Not Saussure

December 30, 2006

Deliberative forums — focus groups for the unacceptable?

Filed under: civil liberties, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 7:28 pm

Back on Boxing Day, a day to bury bad news if there ever was one, various government ministers took time from from their well-deserved Christmas festivities to announce “Deliberative forums” (Hazel Blears) or People’s Panels (not sure if that formulation, reminiscent of courts, republics and princesses, is the Dear Leader’s own term or coined by one of his aides). Anyway, whatever the things are called, they’re going to be an ‘extended focus group’ that will

invite 100 people – selected by market research firms – to put themselves in ministers’ shoes in considering three broad areas of policy.

Several MPs and unions complain that such focus groups amount to an attempt to strip power from party activists. The Blairite view is that it is necessary to reach beyond the membership at a time when the public is reluctant to commit to tribal politics. The forums will cover:

· Cultural change: how the state can persuade people to change their behaviour, for instance on smoking or diet;

· Customer services: how satisfaction can drive public service improvement. The government thinks it can learn from promotions such as Tesco’s Clubcard;

· Citizen and state contracts: how to extend initiatives such as home-school contracts or educational maintenance allowances, which reward children from poorer families for staying in education.

The government will set up regional working groups to consider versions of papers being looked at by ministers. They will come to a public services summit in March. “This engagement process will identify in more detail the areas which the public want us to focus on and develop a series of radical and progressive solutions,” a Downing Street aide said.

or, as the BBC puts it in slightly more detail,

They will discuss what “support and encouragement” the state can give to help to improve people’s “life chances and well-being” – in particular such as “behavioural factors” as smoking and poor diet.

They will look at how retailers, such as supermarket giant Tesco, use loyalty cards to create databases of their clients and tailor-make services for them based on the information gathered.

The panels will also look at how contracts can be extended between members of the public and the state – similar to the way youngsters receive allowances if they stay in education.

Somewhat mixed response to all this. The City Unslicker finds it

frankly unbelievable. We are to be ruled by selection via Market Research agency. No doubt Blair thinks this is some kind of aping of ancient Athenian direct democracy; but really it shows the total lack of confidence within his government.

Philip Henscher, in The Indy, worries that these panels or fora will lead the government down the paths of crude populism, particularly in relation to laura norder (as if!), and that attempting to use them to determine — say — health care priorities will end up with badly skewed results:

The awful truth is that illnesses have popularity, and left to themselves, 100 members of the public will probably come up with healthcare policies which address the conditions that they happen to care about.

Notoriously, it is much easier to raise money for a charity specifically addressing breast cancer than for bowel cancer – nastier to think about – or lung cancer – they can look after themselves. That matters if we are talking about mere fundraising. It matters enormously if we are thinking of applying those criteria of popularity to different categories of disease.

This is doubtless true, though I fear his example makes rather a nonsense of his worry, expressed three sentences earlier, it is true, that

there might not be a case within the “people’s panel” for treating gay men who contracted the [HIV/AIDS] virus through their unpopular habits as a matter of priority

since AIDS charities do nevertheless seem to enjoy a deal of public support despite what he takes to be the unpopularity of the habits of gay men.

Chris Dillow, meanwhile, lists several cogent objections to the scheme as it is, from the little we know of it, but gives it the idea of people’s panels qualified support

not as an institution in themselves, but as the first – shaky and small – step towards a fuller democracy.

The first thing to be said is that we’ve been here before.

In 1998, the Cabinet Office Modernising Public Services Group commissioned MORI, the market research company, and Birmingham University’s School of Public Policy to set up a People’s Panel.

The People’s Panel was made up of 5,000 members of the public. It had a profile that was representative of the UK population in terms of age, gender, region and a wide range of other demographic indicators. At the time of recruitment, data on both service usage and attitudes were collected for each Panel member and their household….

The idea for the Panel was largely prompted by government recognition of the need to listen to, and learn from, people’s views in order to be better able to provide the services that people want. This work is now being taken forward by the Office of Public Services Reform with government departments.

The Panel came to an end in January 2002.

I’d forgotten all about it, too. They don’t seem to have achieved a great deal, but anyone interested in the results of their deliberations can consult the various papers at the Cabinet Office website.

Quite possibly, then, the Government’s just dusted off an old gimmick and is hoping no one will notice; it would be rather interesting, though, if some MP were to ask how these shiny new People’s Panels differ from the old version and what it is they can do that the Office of Public Services Reform haven’t been doing for the last five years.

However, I suspect we’re got a different kettle of fish on our hands, as it were, and I fear that Mssrs Dillow, Henscher and Unslicker have all somewhat missed the point. I reckon these things are, as the Groan puts it, focus groups rather than any sort of foray into policy making. That is, they’re a marketing tool.

The government’s already settled the broad policy; they’ve decided — reprehensibly, in my view — that they’re going to ‘persuade people to change their behaviour’, create databases so they provide ‘tailor-made’ services and ‘extend contracts between members of the public and the state’ and they want to know how best to sell these schemes to the public. To that end, they’ll show the panels edited versions of the various options civil servants have prepared for them and, in effect, ask them what they’re prepared to swallow.

