So you’re thinking of running an online survey: five basic standards for trustworthy consultation

By Stephen Easton

Monday July 8, 2019

Running a public vote or survey is an easy way to directly involve the community in government decisions but it can create more problems than it solves if the results can’t be defended, as Queensland’s Department of Housing and Public Works recently found.

The state’s public sector integrity agency recently recommended the department adopt five minimum standards for any future online polls or surveys, after finding it was impossible to audit a survey used to defend a decision that became a rolling controversy: the renaming of the former Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane to Queensland Children’s Hospital.

The Crime and Corruption Commission’s advice is worth a look for any public servants setting up a simple online poll or survey:

  • Make it clear that only one vote per person is allowed.
  • Make it clear that people outside the relevant jurisdiction are not invited to vote.
  • Use technical restrictions to prevent multiple votes from the same IP address.
  • Use technical restrictions to prevent votes from outside the jurisdiction.
  • Ensure the process can be audited, to exclude ineligible votes and ensure transparency.

“These recommendations will strengthen any public voting system and deliver results that can withstand public scrutiny,” said the CCC.

Health Minister Steven Miles said 38,681 members of the public were surveyed and 62% supported the renaming, after the decision came under fire from the Liberal opposition and its supporters. The people’s views were not the only consideration. Hospital staff had also petitioned for the change as some felt the name was not descriptive enough and, The Guardian reported, because some took offence at views expressed by Lady Phyllis Cilento in the 1940s and 50s.

The argument began with resentment at the dumping of a name chosen by the former Liberal government but heated up further with claims the survey was rigged, as it emerged that tens of thousands of positive responses were linked to less than 100 different IP addresses.

The CCC set out to investigate a very serious question — “whether the Minister for Health, other elected officials, ministerial staff or any public service employee submitted multiple votes with the intent to skew the results of the survey, and if any direction was given to public servants to vote for or against the name change” — but was unable to reach a conclusion due to the “problematic data” that was available to audit.

Some of the IP addresses referred to servers, not individual computers, and some of those servers are used by Queensland Health and ministerial services. But the investigation hit a wall and unfortunately the suspicion remains, as there was no way to tell if ministerial staffers or public servants had voted multiple times or were simply opening or refreshing the voting website.

“Two public servants that had a large amount of hits to the voting website were interviewed by the CCC. Both denied being given a direction to vote in a particular way. One person denied voting at all and the other voted only once. Both indicated they had accessed the website numerous times as part of their roles. This reinforced the problem of distinguishing between ‘hits’ from the voting website recorded against an IP address and actual votes recorded against an IP address.”

The next step would have been “engaging a specialist to further analyse the data, including analysing individual server logs of IP addresses that accessed the voting website” but the CCC decided the cost was prohibitive and this was not likely to reveal evidence of crime or corruption.

The watchdog referred the issue back to the department “for any investigation they deem appropriate” but was unimpressed with the online survey.

“The inability to obtain data that simply records the IP addresses of individual users who actually vote on these matters and the inability to simply link these IP addresses to an individual user in a government entity is of concern to the CCC. The lack of transparency and inability to robustly audit the results of a voting website in the CCC’s view limits the integrity of a process to engage meaningfully with Queenslanders on matters of public interest.”

Public naming competitions and votes have a long history and can be fun, especially when the public are allowed to submit their own suggestions, but without a basic standard of integrity there is a high risk of an own goal.

Quick polls are best applied in situations where the decision itself is not very consequential. In other cases it’s prudent to have the government or a panel of judges make the final call. In either case, the rules need to be clear from the start and the claimed results need to be verifiable.

In Britain the authorities famously rejected the people’s will that a new research vessel be renamed Boaty McBoatface, but tried to soothe the resulting outrage by giving the name to a little yellow autonomous submarine, and this made sure its value to science now receives international coverage.

In Sydney, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance was forced to admit he had overstated the level of public support for his unoriginal decision to slap “Ferry McFerryface” on a new addition to the harbour’s fleet, and oversimplified how the selection process truly worked. He protested it was just “lighthearted fun” but the slow unravelling of the real story behind the name in the media showed that people take this stuff quite seriously.

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