Survey ‘neutralised’

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Queenstown’s council spun its gloomy annual residents’ survey.

Christchurch survey company Carte Blanche – which has done the council’s last three surveys – confirms this year’s executive summary was changed at the council’s insistence.

Tellingly, Carte Blanche’s branding is nowhere to be seen on the document.

Emails released under the Official Information Act show council spin queen Michele Poole asked Carte Blanche to water down the survey’s executive summary, noting the results were “universally worse”.

“We would also like the executive summary shortened up and made more neutral,” Poole’s July 8 email said.

She adds: “My suggestion is attached but it’s over to you to reword as it’s your research.”

However, Poole’s suggestions – like many emails released to Mountain Scene – were blanked out, mainly to protect “free and frank expression”.

Carte Blanche’s data man Hughan Ross wrote to Poole a week later, saying “my personal feeling is that your proposed summary doesn’t accurately reflect the information”.

On July 27, Carte Blanche wrote it had “retained the flavour of your [suggested] summary and amended it to be more in line with our interpretation of the results”.

The survey – revealing an across-the-board drop in satisfaction, put partly down to more young people being surveyed – was quietly put on the council website in September.

The council emails reveal its enquiries led to Carte Blanche picking up a couple of minor errors – which were inconsequential to the final results – allowing the council to go on the attack.

On July 26, Poole said the council was “surprised and disappointed” by the errors.

She adds the senior management team “has already expressed doubts about whether we can have confidence in the data and its interpretation”.

Later that day, Ross – who has a doctorate in theoretical physics – retorts it’s natural for the council to be sceptical of such “overwhelmingly negative results”.

But, he says: “You can be sure that the survey data has been gathered with integrity.”

He also snorts at Poole’s comments about the survey needing to be “beyond question” because it’s election year – saying “surely every year’s results are equally important”.

Carte Blanche owner Kate McRoberts confirms the executive summary, which was initially “brutally honest”, was changed after demands from the council.

“It wasn’t tinkered with, it was supplied.”

She says this year’s survey had the most accurate sampling of any in the last decade and the errors were “copy and paste” of data from previous years and didn’t change the outcome.

Council’s corporate services boss Meaghan Miller says: “The main thing we asked the contractor to consider changing was to bring the context forward in the summary.”

The council contracts an independent survey company to ensure the results have complete integrity, she says.

It’s unclear if Carte Blanche will be used next year.

The council is considering doing more research on residents’ views next year to see what it could do differently.

ed@scene.co.nz