This ‘Tesco’s loyalty card’ business particularly interests me, since — for once — it’s something I know a bit about. At first sight, it’s a strange sort of analogy to choose; using a supermarket and using government services don’t seem to have a great deal in common. I’ve blogged about this before, and The Register has a very good essay on the subject; to re-cap, supermarket loyalty cards provide the marketing people with two sorts of related data. They help the marketing department by showing them the sort of related purchases people tend to make and they also help the marketing department build up a profile of you as an individual customer. The theory runs — and, properly applied, it’s a very successful one — that by spotting the types of purchases people like you tend to make but which you haven’t yet made, they can induce you to make similar purchases.

For example, if they know you tend to drink a lot red wine but don’t seem to like white wine, they’ll send you special offers on reds rather than whites. They’ll also, though, if they’ve noticed that other people with similar purchasing habits to yours who like red wine seem also to like a particular premium brand of coffee that you don’t seem to have tried, they’ll send some vouchers for the coffee as well as the wine, in the hope you’ll try it and add it to your weekly shopping list. They can also, if they’re doing their job properly, use their data to deduce things about you and make predictions on the basis of their deductions; if you buy a lot of pet food, you might be interested in pet insurance, for example. Less obviously, your purchases may indicate that a baby’s expected and, assuming these predictions are confirmed by later purchases, they can continue to send you offers of interest to parents of children of the appropriate age. You might also find yourself offered additional life insurance, pension plans and so forth, since the financial services marketing people know that various significant events (e.g. the birth of a child) tend to spark an interest in various financial products that otherwise you wouldn’t particularly consider.

Now, this is all very well for supermarkets and their customers, but how does it work for people who use government services? The supermarket is trying to persuade you to consider something they think you might want to buy, but how does this map to using government departments? They can hardly give you special offers on Working Tax Credits or Job Seeker’s Allowance. No, the point of comparison is collecting data about you and your neighbours, in order to provide ‘a better service’ when you or they have dealings with central or local government or the emergency services (take a look here for the sort of thing this means). It can doubtless feed into the information HMG will be keeping on your children, along with the information about what what your children tell the various agencies with whom they coming into contact they make of your drinking and drug-taking habits, parenting skills and so on(see the Foundation for Information Policy Research’s report Children’s Databases – Safety and Privacy, particularly Chapter 3).

Who knows, it may well all get fed into profiles of you so the relevant agencies can take remedial action before any trouble starts; as ARCH RIGHTS say,

Local Authorities have been identifying the ’50 most likely to offend’ amongst children for the last few years. We can safely say that all of the initiatives that are now alarming adults have already used children as crash-test dummies.

Obviously this sort of thing sounds scary, so how best to sell it to the punters? That, I think, is what they want to ask these focus groups — not, what should our policy be, but in which of these packages does the policy look most attractive and cuddly? They won’t even be asking folks how many Tesco’s points they’ll want in return for putting up with this sort of thing; the rewards will be in the less tangible form of feeling they live in a stronger community or whatever.

The point of the government’s dragging Tesco’s loyalty cards into it is, of course, to make it all appear as unthreatening as using a supermarket loyalty card; it’s to make people think, along with Polly Toynbee, ”if Tesco knows what I buy, I am having trouble frightening myself’.

It’s exactly the same principle as enunciated in the ‘Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale‘ at the end of Margaret Atwood’s novel; discussing the fearsome ‘Aunts’, the ‘crack female control agency’, the historian explains,

The idea, then, was Judd’s, but the implementation has the mark of Waterford upon it. Who else among the Sons of Jacob Think-Tankers would have come up with the notion that the Aunts should take names derived from commercial products available to women in the immediate pre-Gilead period, and thus familiar and reassuring to them — the names of cosmetic lines, cake mixes, frozen desserts, and even medicinal remedies? It was a brilliant stroke.

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  1. “they’ll show the panels edited versions of the various options civil servants have prepared for them and, in effect, ask them what they’re prepared to swallow.”

    You bet – and that’s something else that has already been crash-tested on children. For example, the government is keen to stress that its Every Child Matters ‘five outcomes’ for U-18s (a set of performance indicators) were chosen by children and young people themselves. In fact, the research shows that children were presented with 8 pre-defined outcomes to place in order of preference. As for any idea that these children were a representative sample, around three-quarters of them seem to have been in the notoriously conformist 8-12 age bracket!

    The ID card consultation with young people similarly skipped any tricky questions and concentrated on issues such as how to make the card look cool.

    Comment by archrights — December 31, 2006 @ 4:29 pm

  2. It would be nice to say: “Let’s just give it a try,” but the innate cynicism of this government makes one think of the political capital they wish to make of it.

    Happy New Year.

    Comment by james higham — December 31, 2006 @ 5:04 pm

  3. […] the taxpayers’ expense Filed under: Spin, UK, Politics — notsaussure @ 8:44 pm Back in December, I expressed my reservations about the government’s plans to resurrect People’s Panels […]

    Pingback by Manufactured consent at the taxpayers’ expense « Not Saussure — March 8, 2007 @ 8:47 pm

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