Cardiff council’s increasing use of surveys exacerbates the imbalance of power between citizens and decision-makers, with citizens’ views reduced to x% agreed and y% disagreed.
By Tamsin Stirling
How many times have you started a survey only to be confronted with questions that don’t make any sense or don’t ask the things that are important to you? Or been frustrated by options for answers that don’t include your views? Or discovering that there is no opportunity to actually write down your full answer?
I’m a researcher so have often used surveys as part of my work. I treat them as ‘can openers’ – providing headline indications of what the main issues are which can then be further explored in other ways. Or maybe as snapshot polls to see what the immediate response to proposals are, which can be followed up with more detailed questioning and discussion. What I don’t do is rely on surveys as the sole way of gathering peoples’ views to inform conclusions and recommendations on an issue. It is really important to recognise the limitations of surveys.
Unfortunately, a reliance on surveys to gather the views of Cardiff citizens which are then fed into decision-making is exactly what we are seeing in our city. Surveys with questions structured by the Council (or developers), asking the questions they want asked, often with pre-determined multiple-choice answers. In the worst examples, you can see that the questions are being asked in such a way as to generate the desired result which is then used to justify the preferred choice of the Council.
And while surveys are being increasingly relied on to gather citizen views, a whole range of techniques are used to generate technical and financial information – feasibility studies, technical reports etc. You only have to look at the papers for the last Cabinet meeting (running to over 1000 pages) to see evidence of this. I am of the view that the increasing use of surveys exacerbates the imbalance of power between citizens and decision-makers, with citizens’ views reduced to xx% agreed and yy% disagreed.
Surveys also have a tendency to divide – in support of the Council vs against, good idea vs bad etc. And these kind of surveys are increasingly being badged as consultation. Castle Street is an example, the Replacement LDP is another. The online ‘consultation’, i.e. survey, on the Replacement LDP is lengthy. How many people will stick with it until the end? If the response rate is low, might this be used by the Council as an excuse not to invest in further consultation? The fact that there is a parallel survey on the City Recovery and Renewal strategy which makes no mention of the LDP makes things worse. How likely is it that people will complete both surveys?
Proper consultation requires time for people to absorb and understand technical and other detail, opportunity for questioning and clarification and preferably, a process of deliberation and debate, bringing people with different views together. All of this is a vital part of the democratic process. A survey does not equal consultation. Let’s not pretend it does.
Online surveys/‘consultations’ can never fully substitute for getting together to discuss issues. And as welcome as zoom has been over recent months, using it for consultation doesn’t effectively replace in-person meetings. It is much easier for the chair of an online meeting to filter questions and exclude people from discussions than it is face to face. As Covid restrictions ease, outside meetings are becoming increasingly common and hopefully, we will be able to meet in person inside before too long. Given the importance of the strategies and plans being consulted on, proper in-person consultation can’t come soon enough.