The Researchery
The research surgery for the voluntary sector


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To add nonsult to injury – a diatribe on Government nonsultation with the voluntary sector

 love being asked what I think about things.  I’ll happily spend hours crafting a response to questions I think are important.  Which is handy for everyone given that a big part of DSC’s policy and research work is responding to government consultations.

We believe consultation is an incredibly important way of engaging in the politicies which may affect not just us but the whole of the voluntary sector. And because of our particular stance we feel very strongly that our duty to respond extends to speaking up for the myriad of smaller charitable organisations who may not have that capacity. So we take it all very seriously. Which is why it is particularly galling when government appears to then ignore our responses.  

Actually, not just ours but others’ too! We keep a very close eye on what people say and whether or not anything changes as a result.  So recently we’ve begun to seriously question whether the Government genuinely amends it’s thinking on the basis of its consultations.

Our Director of Policy, Publications and Research - Ben Wittenberg - wrote in e-news recently that the timetables for feedback and action from recent consultations have come and gone without a hint of anything happening. And we’re not the only ones who’ve noticed. Richard Caulfield, Chief Executive of Voluntary Sector North West (VSNW) has also ‘had a go’ (external website) about what we call ‘nonsultation’ on issues ranging from The Compact, and Modernising Commissioning to the most recent Charities Act Review to which we have just put together our considered response [pdf document].

There are two main things which concern us about this blatant waste of our time & energy: (1) the poor ‘ask’, and (2) what happens to our answers. 

As a researcher of course, my first concern is with the poor ask. Let’s take the Charities Act Review as an example. Two online questionnaires were constructed, one for the general public and one for charities.

They both asked a range of questions many of which screamed at me of poor construction and bias, suggesting that any responses they received would likely feed into an already-decided agenda for the Review, rather than it being the open-minded enquiry one might hope for.

Take question 1 as a (bad) example. We are presented with a random definition of charity and asked whether we agree with it.  Presumably someone must have made this definition up prior to the questionnaire with a view to having it ratified, which is rather strange given that there are legally-accepted versions already in existence.

Or let’s look at Q7 (below) and think about the inherent bias in starting a question by letting the reader know that “some people think X” when there are oodles of behavioural studies telling us that people tend to see this kind of statement as ‘normalising’ or ‘social proof’ of what others think and therefore tend to agree with it more, almost regardless of what it says.

Q7. Some people think that there are too many charities, and that this results in duplication and inefficiency. Is this a problem, and if so what could be done to address it?

Who are some people?  Informed people?  Uninformed people?  Existing charities fighting for funds?  Jo Taxpayer?  This is a nonsense statement made worse by the fact that it implicitly implies there is a problem – which hasn’t been evidenced.  And this effect is only reinforced when the follow-up question (Q8 below) addresses the apparent ‘problem’ – so there must be a problem, thinks the respondent!

Q8. Do you think that any of the following measures could address duplication and inefficiency?

There is further bias when, later on (Q23 below), we are asked about paying of charity trustees. Charity trustees are great, states the intro, “but” research has found that X,Y,Z are the negative consequences of not paying them. So, there we’ve already established, ‘scientifically’ (via research), the case for paying trustees without offering the other side of the story - the case against paying trustees. Do you want to hazard a guess at whether respondents will be more likely to answer for or against payment when subsequently asked?!

Q23. “Charity trustees are a vital element of both individual charities and the sector as a whole. There are thought to be over 800,000 charity trustee positions. But Charity Commission research found that 39% of charities at least sometimes experience difficulties in filling trustee vacancies. It also found that trustees tended to be from a relatively small group of people, and that word of mouth was by far the most common means of recruiting new trustees. We want to understand what the barriers to recruitment and retention are.”

Q23. Most charities are not allowed to pay trustees for their time (though can refund expenses). Do you think that charities should be allowed to pay their trustees?

  •   Yes
  •   No
  • Don't have a view

Then there’s our personal favourite, Q33, which asks whether you have ever heard of the FRSB (then goes on to explain what the FRSB is, after which you answer whether you have heard of them or not). Well, given that you’ve just explained to the respondent who the FRSB is, they would have to be an idiot to have not heard of them!

As for the second concern about what happens once we’ve responded to these poorly-worded questions: well, in the case of the above example I think I’d rather they were ignored since they will clearly produce answers in line with their bias. But not all consultations are like this, a good many are more openly worded or merely ask for a considered response, and in these cases you really don’t want your responses to be ignored. But that’s what seems to be happening more and more.

As previously referred to, Ben Wittenberg has spoken of dragging timetables, while Richard Caulfield’s eventual Freedom of Information (FOI) request alarmingly seemed to indicate that the relevant Government departments do not have the capacity to collate all of our responses and therefore neither are they likely to have been fed into subsequent policy decision-making processes.

So what’s the answer?  Well, we all as individuals have to chase up the government departments who have led on the nonsultation – in order to ensure they are consultations.  Once you’ve submitted your response keep an eye on whether or not they’ve paid attention to it.  Because with the best will in the world, we can plead with government to really pay attention, but without the pressure from us to make sure they do, it’s too easy to nonsult us on these important issues.

This post was originally published by DSC e-news in 2012.

Cat WalkerComment