A rough guide to reading Leadership polls

February 21, 2007

The latest leadership poll in Britain signals good news for the Conservatives, and bad news for the present Government. But how good, and how significant are the results? A simple three-step process is suggested which will help readers to take a more informed view of what such polling results might mean.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the conservatives are the strongest they have been in the polls for 12 years. The BBC examined the poll data and concluded that support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42%.

Good news indeed for David. The article, by Julian Glover continues the regular monthly polls by the Guardian conducted by polling experts ICM. I tried to assess the significance of the results, and quickly hit several complications. The BBC news was particularly unhelpful. It plucked out a few elements of the Guardian poll, but in a way that left me searching for pen and paper to make sense of the information.

An hour, and a few sheets of crumpled notepaper later, and I had arrived at some interesting conclusions. I realized that it was not the first time I had been forced to work out things in this way from newspaper reports of polling results.

Here is a rough and ready guide that might help anyone who is not already familiar with the terrible beauty of statistical analysis. It is based on not much more than a respect for numbers (numeracy).

How to read opinion polls

Step 1 Stick as closely as possible to the data and decide what the numbers are telling you. You may have to re-organize the data for this.
Step 2 See what conclusions are being drawn in the news story
Step 3 Ask what gaps are there between the data and the conclusions.

The three-step process applied

In practice, news stories tend to rush you on to step 2, then perhaps provide some help with Step 1, and avoid much mention of Step 3. The BBC report illustrates the point:

Support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42%, an opinion poll suggests. With Mr Brown expected to take over as PM, the ICM/Guardian phone poll asked 1,000 adults at the weekend which party – with a named leader – they preferred. The same question a month ago suggested Labour under Brown would gain 31% and Conservatives under Cameron 39%. The Lib Dems under Sir Menzies Campbell dropped to 17% from 19% a month ago. When asked about voting intentions – regardless of leaders – the poll suggests 40% of respondents supported the Conservatives, up three points on January. Support for Labour was static on 31%, and the Liberal Democrats lost 4 points to drop to 19%.

All clear? Not unless you can think in more dimensions than I can. It’s actually clearer if you draw very crude graphs. Then you see he complications arising because the pollsters have been measuring voting intentions in two ways: mentioning, and not mentioning the leaders of the parties.

Even without graphs, if you put the data into a table you will see that the data reveals a swing to the conservatives (39% to 42% with mention of David Cameron, 37% to 40% without mention).

In rather similar way there is a swing away from the Liberal Democrats (19% to 17% with mention of Ming Campbell, 23% to 19% without mention). The labour figures are harder to interpret. They indicate a swing away only when Gordon is mentioned (31% to 29%, static at 31% without mention of Gordon).

This gives us the basis of our Step one. The data says there is a slight shift to the conservatives, a slight switch away from the Lib Dems, a slight switch away from labour if Gordon Brown is introduced into the questioning.

Step 2: The conclusions drawn are that the conservatives are the strongest they have been in the polls for 12 years (The Guardian claim), and that support for Labour under Gordon Brown could drop to 29%, while the Tories led by David Cameron would attract 42% (BBC interpretation of the Guardian poll).

Step 3: Well, actually there are various assumptions which are glossed over in the claims in Step 2. Sticking strictly to the data, we cannot project what support will be for the parties, with or without David, Gordon and Ming built in.

Nor can we speculate what difference their presence or absence is likely to make on voting day. These are among the real-life complications which make back-projection for twelve years inadequate for projection one or two years ahead.

I’m inclined to see what happens when we have a few more months of data. (Plea to The Guardian / ICM: please can you keep the ‘with and without’ questions to help us work out what is happening, using our three-step system).

John Reid acts. But if he’s in a hole, shouldn’t he stop digging?

February 16, 2007

Britain’s prisons are crammed full. John Reid announces plans for two new prisons to be built in the future. His actions illustrate a leadership dilemma. When the battle is reaching a critical stage, what should a leader do? Is it better to act, showing that you are not paralyzed into inaction? Or is action – any action – better than appearing impotent?

