3 Feb 2012

Survey not a great start to library consultation

Well we all can remember the disaster GCC made of the libraries and the judge's comments about bad government well now comes the new consultation. As part of consultation on their re-drawn library strategy GCC have worked with a private consultation company to design a survey, which is available online and in libraries.  I understand they are spending £60,000 on this private company to conduct the  - this wouldn't be so bad perhaps if the consultation survey wasn't so poor.

The Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries campaign sent a link to the survey out to the FoGL email list, and almost immediately began to receive messages from service users deeply concerned at the survey’s content/design. I criticised the recent GCC budget survey for being too simple well this is too complex. FOGL have written this week to GCC with their concerns. Click read more to see their letter. The letter raises a number of useful points - it is certainly not very user friendly. The survey can be downloaded here: GCC_0018 QUESTIONNAIRE_PRINT

Thank you for sending through the consultation survey and road show details which have now been posted on the Friends of Gloucestershire Libraries blog and promoted through twitter and the mailing list. However, I have several serious concerns about the survey document.

The survey document is very complex. I am a formally trained social scientist working at doctoral level. Even so, I found what I was being asked to do in Section 2 of the form ‘A new strategy for Gloucestershire’s libraries’, where I am asked to allocate points adding up to the value of ten, confusing – there are more straightforward ranking systems which could have been used and would allow clearer instructions for completion to be given. At the least, an example answer could have been included with the first question to clarify how respondents should answer. 

The survey also mixes response methods within the same question. For instance, people are asked to allocate scores adding up to ten in part A of Question 8, then are asked to tick one box in part B – this seems needlessly complex and may lead to people filling out the form incorrectly.

Overall the form appears long and complex. I appreciate that it is a difficult balance to collect feedback on complex proposal through a straightforward and accessible format, but questions are phrased in long sentences with multiple clauses. In December 2010 I spent several Saturdays standing outside the library in a deprived area, informing people of the plans to close their library, and offering them the chance to sign a petition calling for a review of the plans. I encountered people whose literacy levels were so limited that I had to read through the three-line petition statement with them and assist them in writing their own address and postcode on the petition form if they opted to sign. People in this situation, and even people with less severe literacy issues have as much right to have their say on the future of the service as anyone else, but are going to be completely put off completing this survey. The only way people in this situation will be able to complete this survey is with step-by-step support. Are library staff going to be allowed and/or encouraged to offer this support with appropriate resourcing available? Will support of this kind be on offer at road shows? How is completion of this form going to be maximised, and sufficient support provided so that everyone who wishes to have their say on the future of the service is able to do so, whatever their access issues or literacy levels?

I am also concerned that the survey appears to have been designed to generate data that will support the current draft proposals. For instance, each of the pre-written answers to Question 7 will generate data which can be used to justify the current proposals. The only room for dissenting or alternate views is the free-text boxes, which as I’m sure Vector know, people are disinclined to complete. This pattern is repeated throughout the survey. I doubt this survey is going to provide the data needed for the kind of ‘open minded’ re-assessment of the proposals at the analysis stage which we have been told to expect.

Finally, Question 19 asks how the changes to libraries could affect the respondent. How can users of proposed ‘Partnership Libraries’ answer this question when the information on the back of the form doesn’t specify when the 21/12 hours will fall, or the proposed venue for these libraries?  On the basis of this document it is likely that a reader would assume these libraries would be staying where they were. I appreciate that these details are to be negotiated through the consultation process – but why ask people questions they can’t meaningfully answer?

I am not alone in these concerns. Here is a sample of comments received by FoGL in the few hours after the link to the consultation survey was distributed:
“this is a very complex document and a large number of residents in this area will simply be put off by its complexity.  I was intending to take copies down to the Older Peoples projects this week for their input – but I cannot think of one member who is likely to sit down and wade through it!”
“It is fairly complex, with several sections involving allocation of points, etc. I am not stupid, am educated to degree level, but it’s quite baffling and I fear that I am being manipulated and that if I am tripped up and answer ‘wrongly’, i.e. allocate the wrong number of points, then the council will apparently be justified in riding roughshod over my wishes.”
“I have just completed the online survey but rather think I shouldn’t have. It is full of assumptions and loaded questions. I think it needs referring to some independent body immediately as to its validity.  (Not to mention its complexity and length which no doubt will dissuade lesser-committed souls!)”
“I’ve just filled out the online survey – it’s very badly designed and quite misleading in parts”
As discussed at our last meeting, we are very happy to encourage people to take part in consultation with the county council – we have always wanted the council to engage in discussion with service users from all backgrounds and understand their needs, views and concerns.
However, we mentioned that deep cynicism around this new consultation was likely to be a serious problem and inhibit participation. It is very difficult for us to encourage and persuade people to participate when the new survey is already being perceived as a closed-minded and manipulative exercise designed to collect data which will justify the draft strategy rather than meaningfully inform its development.
I hope you appreciate that making you aware of these issues does not stem from animosity towards the county council, but rather from a concern to assist the county council in collecting the fullest and most useful data to design a library strategy which best meets service users’ needs.

GCC have now responded to this letter - see here.

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