Library campaigners are calling on Essex County Council to launch a new consultation on the future of its libraries in a new bid to save the services following the publication of a “damning” report into the original public survey.
Under cost-cutting plans, Conservative-controlled Essex County Council has proposed closing 25 of its 74 libraries, with another 19 handed over to other organisations and 15 more run in partnerships. A consultation on the proposals ran from November to February 2018 and its results are expected to be published imminently.
Library campaigners have alleged the consultation cannot be trusted, with Dr Tarek Al Baghal, a research fellow at Essex University who specialises in survey methodology, saying the results will be "questionable" based on the council's approach.
In an 18-page report commissioned by Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) without payment, Al Baghal said the survey used a number of leading questions that increased the chances of getting a positive response to the council’s plans.
One of the questions he pointed to asked respondents to rank options for the future of the library service. The three options which corresponded to the council’s proposals were presented positively while two others that did not feature in the council's strategy were presented with drawbacks, according to the SOLE report.
Al Baghal said other questions were presented in an unclear way and he concluded the results would be “questionable”, calling on the council to re-run the consultation using new questions.
He wrote: “Given these issues, the reliability of the results obtained from this survey is questionable. It is recommended that different questions be asked in further consultation and that the raw data for the current consultation be examined for data quality issues.”
SOLE campaigner Katy Vargas said: “This damning report vindicates the objections that SOLE and others raised throughout the consultation period about the quality of the survey, the leading nature of the questions, and the reliability of any results generated from it.”
She went on: “Put simply, Essex County Council cannot rely on the results of this flawed consultation, and neither can the people of Essex. The Council must now do as Dr Al Baghal advises and launch a new consultation based on different, unbiased questions or risk losing what little public confidence is left in this process. They should also take up Dr Al Baghal’s kind offer to analyse the raw data from the original survey to assess its quality. If they fail to do so it will be clear that their interest is not in gaining an accurate picture of public opinion, but in manufacturing a justification for decisions they have already made.”
A spokesman for Essex County Council said they were “disappointed” by the report. He said: “We are completely confident that the feedback we received was gathered using a sound methodology and every reasonable effort was made to ensure we captured the views of all Essex residents. We have been analysing this feedback since the consultation closed in February and an update is expected at our full council meeting on 9th July.
“We hold ourselves to the highest standards in terms of giving local people the opportunity to have their say about local services. We know how passionate people are about libraries in Essex – this is evident from the feedback analysed to date – and it is exactly this passion and creativity that we were eager to capture to inform the future of the service.
“The questions we asked were shaped by our Library and our Research and Citizen Insight teams, fully informed by their professional expertise and also previous surveys from other authorities which had run similar consultations.
“We disagree that the survey asked leading questions. It included two free text boxes, in which respondents could put add any comments, outside of the specific questions we asked. This produced a mixed response in terms of agreement or disagreement with the proposals.
“We produced accessible versions of the survey, including large-print and easy read versions, developed by experts in the field with extensive professional knowledge and skills, and tested with people with a range of different learning disabilities. Support was also available by phone to anyone requiring help from our customer service team. In addition we produced a short animation, with captions and voiceover to ensure the key points of the strategy were accessible to hearing or visually impaired people.”
The proposed closures have already led to a number of high-profile demonstrations, with a further one planned on 23rd July ahead of what is expected to be the council cabinet’s final decision. Leading writers including David Walliams, Jacqueline Wilson and David Baddiel have also lent their support in recent weeks.
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