Here’s a survey question for you.
Your views are extremely important to us.
Here’s another tester for you:
We struggle to understand the thinking of someone who takes part in an opinion poll yet lacks an opinion, but we thought we’d throw in a “don’t know” option just to fit in with a couple of other survey questions, as put to the people of Croydon this week.
Such as this:
Or there’s this, one of five statements in a survey being conducted by Croydon Council:
It is a principle used by lawyers since the dawn of time: only ask a question to which you know the answer. Of course, in a court of law barristers are forbidden from “leading the witness”, yet it is something that is regularly achieved with some judicious questioning.
Apply the same principle to public surveys, and under the guise of a “public consultation”, an organisation can get exactly the sort of answers that it needs to justify its actions, back-up future planning applications, or find “support” for decisions on budgets and spending.
And if, by whatever fluke, you still do not achieve the sort of results that you need, why, you just dump the survey results and forget all about them.
This seems to be the preferred technique of the Whitgift Foundation and Westfield, and of Croydon’s council, in their latest self-satisfying “surveys”.
Westfield, backed by the Whitgift Foundation, the charitable trust which owns the freehold of the Whitgift Centre, have launched an expensive propaganda assault on the people of Croydon, with the borough’s households receiving leaflets, advertising wrap-rounds bought in the local freepapers and ads taken elsewhere, all to seek support for their version of the future of the shopping centre.
“Regenerating a Croydon icon”, they say, seeking to compare art works of the virgin Mary to a shopping mall.
The Westfield stand parked on North End as part of this “public consultation” was packed when we visited, with a queue formed across the pavement. Was this a public thirst for information? Only up to a point. Most of the curious seemed to just want to get their hands on a free shipping bag.
Outside, a woman with a clipboard, wearing a black Westfield polo shirt, sought to explain to passers-by what the stand was there to achieve, and what the developers’ plans might involve for the area. She had to apologise, though, because being French, her English was not quite good enough pronounce “regeneration”. That should be understandable enough: it’s been a word that has stuck in the throats of the burghers of Croydon for two decades.
Inside, it was too crowded to learn much about the scheme. There was not much information available, and no detailed plans available in writing, to take away and study over. Was this also deliberate?
There was a small architects’ model of the scheme, and a Westfield representative on hand to explain certain details.
Nowhere was there any mention of the fact that Westfield does not actually have the willing approval or support of the owners of 75 per cent of the leasehold of the Whitgift Centre, and that in fact, Hammerson, the owners of the Centrale mall across the way, is the preferred developer for these leaseholders, offering an alternative scheme, an alternative “vision” for the future of central Croydon.
Were Westfield and the Whitgift Foundation being disingenuous in omitting to mention this? Were they being deliberately deceitful in only telling a half-truth?
It all smacked of an Orwellian approach to public consultation, as if masterminded by Speer and Dr Goebbels. A triumph of propaganda over real information.
There were survey forms to fill in, of course. The forms were made up with blindingly obvious multiple choice answers to mostly self-serving questions. All designed to get exactly the responses required.
“Do you want to see the Whitgift Centre and the surrounding area regenerated?” Would anyone seriously answer “No” to this?
“Do you want to see a Westfield shopping centre in Croydon?” Which was swiftly followed by “Do you support our plans to redevelop the Whitgift Centre?” To which there can be only one answer if those bodies posing the questions are trading on the ignorance of the responder, who has not been informed that there might be an alternative.
Two mentions of a specific store, “John Lewis”, further down the questionnaire sheet seems a fairly strong hint as to where Westfield is coming from, promising the Holy Grail of Croydon’s retail dreams.
And as they seek public approval for their offer of “major investment in the area”, Westfield leans on leading questions, such as do you want to see “the creation of more jobs for local people”, an “improved appearance” of the town centre or better public transport access… questions which, surely, can elicit only positive responses.
The questionnaire provides only eight, tightly spaced lines for residents’ own thoughts or comments – is this a true measure of how much Westfield really values residents’ opinions?
The developers are by no means alone in playing this particular game.
The last time that Croydon Council conducted a “customer satisfaction survey”, they never got around to publishing the results. Can’t think why.
Undeterred, our council is running another such survey online now. It doesn’t appear to be widely publicised, just posted on the council website in the hope that some – those people who actually bother to visit the council’s website – might stumble across it.
This survey has a different format to Westfield’s, offering four possible responses to five statements. It is not run on the usual democratic principle of one person, one vote: there’s no block on people answering many times over. Is this in the hope that certain interest groups, the Croydon Glee Club for instance, can spend a merry afternoon on their iPads, clicking away to affirm that everything is just spiffing with Croydon Council?
The council poll is all very self-selecting, and would be deemed invalid by any serious researchers. The poll does not appear to be aimed at attracting the opinions of the borough’s OAPs or poor, many of whom are not online, yet many of whom need more support from their council. It also appears to discriminate against the large section of the Croydon population for whom English is not a first language. Is this a deliberate effort to skew the results, rendering it unrepresentative of the whole of Croydon’s population?
The survey is also a little unfair on council officers, since responders are unable to distinguish in their answers in their views of hard-working council staff and their executive directors or political masters.
Thus, a respondent might take a different view if the statement “We are honest, open and transparent” was applied, say, to the person who occasionally sweeps the street, but an entirely different opinion if it were applied, say, to the £248,000 pa CEO Jon Rouse or Kenley councillor Steve O’Connell, who until recently was trousering nearly £120,000 in public allowances.
But when you get to “We spend your council tax wisely and give you value for money”, when Croydon has been shown repeatedly to be less efficient and to offer worse levels of service than neighbouring boroughs Bromley or even Lambeth, there is surely but a single answer.
The same might be said of “We listen to you and act on what you tell us”, and “We are professional and know what we are talking about”. The £20 million bridge to nowhere, anyone?
And as for the chosen terminology, the council referring to its residents as “customers” really betrays a total lack of understanding of the relationship with the people of Croydon: a customer is someone who is free to take their business elsewhere, and unlike Nestle or Bank of America, few of the borough’s Council Tax-payers have that option readily available to them when it comes to choosing the provision of basic public amenities.
We will wait with interest to see whether Croydon Council ever publishes the results of its 2012 satisfaction survey. There has got to come a point at which Croydon’s Council Tax-payers are so thoroughly dissatisfied with the council that the chief executive, Rouse, and the leader of the council, Mike Fisher, need to proffer their resignations.
Maybe the survey results will provide them with a nudge in the right direction.
More information on Westfield’s plans for the Whitgift Centre are promised by visiting this website.
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