian example almost tells us, is that there is a kind of fascination in knowing how many seconds Canadians would like to elapse before a benefits officer answers the telephone compared with how long someone here would like it to be. Would they like it to be 10 seconds or 20 seconds or 30 seconds? If you are going off asking those kinds of questions, but not asking whether people would like to see incapacity benefit means tested, what are we getting?
  (Mr Rees) There is naturally a huge range of questions which you could ask and it is for Ministers to decide which questions they want to ask. Having said that, we have a mission to improve public services. If you want to improve public services you need to know what people think about them now, you need to know how that is broken down according to the region of the country so you can begin to track improvements over time. It is not a simple step to work out whether we will have made progress towards modernising government in five years' time. Getting evidence as to what people think a service is now and what they think in five years' time is not just simple user satisfaction, because we know that relates to expectations, but actually whether people think that the standards of the time they are waiting, the issues like how polite the staff are, a whole range of different issues, how quickly complaints are dealt with, is part of building up a picture which we need to know in order to assess whether this programme we have launched is actually going to make a difference.

  191. Would it be possible for Select Committees to get questions into the People's Panel?
  (Mr Rees) Yes, I see no reason why not, provided you are prepared to pay?

  192. How much would it cost us to get a question on the People's Panel? If we want to ask one question on the People's Panel, how much would you charge?
  (Mr Rees) I think we would give you one question for free.

  193. Would you?
  (Mr Rees) Yes.

  194. That is a splendid offer which we shall snap up and I am sure other Select Committees will also be interested.
  (Mr Rees) I do not know how many Select Committees there are.

  195. It is not a frivolous question.
  (Mr Rees) No, and I am giving a serious answer. We have made it clear throughout that we are very happy that people should make maximum use of it, precisely because this is not rocket science. To some extent we are learning as we are going along and therefore if the Committee has an area which it would like to ask questions on relating to one of your areas of inquiry, I can see no problem at all.

  Chairman: That is very kind of you. We shall certainly come back to you on that.

  Mr Oaten: What about Opposition parties?


  196. Hang on, let us not press him too hard. Let us take what we have got so far.
  (Mr Rees) Even the Labour Party does not use it, it is government that uses it.

Mr White

  197. Is Modernising Government about improving policy decision making?
  (Mr Rees) You know what the five themes are. Modernising Government is indeed about improving the way that we make policy, but it is also about making sure services are more responsive, higher quality, that we use IT effectively and that all of the staff who work in the public sector feel empowered and valued. What the People's Panel is about is clearly that it does contribute to the policy-making end. It contributes in some sense to trying to make services more responsive and if we use that information effectively it will help us have more quality services, using new technology better.


  198. May I ask about your evaluation? The evaluation will obviously ask many of the questions which we are asking this morning. Your literature says, ". . . we will evaluate it annually, for at least the first three years of its life". Who is "we"?
  (Mr Rees) We conduct the same process as we did with MORI in that we have appointed an outside contractor, Evaluations Associates, who will be responsible for doing the evaluation under our supervision.

  199. So there will be an independent evaluation.
  (Mr Rees) Yes.

  200. Will that be published?
  (Mr Rees) Yes.

  201. When shall we see this?
  (Mr Rees) We have just appointed them and we asked them to do the work over the next three months, so I would hope—spring is what a politician's answer would be—it would actually be by Easter.

Mr Rees) Part of learning from experience is indeed to have the evaluation. Very clearly we do need to find out what people on the panel have thought about the experience. It is part of our learning to find out whether they have been conditioned, whether they know about it, but it is also about what other government departments have thought about it, whether they have used it, what their experience is. It is part of our customer responsiveness. We have said we want it to be a resource across government. We need to find out what other departments think of the way we are behaving.

  203. How does the Cabinet Office itself see its role in relation to the whole spread of innovative public participation and consultation exercises? Does it see it as being the engine within the whole of government for this, or does it have a looser coordinating, add-on role?
  (Mr Rees) The Cabinet Office generally works in three ways and we work in all three ways in answer to your question. We run something, so we run the People's Panel; we also challenge departments and that is what we are going to be doing with things like the new consumer test; we are also there to spread best practice, to help fertilise good ideas across departments. That is also something we will be doing in this area. Part of our responsibility is indeed to look at what is working and what is not working in terms of consultation mechanisms, not only in central government but also local government, tapping into some of the new ideas that are going on in the NHS with the NHS survey. That is one of the functions which we do fulfil.

  204. I have a sense though that this is unclear territory, that the extent to which the Cabinet Office really is the body which is responsible for all this across government as opposed to simply being a facilitator, enabler, innovator itself, is genuinely unresolved.
  (Mr Rees) There is clearly an awful lot of research going on and consultation going on across government, so we cannot be responsible for that; it is for every department to decide whether it wants to do it as part of its business planning. What we are responsible for is to try to ensure that departments do do it and the way we do that is through encouragement but also a certain degree of asking them to report annually on how they have engaged their users. That is then information which can be used by Select Committees and indeed by the public to keep them up to the mark.

  Chairman: We are very grateful to you for coming and telling us about all this, this morning. We are grateful for your fine offer of a free question. We think we have probably done enough to justify a free pen. You have been most helpful. Thank you very much indeed.

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