OPINION6 October 2009

Shifting focus


David Cameron appeared on the Today programme this morning, discussing a proposal to raise the state pension age to 66 as early as 2016. One brief exchange made our ears prick up:

Evan Davis: “Have you focus group tested this, out of interest? Have you tried it out on people? Is it going to go down well or badly?”

David Cameron: “I’ve never been to a focus group.”

He didn’t say categorically that he never will go to one, or that he’s never used one, but still.

New Labour made heavy use of focus groups and other qual research techniques in an effort to be seen to be listening to people. But the practice got a bad name for being used to justify bad policy, and deliberative research exercises were accused of being nothing more than thinly disguised PR campaigns.

Now, Cameron – a man frequently accused of being all style and no substance – is distancing himself from the idea that the best way to make policy is to sit down with the general public over a cup of tea and see which of your proposals least annoys them. “When it comes to reducing public spending and getting our public finances under control, there are not any popular options,” he said.

Labour’s recent ducking of questions on spending cuts has given Cameron the opportunity to come across as refreshingly blunt on this issue. But it’s also yet another example of “focus group” as shorthand for “research done badly”. Let’s hope whatever government we choose for ourselves next year can find a way to make research strengthen public trust rather than undermining it. It can’t be that hard.


1 Comment

15 years ago

I remember meeting the Shadow Minister for Enterprise Mark Prisk two years ago alongside research magazine editor Marc Brenner and asking a question along the lines of 'Do the Conservatives believe policy or consultation should come first?' The answer was even then extremely evasive - when facing these tough decisions next year it might be a different option for the Tory government to use consultative approaches to help form policy rather than try and judge it. Hmmm - a phrase involving leopard and spots springs to mind!

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