Public Sector: The survey that tells us nothing

One of the biggest surveys into what people think of their local councils has finally been published.

With a fair deal of kerfuffle, the Government released the 2008 Place Survey last month after a series of lengthy discussions about how the data should be analysed, how old it was, who should see it first, and so on.

Not surprisingly, half a million questionnaires from 329 English councils (counties, metropolitans and London boroughs) produced a lot of data.

And yet this enormous survey - guided by 18 'national indicators' - succeeded in telling us almost nothing.

For example, questions about council communications covered only information campaigns on transport, flooding and flu. Just 15 per cent of respondents felt fairly or very well informed about these issues, apparently. Interesting to a bus driver in Tewkesbury with a persistent cough, perhaps, but I'm not sure who else.

How did people feel about the inability to influence local decisions - which new communities and local government minister John Denham has interpreted as 'an untapped demand for people to have more say'?

Well, only 29 per cent felt they could influence decisions in their area - but which decisions were those? Post office closures, perhaps, or hospital services? These are two of the most controversial local issues, but local councils have no more say over these than a hospital does over the best way to post a parcel.

Essentially, the Place Survey is too blunt a tool to analyse in any real depth the many complex facets of local life.

Different authorities have different powers and different figureheads, be they leaders, lady mayors, or blonde-haired old Etonians with a penchant for Latin.

It is important for local authorities to know what their voters think of them, and a good, locally based, modestly sized piece of market research could help them do this. Many of them conduct regular polls anyway. In this context, the Place Survey is simply out of place.

Luke Blair is a director at London Communications Agency

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