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How much is the UK taxpayer paying for government polls and surveys

August 9th, 2008

Dr Petra

Regular readers will know that one of my major bugbears is the dodgy survey where PR companies use ‘surveys’ to promote a client through the media.

Some of the more spectacular examples I’ve ranted about include….
Man Flu
Brits are getting angrier
The Durex Global Sex Survey
New mums are more depressed

Find your ideal mate
Women and body image

Magazine sex surveys

In case it isn’t obvious by all my moaning, the reason why I’m annoyed about the misuse of PR surveys within the media is as follows.
* Surveys used within PR research are not often well designed or ethical.
* While polling companies will help put surveys together they are designed to reach a predetermined outcome as a means of capturing a headline rather than exploring people’s attitudes and behaviours.
* Journalists are bombarded with PR survey releases meaning they no longer have to search for or critically evaluate stories. They simply run press releases.
* In order to get into the headlines PR companies inflate the number of participants into the thousands (although this is often based on manipulated data). Meaning if a kosher study is sent to the press it is often rejected because it doesn’t seem to be based on such high numbers as journalists confuse high numbers of respondents with significance.
* PR surveys only ever report frequency data (e.g. percentage breakdowns) they do not analyse any outcomes and can produce false claims of difference.
* Often studies break guidelines for social research.
* The public and journalists are less likely to trust social research because of the volume of dodgy surveys in circulation.
* It is now virtually impossible to persuade journalists that any other method of research is available for discussion. All news stories and features must hang on ‘a statistic’.

Unfortunately this has become such a common way of promoting products and services that it’s unclear if the practice will ever end. PR companies certainly don’t want it to as it makes them a lot of money. Same goes for market research companies. They’re doing very nicely out of this trend thank you very much. Commercial companies who’ve had their products promoted in the press and seen a benefit in sales/publicity will also not want to say goodbye to the PR survey. Which just leaves us moany old academics whingeing.

Let me be clear. I’ve nothing against using a survey to get publicity for a good cause or issue if the survey itself is based on principles of good research. Where I have issues is when surveys are shoddy and simply thrown together to get a few headlines.

Which brings me on to the topic of this blog (crikey it’s taken me even longer than usual to get to the point – you see how this issue bugs me?!).

A report out today indicates the UK government are spending £1 million per week in polls, surveys and focus groups. The Conservative party have revealed the figure and called for an investigation into what they see as a waste of taxpayers money.

Which is interesting since I bet if the Conservatives were in power they’d spend just as much if not more. In fact it would be interesting to know what their PR budget is and how much of that also goes on surveys and focus groups.

I’m not supporting any political party here. I’m stating that because PR surveys are pretty much standard within journalism nowadays whoever is in power will be using this approach to get their messages across.

That said, I do feel this is worthy of further investigation. The question is not so much about the amount of money spent on these surveys but what impact/usefulness they have. I have no doubt there have been wasted surveys that have been run but never released, surveys that were highly suspect and only thrown together to get some message into the press, and some excellent work done to raise public awareness.

It’s worth me declaring a personal interest here since I have helped the Department of Health design several sex surveys to get information from young people about their sex lives. We’ve discovered through this how many teenagers and young adults are confused about where to get condoms, believe that girls should not carry condoms, and are uncertain how to negotiate safer sex. These findings have allowed us to then create safer sex radio and newspaper coverage to increase people’s confidence skills.

What we need to know is how much the government’s spend on surveys is worth in comparison to other organisations or businesses. Is it more or less than average? Where surveys are being run are they always being completed professionally and ethically (I’m aware that’s not always what happens), and is the data accurate and useful (for example I know in some of the research conducted on prostitution this definitely wasn’t the case). Where surveys are run what is the data used for – and what impact does it have? After all there’s no point in the government running surveys that don’t make any impact or are not useful to the public they serve.

Rather than griping about the cost of surveys journalists should ask to see what surveys are run and what outcomes they have.

The problem is yet again we’re seeing a lack of reflection among the media to this issue. It’s all so easy to point the finger about the government apparently overspending on surveys while not acknowledging the reason surveys are being carried out with such frequency is because if our government wants to get any message to the public the only thing editors seem to listen to is a press release with a new survey in it. The media are creating the problem but are reporting it as though they’re nothing to do with it.

We need to start being transparent about this whole process. We should be uncovering why surveys are being used as a PR tool, who is benefitting and who is missing out, and challenging the media over their practice. After all if they stop covering daft PR stories then PR companies will have to find another way to get their messages out there. Which may mean those of us doing kosher social research will be able to get genuine messages to the public again.

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