If You Won't listen, Don't Ask

Like elections, surveys are a call to trust. They are one of the marks of civilization - or, at least, of any civilization I would want to live in. You don't always get what you want from surveys or elections, but its nice to be asked, and most of us are okay when the majority win.

I was irrationally flattered a few weeks back when BBM Canada called me up to see if I would be interested in filling out a radio-listening survey. You know the kind of thing. You take a week to jot down in a sort of dairy or dayplanner which stations or broadcasts you listen to and when. Typically, you track your listening in 15 minutes segments. In addition, I assumed, there would be some questions about whether I listened to radio online or via satellite.

There's also, always, a brief demography section in these things. You indicate in general terms your age, income, education level, and confirm your geographic region.

Anyway, I said "Yes, I'd be happy to take part." I felt like it was a rare opportunity to tell the world I listened to CBC Saint John's information morning, but disdained the Saturday morning broadcast out of Halifax. It was a chance to say I turned off News 88.1 when the local shock jock came on trying to stir up ratings and trouble, but happily cruised along with CFBC 930 because I'm a sucker for the golden oldies. I didn't expect this to mean a whole lot to the folks in Toronto and Ottawa - nobody was going to reverse cuts to the CBC because I said so. But at least I was doing my bit.

When the radio diary came, it opened, as I expected, with demography questions. But I noticed there seemed to be an awful lot of them. Somewhere around page 8, when they asked "Who in your household is responsible for most of the grocery shopping?" I thought, "Hold up!" I put down my pen and looked ahead.

There were 12 pages of questions about my purchasing habits. Twenty-nine questions in all. What's this got to do with radio ratings, I wondered.

Well, that's not true. I'm too old and gnarly a marxist not to have seen what was going on. The flash of anger I felt was as much at myself for being duped like any wobbly-kneed liberal as for having been lied to.

And make no mistake: I was lied to. I reconfirmed with the nice phone lady that this was part of a ratings survey. If they had told me over the phone that it was really designed to "help radio stations identify your interests and lifestyle" (p.16) I would have politely declined.

So I wrote a brief note, dropped it and the toonie they gave me ("a small token of...") into the pre-paid return envelop, and slipped it in the mail. Still annoyed.

Surveys, like elections, call upon a kind of public trust. When that trust is abused, civilization takes a hit.

A few years back, we were approached by a group who wanted to do a survey of residents' hopes, fears, problems and needs in Crescent Valley, NB's largest public housing neighbourhood. It was known that we had the trust and goodwill of many families in the community, and that we were good at helping adults with weak literacy skills navigate things like survey questionnaires. Would we help to ensure everyone's voice was heard?

Sure, we said.

We weren't naive. We knew that on some level the survey leadership were using our social capital to meet their own goals. But it seemed like an okay thing to spend capital on, and, anyway, we were interested in seeing what came out of some questions about education, literacy, health information and parenting support.

I wasn't personally engaged in the survey, but my colleague joined the team and interviewed those families and adults who had already signaled some discomfort with forms and written text. She was excited by the responses she got, and eager to see the survey results as a whole. Overall, things looked promising at this point. Better than 50% of the households in the neighbourhood responded to the survey. Who could wait to see what these 200-plus households said?

As it happened, almost everybody had to wait. And wait.

The survey results were locked in a filing cabinet inside a locked office; for security and privacy reasons we were told. Instead, over the next two years, we were treated to selected highlights, a second survey round meant to follow-up on those highlights (only about 10% of households took part in this one), a community development workplan, some construction, a firing and some resignations. Throughout this period we made several requests, in person and in writing, to see those responses having to do with literacy. We were told there weren't any. "I know there were," my colleague says wearily, "because I wrote them down."

Yeah. Well. Serves us right, I guess, for acting like wobbly-kneed liberals.

Now, I hear, they're trying to mount another survey to find out "What do people want?" I also hear they're having trouble getting residents to respond.

I guess they know better than to invite us to be part of another charade. But, you know, I could help them. For example, I could tell them what people want.

They want to not be lied to and they want to not be used.

Surveys, like elections, are a kind of public trust. They are tools to move us forward. When they are abused, it hurts us all.

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