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No longer are we just told what to do from the top. Important decisions are preceded by a long period of consultation. That is a wonderful contribution to democracy. Sometimes. But in truth, these consultations are only too often totally sham public relations exercises. Here are a couple of examples. The first is a government consultation, followed by consultations within universities.

Consultations on nuclear power stations

I am not using this example to propose a particular view on muclear power stations, but rather as an example of sham consultation.

The background is this.

The government was obliged to run the “fullest public consultation” ( pdf ) before changing its policy on nuclear power. In 2006 they tried to run one but it was descibed by a high court judge described it as “unfair”, “misleading”, “very seriously flawed” and ” procedurally unfair ” and he ordered them to do the whole thing again. In May 2007 the government announced a new nuclear consultation that would remedy all the
judge’s concerns. It has recently finished.

The government (again) paid a large amount of public money to an organisation called Opinion Leader Research (OLR) to run the consultation. One does not need to go further than their own web site to discover that, as its name suggests, this organisation exists not to discover public opinion but to influence it in whatever direction it is paid (in this case by the government) to do. Here are some of OLR’s own words.

“Opinion Leader believe that research is an active part of the communications process enhancing the client’s reputation by positioning them as open, engaging, listening and responding.”

“We develop bespoke approaches to help our clients develop clear actionable insights.”
“Opinion Leader draws on the widest range of approaches to design research based solutions to address client challenges. Our work is tailor-made to suit the specific needs of our clients. We continually innovate and develop new approaches and thinking to help our clients achieve their ambitions.”



According to reports of what happened, that is exactly what OLR did. Here is what Channel 4 News said.

“In nine day-long meetings across Britain two weekends ago, nearly a thousand people were shown a series of videos, presentations and handouts – and their opinion on building new nuclear power stations canvassed.

The government got the result it wanted – 44 per cent said power companies should have option of building nuclear, 36 per cent said no. But day before, the environmental group, Greenpeace, along with other green groups, had pulled out, alleging the questions were loaded and the information biased, partial and factually inaccurate.

Greenpeace would say that, you could argue. But, independently, 20 senior academics too have come forward and will be writing to government with similar reservations.

They say the consultations were deliberately skewed by linking nuclear to fears about climate change – because the government knew past research had shown it’s the only way to get people to accept nuclear, albeit reluctantly.”

“In the videos – alternative viewpoints had doom-ridden music in the background. The government’s view was then given against calm, relaxing music. I feel I have been mugged.”

“Not at all a consultation, merely a sleek marketing ploy.”

“I went in with an open mind… myself and others felt we were being misled and manipulated.”

Channel 4 News also spoken to someone involved in the events. They want to remain anonymous but told us “…repeating the government view, on page after page, on videos and in handouts, acted to almost bludgeon it into their heads.”

You can see some of the slides that were used here. One of them reads thus.

“In the context of tackling climate change and ensuring energy security, do you agree or disagree that it would be in the public interest to give energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations?”

One very apt comment on this was

“Guess what, a majority of people agreed, and when you count the “neither agree or disagree” (which will be tacitly taken to mean “go for it now, build build build!”) the figure goes well into an overall majority. You can’t beat a good loaded question to elicit the desired response.

It’s a bit like asking someone allergic to cats: Do you like fluffy kittens, or are you a Nazi?”

Opinion Leader Research. A family affair?

There’s some very interesting background about OLR here.

“According to this morning’s Independent the energy giant EDF has gone on a public relations offensive to promote it’s new reactors in conjunction with another supplier, Areva . They have launched a website with a generic design assessment called EPR Reactor , which is of course perfectly timed with the consultation upon which the Government appears to have already made up it’s mind.

What’s odd (given what you’d exepct the Indy line to be on things like nuclear) is that they don’t mention that Gordon Brown’s brother, Andrew, is the Head of Media Relations at EDF. Unbelievably good timing for a web site though, don’t you think? The Government makes an announcement of a nuclear consultation on Friday and in the space of two days the big boys have designed and completed
a new website to tell everyone all about the wonders of nuclear? They must have been whipping those Indian developers in Bangalore good this weekend.

It’s worth noting as well that they also don’t mention that Brown’s protege, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, has a father-in-law, who just happens to be the former Chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, and is now a non-executive director of the Government quango known as the Nuclear Decommissiong Authority .

If you’re thinking right now “father-in-law?” and “Cooper?” the answer is yes. He is the father of the Minister of State for Housing (attending Cabinet) at the Department for Communities and Local Government, Yvette Cooper. Purely as an aside, you have to love the doublespeak style in the name of the NDA don’t you? It makes it sound like its interests are somehow opposite to the interests of the nuclear industry. “

There is more on this at the Guido Fawkes blog

“Gordon’s pollster Deborah Mattinson sits on the board of Gordon’s think-tank, the Smith Institute. Her relationship with Gordon has been very profitable for her firm, OLR. According to today’s Sunday Telegraph , government contracts totalling some £3 milllion have
come her way. ”

“the taxpayer is paying OLR £153,484.38 for one-day seminars

The Involve organisation sent a reporter to one of the public meetings, and commented thus.

