Measurements of deception and opinion polls

The obsession with opinion polls during the recent election campaign provides yet more evidence of the way those in power prefer to use measurement rather than judgement.

Business, financial, bureaucratic and political leaders use statistics, market analysis, isometric tests and so-called independent research by think tanks and academic institutions to justify their actions and deflect criticism.

It is the perfect way to shift the blame when things go wrong, ensuring they won’t have to take personal responsibility – and it will be all but impossible to hold them to account.

On issues like energy prices, NHS waiting lists and organisational efficiency (to name but three) it is very hard to prove the statistics wrong. There is always a tame institute, paid-for academic, or management consultancy with a commercial or interest or think tank – all ever eager to call itself independent – which is ready to for a fee or a favour to provide helpful information to back up their client’s case.

At least elections provide results which can be set alongside opinion poll findings. Last week, the pollsters clearly got the levels of Tory and Labour support wrong – we shouldn’t be too surprised as this has been the case in every election from 1992, with the exception of 2005.

My problem is not with the pollsters – they can be correct, as they were in Scotland. It is with the managerial class, who now seem to have replaced journalists at the head of so much of the broadcast media; they focused totally on the polls when there was quite a lot of evidence that other results could be possible.

What reporters saw with their own eyes and what those who had fought many elections could tell from their experience suggested a very different story.

There was also a significant view from journalists – including those at the BCC – and experienced politicians that the Tories were ahead; though in fairness very few predicted with a confidence an overall Tory majority. For example, the excellent John Pienaar kept hinting on Radio 5 about shy Tories, yet the whole thrust of that channel’s coverage was on the inevitability of a hung Parliament.

I suspect that this stance was not due to political bias but a managerial obsession for the cowardly comfort of what appeared to be hard information when their judgement should have told them also to consider other results. These people are only rare among modern managers in that they have been caught out.

As I have reported in some of my earlier blogs, the corporate managerial classs likes to evade responsibility for their actions and decisions. They use “market research” to prove customer satisfaction, isometric tests to select staff (which means managers cannot be held responsible if someone who later turns out to be a genius has not been hired), points for deciding on loans and statistics to justify every government policy or bureaucratic decision. Even the last England cricket coach David Moores fell back on statistics to explain failure.

I have highlighted the way in which the managerial class relies on the “independent” research of others in earlier blogs and

These demonstrate how little trust you can put any measurement.

When an NHS Trust announces that its waiting lists have become shorter or longer, one has to ask what their motive is delivering these stats.

When governments (of any political complexion) produce any analysis, one has to ask when the start and finish dates were.

When any energy company publishes research to justify price rises, one has to ask who commissioned the research and what that organisation’s links with the energy sector is.

At least the Office of Budget Responsibility (which produces official statistics in the UK) is politically neutral – but one has to look at the independence of those mining the data for their own interests.

No doubt the pollsters will produce a report in due course to say that there will be more accurate polls. But that is not the answer and should not lead to return to trusting polls.

We all need to be much more dismissive of statistical or other measurement. Instead we should use our eyes and ears and trust what we find in front of us. Measurements should be our servants not our masters. Sometimes they will confirm what we see.

But where assessment contradicts measurement, we should have the confidence to trust our judgement or that of others who we listen to.

New thought: I have read some criticism of the BBC, which argues that they followed the agenda set by newspapers. This confimsmy view of a managerial BBC that likes to pass the buck – they can always blame the written press if they are accused of misjedgements in their coverage.


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