26 January 2015

Library consultation research - from the research company themselves

A 540 sq ft library, which the council envisage as good enough for some wards, is the size of this flat in Surrey quays

Mr Mustard can't see how a library of the size of a one bedroomed flat could possibly cater for the needs of 15,000 residents in a typical ward. Imagine if 1% of residents chose the same afternoon to visit the library.

Mr Mustard isn't therefore surprised that a councillor seeks to rubbish valuable free professional research carried out as a public service. It doesn't suit the council's needs. if it did, they would give Denis a civic award.

My attention has been drawn to an article in the Barnet Times containing criticisms of my report from a Councillor Reuben Thompstone, chairman of the children, education libraries and safeguarding committee. So for your information, and for that of the other bloggers with whom you are in contact, let me put the record straight.

1. An ‘odd’ document / commissioning issues.

Councillor Reuben Thompstone called my document "odd" and said: "It not clear who has commissioned it or why. Indeed it is not clear why whoever commissioned it has not put their name to the document.”

The Research Practice ought to be familiar to the Council. The Council already possesses several Research Practice reports in its archives, and had no difficulty in contacting me via our website / London office. The Council should also be aware that historically I have criticised the poor quality of its past public consultations, sent them lengthy papers on this topic, and taken this issue up with my MP. My MP, Theresa Villiers assured me that she would take this issue up with the Council in an attempt to prevent future bogus consultations.

I have been in contact with my ward councillors about the research into the library consultation for some weeks. I have been trying to encourage them to take up the issue as they share the concerns outlined in my report. I have also been in direct contact with the Council and sent them the last report of findings which I suspect Councillor Reuben Thompstone hasn’t read. If news of this hasn’t filtered back to Councillor Thompstone this is not my fault.

The Report clearly states that the research was commenced at the request of ‘Barnet residents concerned with democracy and good government’. I have already explained to the Council that The Research Practice was encouraged to conduct the research by local members of the public who found it difficult to respond to the consultation. They contacted me because they know I have past experience of examining public consultations from Barnet Council. I explained to the Council that these individuals have no connection with any pressure groups currently campaigning on a ‘no cuts’ platform. Indeed to the best of my knowledge they do not have objections to the libraries being reformed or (given the current economic climate) to a cut in the library budget. Their concern was simply that any cuts / reforms should be achieved in a transparent and responsible way. The research and report are thus ‘independent’ of any pressure groups.

2. Contradictions

Councillor Thompstone claims that my report is “full of contradictions -  it says that we are giving people too much and not enough information, and that we are being too open-ended and that we’ve already made up our minds”. I have not made any such assertions. I have said that people find the documentation confusing, badly constructed and close to incomprehensible. The Council’s documentation does not give people the information they seek when they try and fill in the questionnaire and is padded out with irrelevant jargon and nonsense. 

3. Simplistic

Councillor Thompstone claims my report “seems to make the rather simplistic assumption that if we must make cuts we should do so based purely on the number of users of each library, rather than considering location or social need. Again this is a very odd suggestion.”
No, I’m not suggesting that cuts should be made solely on the basis of number of users of each library, but surely this should be a factor. At present people can’t see much evidence of the Council’s proposed reforms being based on end-user concerns. More generally they find it difficult to see what principles have guided the Council’s proposed reforms.

4. 1200 written responses

Councillor Thompstone claims “As for no one being likely to complete the consultation, so far we have had more than 1200 written responses to the libraries consultation with more than a month to go before it closes.”  Does he mean paper responses rather than internet ones?

I have not claimed that no one would submit a response. I have suggested that most who submit won’t have understood the questions clearly and may have been steered towards endorsing proposals with which they don’t agree.  Should some of those people now decide that the questionnaire misled them, there appears to be no way that the Council could cancel or replace their original submission because the questionnaire does not ask respondents to identify themselves. So if some people now requested that their questionnaires should be disregarded wouldn’t this invalidate the whole exercise?  Failure to ask respondents to identify themselves also leaves people free to submit multiple questionnaires in which they have placed crosses in the appropriate boxes in order to achieve the results they seek.

More generally I cannot see that responses to the confusing and leading questions in the questionnaire would have any value. Analysing the answers would surely be a further waste of public money.  

5. Ways of responding other than the questionnaire

Councillor Thompstone says “There have been many ways for residents to feed into the consultation as well as the written survey, including last year’s drop-in sessions at every library, several public meetings with a further three taking place in early February. We are also having presentations and discussion with groups representing potentially vulnerable users including the Disability, Youth, and Older Adults’ Partnership Boards.”

I have confined my research to the consultation document and questionnaire. However my own limited experience of trying to attend a Resident’s Forum on 15th January where ‘members of the public will be welcome to come and share their views’ was that this was also rigged to prevent any free public expression of one’s opinions.

6. Not making sense

Councillor Thompstone claims my report “just doesn’t make sense”. However I would suggest that it is precisely because my report helps people make sense of an otherwise bewildering consultation process that it is being widely disseminated by others and I am receiving so many complimentary responses to it.



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