Home Page Those that can, do - those that can't, ask for a survey to tell them what to do 14/09/12

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

The digital world has created a lot of boom industries, not all of them very stable, but, around here at least, the booomiest one has to be that of the surveyor.

I don’t mean the chap who goes out with a theodolite and creates maps, nor do I mean the sort who sits in an office with letters after his name and makes a good deal of money out of property transactions.

I mean the sort who stands in the street and asks your opinion, who facilitates a focus group, who formulates endless questions and then analyses even more endless answers, and who eventually earns goodly sums of cash by putting together projects to encompass all of the above.

In business they are called market researchers. In politics they are called pollsters. But in national or local government this sort of thing is called a survey, so I guess the people who do it are surveyors.

Most of them come from some sort of academic connection, whether they be directly a part of a college or university, or whether they be a private company set up to fulfil the work on behalf of such faculties or departments.

Most Haverhill residents must be aware that we have seen quite a lot of these people in the last decade. In fact, to put it alliteratively, we have suffered a surfeit of surveys.

It had to happen eventually that I became part of one. Having assiduously avoided participating in any, my time came at a meeting in Haverhill on Monday night, when I was sucked in by those little personal voting devices where you all press a button and the result of the vote comes up immediately on screen. It’s rather fun and I couldn’t resist it.

In that, I differed from half the members of the public who attended the meeting and, who, having spent two hours protesting, arguing and complaining about an issue which had arisen partly because residents did not engage with a survey, decided to go home to avoid taking part in another one.

Really, you cannot complain about what happens if you had a chance to affect it and didn’t. ‘You’ve tried hard not to,’ I hear you cry. Well, I’m different. I’m a journalist and we are not supposed to take sides in public. Having a view from the sidelines is all very well, but once you take part you can be accused of favouring one side or another.

However, anonymous voting is another matter, and so I gave it a go. I rather wished I hadn’t afterwards because, as so often happens, none of the multiple choice answers we had to choose from seemed quite right and you can’t be constructive in a survey by continually pressing ‘none of the above’.

So I got to wondering what all this surveying is for. Is it to make the public feel more involved in decision-making? If so, it fails signally, as was shown earlier during the meeting. Is it to find out what people really want? If so, you need more than three or four choices because everyone is different and there are thousands of shades within each viewpoint which are not accurately represented.

Is it to make things more democratic? That is the biggest failure of all, because democracy is about electing representatives to make these decisions for you.

Maybe technology is so immediate now that we can, in theory, go back to the old agora of Athens where everyone would gather and vote on something. The problem is that the idea was a Utopian image which created a very enduring ideal, but one which is not really practicable. We can’t have a referendum on every little issue, and if we did we would get some horrendous results.

Anyway, referendums always pose the difficult question of who formulates the questions. You can get any result you want if you choose the right questions. After all, virtually everyone at the meeting voted in favour of a towaway system to stop illegal parking in High Street.

No, I think surveys are aimed at shifting responsibility, so that governments can turn round when things go wrong and say that was what you told us to do – it’s not our fault. In other words, they are about electoral survival.

I often wonder what it is like to become a councillor or an MP. You stand for election because you want to ‘make a difference’. You have ideas about what should be done. Then you sit down with other councillors or MPs and find their ideas are very different from yours and you come up against corporate decision-making and collective responsibility.

Soon you are voting against something you stood for, and in favour of something you were opposed to, just because it has become politically desirable or electorally necessary.

There has been a lot of hot air exhaled about how democratic the ONE Haverhill board is. Monday’s survey was carried out by ‘surveyors’ on behalf of ONE Haverhill, trying to find out what people think the priorities are for spending in the community budgeting process of which Haverhill is a national pilot.

I can’t imagine what the ‘surveyors’ found out from the inane questions we were required to answer. Quite frankly, if the members of the ONE Haverhill board don’t know by now what the town’s priorities are, then maybe they are the wrong members. Let’s just get on and do it.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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