OPINION22 September 2011

Under siege


Ben Toombs asks: If social surveys are so important, why are they being rounded on by people inside and outside government?

To misquote Life of Brian, “Apart from sanitation, medicine, eductation, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have social surveys ever done for us?”

Social surveys have undoubtedly benefited our society and improved our lives in innumerable ways. So why are people rounding on them now and questioning their value? Cost and ideology are obviously issues – they are fairly expensive and, depending on your political viewpoint, they can smack of top-down measurement and control. In the current climate both those factors makes them fair game.

We need to look inwards… We need to pay more attention to the experience of respondents and the way in which we use the data we already have

But value for money is never a one-sided equation, and the populist argument that the few million pounds the General Lifestyle Survey cost is better spent on frontline services and helping people directly than on understanding them seems disingenuous. A few million is a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, and even if the savings were actually allocated in the way they were intended (you decide how likely that is), what impact would they have? Isn’t it possible that the cost of breaking the thread of longitudinal data, and thus losing the unique knowledge it provides to inform policy decisions, would be much greater? Equally, even in the shadow of New Labour’s fascination with targets, surveys that tell us about the way we live do not exactly force us onto the road to serfdom.

It’s one thing for the research community to push back against these external pressures. But I think we need to look inwards as well, to see whether there is anything about the social survey and the research industry’s role in providing it that contributes to the siege it is currently under. In particular, we need to pay more attention to the experience of respondents – especially the burden that is placed on them and the information we expect them to give us – and the way in which we use the data we already have. While the rapid march of technology has been a good thing on the whole, it has made it easy to include ‘just one more question’, leading in some cases to bloated questionnaires.

Equally, we might ask whether some of the things that are asked as standard nowadays are really appropriate: do we need to ask intrusive questions like whether a respondent is on benefits, even if the client wants to know this, when we could work it out perfectly well from other things they have said? And it’s probably fair to say that in the recent past too many surveys have been commissioned and not enough use was made of the data and knowledge we already had. All this has probably done few favours for the public image of what we do. But none of it diminishes the validity of the social survey today.

Ben Toombs is qualitiative director at TNS-BMRB

  • Click here for part four: Penny Young on what the next decade has in store for government social surveys. Here’s part one and part two.

1 Comment

9 years ago

From my 8 years of experience of local government (in Cornwall) I completely agree with Ben's observations of bloated questionnaires - an even bigger problem in local government I think. Social researchers have a responsibility to the profession to ensure that surveys only ask questions when the results will genuinely affect policy and decisions. This is challenging, particularly in when working alongside political agendas, but if social research is to be taken seriously in the long run, I think it is essential.

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