Don’t kill the messenger

I loved the ABC TV series The Hollowmen, but it's all too easy for the mainstream media to bemoan the use of focus groups in politics.

I tackled this subject in an article for the current edition of Research News, after many in the media blamed focus groups and the major parties' reliance on them for the uninspiring Federal election campaign and lack of good policy. 

In fact, the use of focus groups by politicians became a major theme in the post-election analysis. Numerous journalists and commentators criticised politicians for taking as gospel the word of focus group participants.

Emma Tom (in The Australian on 10 August) argued that focus groups were the political equivalent of Hollywood test screenings. 

‘Rather than informing or nuancing pre-existing platforms, they're used to propagate policy on the run,' she wrote. ‘Just as film test screenings are predominantly about investor bottom lines, focus groups don't have the fragrance of democracy, engagement and consultation. They reek of panic, desperation and greed.'

While some of the critics might not know much about research (perhaps relying on impressions formed after watching the ABC satire The Hollowmen, which featured Santo Cilauro as the head of the market research for the Central Policy Unit), at least two of the detractors had considerable experience with the method.

Neil Lawrence, who oversaw the Kevin 07 campaign was quoted in The Australian as saying, ‘In the wrong hands, problems arise. Focus groups replace real policy development based on principles – and leadership becomes a reflection or shadow of the findings'.

Veteran pollster Rod Cameron accused Labor of grievously misusing focus groups, saying that modern campaigning had become so dependent on market research that focus groups had been vastly overplayed to make policy instead of being a useful tool to explain policy. 

He was particularly critical of the party for accepting ‘the verdict of inexperienced and naive focus group moderators'.

On the other side, Simon Webb, research director for Parker & Partners and Ogilvy Public Relations Australia, argued that the criticism of focus groups was undeserved in an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 27 August.

Dr Vicki Arbes, CEO of Hall & Partners Open Mind, also argued that focus groups are not to blame for vacuous campaign slogans and politicians' timid performances.

‘If there is any certainty in reading the mind of the Australian public, it is that no group of voters would ever ask for their politicians to play it safe or to shy away from vision, passion and authenticity at every turn,' she told Research News. 

‘The real problem is that bad methodology, poor interpretation and weak and arrogant decision making by strategists and advisors is being blamed on the poor people who bothered to get involved in group discussions. And for their trouble, these people suddenly find themselves being derided as "the lowest common denominator". This is ironic given the praise the media has heaped on the community forums held in Sydney and Brisbane which allowed members of the public, rather than journalists, to directly question major party leaders.'

Eva Cox also challenged the ‘demonising of the technique' in an article published by Crikey on 9 August in which she aimed to set the record straight by pointing out the apparent gross misuse of a very useful tool.

‘The researchers seem to have had really thick party apparatchik clients who tested the wrong things. No one needs focus groups to tell them that immigration, boat people, crime, tax, the unemployed and youth will raise anxieties and prejudices. The correct use of focus groups would be for finding out how sensible policies could be sold in this area and slogans like "stop the boats" is not in that category.'

However, while defending the correct use of focus groups, Cox acknowledged that the technique has appeared to have been ‘cannabilised'. She was particularly critical of the use of new technology in focus group analysis. 

‘Then new technology now comes into play in the analysis, where texts or recordings are put through programs such as cloud analysis and counts of the frequency of particular words or phrases and comes to conclusions on what is said. This misses out the vital dimension of exploring how people get to the views they express, their tone, hesitancies, tensions and avoidances. Who leans back and says nothing? Who changes their views because of what others say? Who argues the issues? Who gets excluded or judged on what they say?'

For what it's worth, Julia Gillard officially rejected allegations that the ALP's policy and campaign style was driven by focus group findings any more than the Coalition's was.

‘I would like some accurate accounting on both sides of politics about the use of focus groups, would like some sophistication in this debate,' she told the media assembled at the National Press Club in early September.

Arbes concludes that, rather than dismissing focus group research, the Australian public should be insisting that governments commit to running a lot more group discussions. 

‘Lack of broad public engagement with the work of government is a problem that extends well beyond elections. In my experience group discussions are integral to correcting this want.' 

Like Cox, she believes that the intelligent use of group discussions over recent times would not have led our leaders to take the stand they have on population size or on new arrivals. 

‘Intelligent use of groups would have ensured the groundswell of goodwill around environmental issues had not been squandered,' she adds.

‘The bad press focus groups have attracted confuses the process of listening to public thinking through groups with the flawed ways in which the outcomes of these discussions are being used.'

Cox believes the whole debate raises questions on the responsibility researchers have for the use made of their research, an issue she raised while moderating the polling panel at the Australian Market and Social Research Society conference on 8 September.

‘I know the Code of Professional Behaviour defines the roles vis a vis clients and the actual people who are researched, but is there a responsibility to the wider community?'

Cox encouraged researchers to continue to debate this point.

View the article where it was originally published.

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