If you are in a hole, digging may be a good thing to do, providing you are tunneling in the right direction to get out. Or, to use another explanation, provided you are not heading for some wicked problem-solving.

To act or not to act, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the field to suffer the stings and arrows of ….sorry got a bit carried away there. That soliloquy was prompted by Dr Reid’s announcement that two prisons are to be built to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of overcrowding.

It follows the recent accounts suggesting that John Reid was struggling to demonstrate that he had any grip on an intractable problem. In earlier blogs, I suggested that the Home Secretary appeared ineffective because the situation was so difficult that any announcement lacked plausibility. Today’s announcement does little to encourage me to change my view on this. Rather, it indicates the nature of the dilemma for leaders in a tight corner, or deep in the brown muddy stuff. Planning permission for one of the prisons has still not been secured. The other is scheduled for completion later this year.

Background to the Dilemma

The story has been building up with news of the current overcrowding, and following Dr Reid’s recent efforts, encouraging Judges to avoid committing criminals to prison wherever alternatives were possible. According to the BBC,

the chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, said that the jail system was in “serious crisis” . Prisons had become “like a funnel where liquid is being poured into the top with no tap to release it at the bottom”.

.. Enver Solomon, deputy director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King’s College London, said the government had not grasped the basic issue that sentencing policy rather than lack of prisons was to blame for overcrowding .. “It’s not actually going to deal with the fundamental issue… that sentencing has become much tougher. It’s a bit like adding extra lanes to the M25 – they’ll get filled up very quickly.”

The overflow pipe (or release tap) is missing or blocked. Widening the motorways has increased the flow of traffic on them. Such metaphors help us grapple with abstractions, but they have their limitations. I will try to present the issue less colourfully at least for a while. The two cited commentators agree that the processes of supply and demand are out of balance. The mechanisms in the short term involve reducing the flow in, or increasing the flow out (cars, water into the top of the funnel, criminals leaving the system).

Dr Reid’s dilemmas

At some stage we will have to build into our considerations the possibility that Dr Reid is constrained to act in ways that promote his personal ambitions. This is nothing unique within leadership decision-making, as few leaders act ignoring personal implications of the decision. The leadership dilemma, in broader terms, is how should a leader deal with a crisis. To date, The Home Secretary has been constructing his narrative as someone acting decisively although the situation will require many and lengthy struggles. Although he has avoided mimicry of Churchillian rhetoric, he has been quick to remind us that we are not at the end of our problems, nor even at the end of the beginning.

One of the dilemmas is how to deflect criticism of leadership inaction, when there are no actions that appear to be effective in the short-term. Mr Reid opts for offering the promise of an easy-to-understand solution. The solution is derived from a presumption that the problem is overcrowding of prisons and the solution is to build more prisons.

The Road to Cairo and Wicked Problem-Solving

Some while ago I took part in a discussion of these kinds of dilemmas in a group of international business and political leaders. A view emerged that pressures to find simple solutions lead to wicked problem-solving. An Egyptian delegate told the story of a problem of a dangerous stretch of road to Cairo from the International airport. He explained that the favoured solution for some time was to arrange for first-aid services on stand-by at the most dangerous stretch of road. We voted it the best example of wicked problem-solving.

According to Anne Owers and other commentators, Mr Reid may be heading for wicked problem-solving. This tends to arise from a denial of the assumptions around the proposed strategy.

Leadership principles

What leadership lessons can we learn from all this? Under crisis, the temptation to act often goes hand in hand with an unwillingness to challenge assumptions. Returning to a metaphor, the escape from a problem involves digging a hole – but as Edward de Bono would ask ‘Are we digging in the right place?’ Should we be looking for ‘another place to dig’?

