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Expert criticises reliability of 'questionable' libraries consultation

A petition was organised against the planned library closures in Essex Picture: SAVE OUR LIBRARIES ESSEX

A petition was organised against the planned library closures in Essex Picture: SAVE OUR LIBRARIES ESSEX

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A leading expert in survey design has criticised the methodology of Essex County Council's libraries consultation - prompting campaigners to call for a new one.

Pickets emblazoned with slogans were carried by children fighting to save their libraries in Colchester Picture: SAVE OUR LIBRARIES ESSEXPickets emblazoned with slogans were carried by children fighting to save their libraries in Colchester Picture: SAVE OUR LIBRARIES ESSEX

The report, written by Dr Tarek Al Baghal, research fellow at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, describes the survey's results as 'questionable'.

His findings identify various problems in the design of the council survey, saying it includes 'leading questions' and 'complex questions, with difficult wording' which "could lead to possible confusion' with participants.

However, a Council spokesman said the authority is backing the original survey and that it does not agree with Dr Al Baghal's analysis.

Essex County Council plans to shut 25 of its 74 libraries, saying those at risk have "relatively low demand".

A consultation was launched on November 29 last year and concluded on February 21.

Campaign group Save Our Libraries Essex (SOLE) says Dr Al Baghal's report highlights serious questions over whether the results of the council's survey can be relied on and is urging them to launch a fresh consultation.

Katy Vargas, SOLE spokesman, 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.

"It raises grave concerns over the way the consultation process had been conducted.

"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 if 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."

A final decision on the future of the county's libraries is set to be made at a cabinet meeting at County Hall on Tuesday, July 23.

Campaigners are planning to meet outside the Saracen's Head in Chelmsford at 9am in protest.

Full statement from Essex County Council

A spokesman for Essex County Council, said: "We are disappointed by SOLE and Dr Al Baghal's analysis of the methodology used to capture views on our draft library strategy.

"Dr Al Baghal states himself that the strategy we proposed was multifaceted and contained a number of proposals, so obviously it was important to make every effort to ensure resident's views were captured on detailed proposals in a cohesive and appropriate way. This included offering support to complete the survey if needed.

"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 July 9.

"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.

"In terms of comments around the short timeframe taken to analyse the responses, the Government's consultation principles suggest 12 weeks is an appropriate length of time to consider any consultation results.

"We have taken longer than 12 weeks to analyse feedback on the future libraries strategy, including not just the comments and suggestions captured in the survey, but also those from additional emails and letters."

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