Saturday, 8 February 2014

More On Surveys (or: Moronic Surveys)

Hard on the heels of the National GP Survey (see post below from 13 January), where a recent reminder that I had not completed and returned the original questionnaire still failed to convince me of the merits of doing so, I found myself looking at another survey. This time the subject matter was diversity. The administrator was the regulatory arm of one of our once great professions, and there was an unspecified sanction for failure to return the collective questionnaire answers on time.

It is arguable that this one, despite its mandatory nature, was futile from the outset. Quite rightly, the answer gatherers were duty bound only to invite the return of completed individual questionnaires, not to compel it. And quite properly, the model questionnaire included a “prefer not to say” option to the many somewhat intrusive questions about sexuality, religion, education level and family care duties, even if some form of “mind your own business” might have more accurately reflected the reaction of the interrogated. And, of course, there was no guarantee of honest answers. Even if an army of national census takers had been put in charge, the results may have been equally meaningless and/or unfit for constructive subsequent use.

But the online process for the mandatory reporting of results recognised none of this. Having asked for an initial headcount of the interrogated, it gave no option to report that all or any of them had declined to return questionnaires at all. It simply launched straight into the answers, where the closest option to record the refuseniks’ stance was (inaccurately) “prefer not to say”. Remember, of course, that this is a compulsory procedure, and the online response template was unyielding.

So if and when anything is reported about the survey results, we may not be reading, hypothetically, that a substantial number of those asked to complete and return questionnaires declined to do so. We may instead be reading that there was an overwhelmingly good questionnaire response, even if a substantial number of the answers comprised “prefer not to say”. And this would no doubt be spun as a positive reaction to the survey, with the next one duly scheduled for 12 months’ time, and so on…

I am reminded of a Soviet era spoof report on a Cold War sporting contest, which ran “In yesterday’s athletics/chess/ice hockey match between America and Russia, our Soviet heroes finished second, and the filthy capitalist swine finished next to last.” It would of course be very unkind to suggest that there may be similar spin from a body of UK professional regulators when they have collated the results of their diversity survey. But for a less frivolous view, an extract from a 60s political speech says it all: -

“Sometimes it is a minor detail which casts a flood of light upon the malaise of a whole society. This incipient perversion of the census machinery derives from the very same general assumption which is pervading and strangling our life and our economy, namely, the conviction that the citizen is perfectly incapable of conducting his own affairs unless he is managed and controlled, planned and organised, with material distilled by experts from elaborate surveys which bureaucrats have conducted into his benighted behaviour…..they are all branches, some tiny, some large, of this same pervasive, poisonous upas tree of contempt for the independence, dignity and competence of the individual.”

- Enoch Powell, Wolverhampton, 19 April 1968, ironically the day before a certain other speech.

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