“On Saturday 8 events were run across the UK to consult 1,100 people on the future of nuclear power. This was the second time the government had run the consultation. The previous being judged to be “seriously flawed” and “manifestly inadequate and unfair” by the high court. The inadequacies stemmed partly from poor management and a lack of time for people to state their views, but also because leading politicians had publicly made up their mind to support nuclear which critically undermined the consultation.

The same problem rose its head again on Friday when Britain’s leading environmental groups formally withdrew from the second nuclear consultation, citing serious concerns with our new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown telling parliament that a decision to continue with nuclear power had been taken “and that is why the security of our energy supply is best safeguarded by building a new generation of nuclear power stations”. The prime minister qualified his remarks a week later after a warning letter from Greenpeace’s lawyers.
The green groups were also concerned that the “ [consultation] document was full of pro-nuclear opinion masquerading as fact …
This document is fundamentally flawed and cannot form the basis for a full public consultation.” “



Sham consultations in universities

In universities one might hope things would be done better. But sadly, it is not so. We too have become accustomed to sham consultations. In many places, for example Edinburgh, staff have been consulted, but what they say has had little effect. The same has happened at UCL. As a matter of historical record, it is worth giving a very abbreviated account of our own sham consultation.

For two years meetings were held. It was made pretty clear at the outset, what the plans were. Few people had the courage to oppose them in a public meeting. Those who did were largely ignored. Most people didn’t even come to the meetings anyway. Most people cynically, or perhaps just realistically, presumed it would be a waste of time and effort. As a result, the voices of our top scientists were rarely heard, and had little influence.

The next stage was external review. Surely that should provide an independent voice? Four possible plans were put to the external review committee. It was made clear to the external review committee that plan 1 (the least disastrous one) was what “we” preferred, though in fact none of the plans had been agreed or even properly discussed by most of the people who do the research and the teaching. Plan 1 involved removal of all existing departments, with consequent destruction of brand names that, over a long period, have reflected well on the reputation of UCL. The external review obligingly said that plan 1 was OK, though they made one (very important) criticism. They said that the size of the research groups was too big. That criticism was rejected by UCL’s senior management team (SMT). We therefore ended up with precisely what the SMT had put to the external reviewers in the first place. With a fine bit of spin. this is represented as following the advice of the external reviewers.

So far, the whole procedure has born an eerie resemblance to the Blairite idea of what constitutes consultation. But the changes had, according to UCL’s statutes, to be recommended to Council by the Academic Board (which consists of all professors and many non-professorial representatives). That safeguard proved ineffective. At the Academic Board meeting of May 24 2007, the consultation stopped, with jaw-dropping speed. In an item that was not even marked for discussion, Academic Board was persuaded to relinquish its statutory powers, and to leave all future decisions about organisation of the Faculty of Life Sciences to the SMT. After three years of talking, it suddenly became apparent that no opposition would be tolerated. No wonder so few people turned up at the Academic Board meeting on November 7th. What point would there be in going, when all power had already been removed from them?

A report on the meeting of the Academic Board on May 24 was sent to a member of UCL Council (at his request). In the interests of completing the historical record I have now made it available to download (with names removed).

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6 Responses to On sham consultations

  • Nothing is new.

    In the late 60’s our research division was re-configured by management consultants. The changes were cherry picked by our management and had the usual good and bad results. Twenty-five years later after a number of mergers, the same company was employed to re-evaluate our structure. Quite amazingly, they chose the structures which they had advised and had been accepted as being very acceptable in their new recommendations.

  • All very familiar.

    My favourite example of fixing the answers by linking questions to something scary was the 1999 Australian Referendum on whether they still wanted the Queen as Head of State (HoS).

    Instead of asking “Do you want the Queen as the HoS of Australia – yes or no”

    They asked something like “Do you want the Queen to stay as HoS or a President who would be a political appointee?”

    To no-one’s great surprise, given that most Aussies think politicians are cheap crooks, they narrowly opted to keep the Queen.

  • A similar thing happened in New Zealand over changing the voting system from FPP to Mixed Member Proportional (similar to Scotland’s). The first referendum pitted FPP against a variety of proportional systems (divide & rule!). However a strong public campaign had swung everyone behind MMP and it got iirc 60+% in the vote, with FPP getting less than 20%. But we still had to have a second referendum pitting FPP against MMP where MMP won with over 80% of the vote. That one coincided with parliamentary elections so the turnout was even higher than the first one.

    So even if the public tell the politicos clearly what they want they will get ignored and treated like ignorant children and made to go on choosing.

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