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Feedback, surveys and statistics

by Regan Dooley
It was a shame to see Councillor Paul Eagle continuing to claim to speak for “the majority of Island Bay” in a May 6 letter to The Dominion Post. He also made a similar comment about representing “the silent majority” during the council debate on the draft cycling framework on April 30.

During that debate he quoted “statistics” from the report on the Island Bay cycleway that went to the December meeting of the Transport and Urban Development Committee. This included the claim that “80% of The Parade said no [to the cycleway], that’s nearly every blimmin house”. This is a grossly misleading use of those figures.

Councillor Eagle is attempting to use consultation feedback as if it is a survey of a representative sample of the community, which it isn’t.

Consultation of this type is focused primarily on gathering qualitative information and wouldn’t meet even the most basic standards of ethical survey design (not that the consultation in question was intended for that purpose).

The first problem is that this type of consultation involves self-selection instead of random selection, which can create a biased sample. Compounding this is the problem of negativity bias. Put simply, negativity bias means people are more inclined to speak out when they are against something than when they are for something. A further issue is that the consultation format didn’t capture the strength of opinion for or against. For example, there is a big difference between being totally opposed to the cycleway and simply having a few concerns.

When Councillor Eagle says “80% of The Parade said no, that’s nearly every blimmin house” he is using the consultation results as if they were a referendum. That’s a mis-use of those results.

What is legitimate, however, is using the three consultations carried out on the Island Bay cycleway so far to draw some reliable conclusions about the level of engagement in the cycleway debate within the community. Doing this tells a different story.

The consultation on the proposed cycleway design in April 2014 drew 177 responses. Although this is a relatively good number by the standards of previous council consultations, it immediately caused concern. The main complaint was that the consultation had been poorly advertised and residents of The Parade, in particular, felt that they hadn’t been given a chance to have a say. There were only 17 submissions from residents of The Parade.

The same cannot be said of the second consultation in September 2014. It drew 729 responses, including 486 from Island Bay. This consultation on the final design was very well advertised and the number of responses was very high by council standards. Despite this, the responses from Island Bay represent just 9% of the adult population. The 99 responses from The Parade represent only 18% of the adult population and came from 60 households, which is 31% of all households on The Parade. Even without getting into the issue of who was for or against the cycleway, and to what degree, these figures directly contradict Councillor Eagle’s statement that “80% of The Parade said no”. In fact, when given a well-advertised opportunity to have a say on a controversial issue that directly affected them, 82% of adults on The Parade, and 69% of households, didn’t say anything.

The third consultation on the traffic resolutions in December 2014 drew 308 responses, including 178 from Island Bay. This represents just 3% of the adult population. The 70 responses from The Parade represent only 13% of the adult population and came from 38 households, which is 20% of all households on The Parade. Once again, there is no evidence to support the statement that “80% of The Parade said no” or that a majority of the Island Bay community don’t want the cycleway.

Let’s be absolutely clear at this point – none of this analysis is intended to minimise, or dismiss as unimportant, the opinions of anyone in Island Bay who has concerns about the cycleway. Everybody is entitled to their opinion and to express it freely.

However, as much as both supporters and opponents of the cycleway probably hate to admit it, the truth is that the vast majority of the community are not actively engaged in the debate. There’s no doubt that most people in Island Bay probably do have an opinion on the cycleway but they don’t care about it enough to make a submission, despite being given three opportunities over the course of nine months to do so. This indicates that the “silent majority” are not overly concerned about the outcome either way, which is a very different picture to the one Councillor Eagle is trying to paint.

There are two clear lessons here. First, both sides of the debate need to stop making unsubstantiated statements about what they think “the Island Bay community” wants. Second, our city councillors need to keep the feedback that they are receiving from the community in perspective. Just because actively engaged minority groups on both sides are noisy and persistent doesn’t justify their views being presented as the view of an entire community. This will be a particularly important lesson for councillors to learn if they are to have any chance of delivering the vision for cycling in the Wellington Cycling Framework without every project descending into the protracted to-and-fro that we have seen in Island Bay.

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