You heard it here first: How blogs are beating BBC battalions

February 1, 2007

Bloggers take for granted that blogging is transforming the communication and generation of information. A typical case occurred this week, as Tata took over steel manufacturer Corus. The traditional media had been following the story for months, but the first analysis of Tata in this context was arguably in a WordPress blog that appeared hours after the merger was formally announced, and before the BBC’s report on the Tata organisation from its correspondent in India.

Bloggers know it intuitively. Something special is happening in the communication and generation of news. The upcoming revolution is partly masked by the denial from opinion leaders in the traditional media of the reliability of stories initiated on the web. They point to the unruly, unsubstantiated, and sometimes illegal nature of much of its the content. Scientists have taken a similar stance over claims that are not first made through the professionally approved channels of peer-reviewed publications. The political nature of this stance becomes clearer when you consider that even publication in web-based peer reviewed publications is still being dismissed by scientists and other academic scholars as a poor alternative to publishing in printed page journals.

But the state of denial is having to carry the weight of more and more examples of the power and legitimacy of the outputs of countless thousands of able bloggers. Traditionalists can still point to the obsessive nature of blogging. And yet, obsessive commitment to campaigning ideas has always been a journalistic staple too. The web is as transparent in revealing the nature of the conspiracy theorist as is the newspaper banner headline.

The Tata case

The Tata takeover this week is a case in point. In following the business headlines, I have developed the habit of scanning the BBC site on line before obtaining a hard copy version of the Financial Times. These are both great and overlapping sources of up to date news. In coffee breaks at work, the streamers from Bloomberg’s drift past my more relaxed view.

It was from these sources that I knew, along with most business world commentators that the Anglo-Dutch firm Corus was a much desired takeover target, and that the Indian conglomerate Tata was a likely predator.

Why Tata was important to me

There were probably half a dozen other stories that caught my eye yesterday. Tata was different to me because it was the company I had some first-hand information about from several sources. I had visited their premises in Mumbai, talked with their executives, and been entertained by former students who had gone back to India to work for Tata. I had brought back several books from India outlining the company’s history, reading much of the material on the flight back to Manchester.

As a former editor of a business publication, I would in days gone by considered commissioning a piece on the emerging story. That was then. Now I could refresh my memory and get myself updated in a couple of clicks…

Something to say

Maybe I had something to say. The BBC report was, as ever, informative and convincing as far as it went.

It told me that Tata Steel, part of the Indian conglomerate Tata Group, was last year ranked 56th in the list of steelmakers around the world with output of 5.3 million tonnes, that The Tata Group owns Tetley tea and Daewoo trucks and has operations in more than 50 countries.

But it did not say that Tata was perhaps the biggest single biggest factor within Indian economic growth for over a century, as well as being a fascinating example of social innovation.

That prompted me to blog. I blogged fast and furiously. Tata, I argued, was a bit like Tesco, but a bit more like Unilever. I saw thelink with Tesco in Tata’s impact on the economy, and with Unilever for its corporate culture and history of philanthropic leadership.

The BBC quickly filed its own report on Tata The corporation was quickly able to call on its own correspondent in Mumbai to provide a superb overview of Tata.

But for a while I was ahead of the game. I had already filed in the morning when the BBC report hit the web. My urgency was not so much to claim a scoop as an effort to deal with my increasingly serious blogging addiction getting more in the way of things I am paid to do.

And I did have some first-hand knowledge that would have justified the posting, even if it had followed BBC’s piece which arrived in early afternoon GMT.

Let’s not be triumphant

I feel good about ‘beating the BEEB’. It’s a tiny personal triumph. If my blogstats multiplied a thousand time over they would not match the daily visits to BBC web sites. But I did get there first. Which is not say that I can scoop the professionals on a regular basis.

Two of my top blogs for UK political and business stories are written by BBC aces Nick Robinson and Robert Peston. Each week they open up stories that will be starting points for others to follow. But even Robinson and Peston can only cover a handful of stories at a time. And even the BBC’s battalions can not follow-up to match the collective power of the web-networkers. My triumph is one small step for blogger, but it’s being replicated more and more. That’s one giant step for Blogkind.