Check out the comments on this post – many thoughtful contributions from the Local Government Improvement and Development web site are gathered together under the comment in my name

I’m getting fed up with dodgy research by private companies that draws unwarranted conclusions about the public sector from poor data.

An obscure column in the business pages of the Saturday Scotsman newspaper drew my attention to “research” by a company called uSwitchforBusiness.com which purported to show that

Poor perception of public sector workers puts small businesses off employing them

uSwitchforBusiness.com offers a “free, impartial energy brokerage service…focus[sing] on helping  business customers get the best gas and electricity contracts” receiving “a small commission payment when a customer chooses to switch or apply for a product through us”.  An interesting definition of impartiality but we’ll let that go.

Why they should waste their time hammering the poor old public sector workers being made redundant in their 1000s just now only they know.

They make their claims on the basis of

a uSwitchforbusiness.com poll, undertaken online with 240 key owners and financial decision makers of businesses with between 1 and 50 employees during January 2011.

The “findings” include

only 2% of SME employers would actively seek to recruit public sector workers

almost a quarter of small businesses (23%) would only consider a public sector worker if it was a role that they couldn’t otherwise fill – one in ten (12%) wouldn’t be prepared to employ a public sector worker at all

55% of SME owners believe that public sector workers have unrealistic expectations about pay, holidays and employment terms while just 11% consider public sector workers to be as productive as private sector employees

only 6% of private sector employers agree that public sector workers would fit in well in their company.

They have not published detailed results so we know nothing else about how the survey was carried out

  • how they chose the sample – whether it was random (and therefore some statistical reliability could be assigned to the results), what sectors of the economy it covered (hairdressers and florists might have a different view and level of understanding than accountants and management consultants), and whether the respondents were all uSwitchforBusiness.com clients
  • why it was of 240 businesses, an unusual number to survey and a very small sample for statistically reliable conclusions to be drawn from the results.  Latest government figures show that there are 1,187,275 enterprises employing 1-49 people.  240 is a sample of 0.019% of the total
  • what questions people were asked and the options they were given to answer them (their press release mentions some but it’s not clear if they are all the questions asked and options given)
  • why they’ve confined the survey to businesses employing 1-50 people.  They use the acronym “SME” in their press release, incidentally without explaining what it means.  The official definition of an SME (small and medium sized-enterprise) is 0-249 employees
  • the sizes of the businesses who responded.  A 1-person business might tend to have a different view from one employing 50 people
  • where in the UK the sample came from.  There could be significantly different views amongst small businesses in different regions
  • it’s not clear who was actually surveyed – the phrase “key owners and financial decision makers” has little meaning for a very small enterprise and the difference between a key owner and any other sort of  owner eludes me
  • the research credentials of those undertaking the survey are not known.  No independent research organisation is mentioned in the press release that forms the only source of information about the survey, although two members of staff of a public relations company are.

Some wider questions are also relevant

  • have any of the respondents actually worked in the public sector?
  • do they have any employees or close relatives who have?
  • when they completed the survey were they even considering what the public sector encompasses – not pen-pushing bureaucrats but teachers, firefighters, nurses, social workers, soldiers, customs’ officers, prison warders, librarians, judges…?

I’m not knocking small enterprises – I run one – just this survey, its opaqueness and its unwarranted conclusions.

As to what the results of the survey actually mean, consider just one conclusion

almost a quarter of small businesses (23%) would only consider a public sector worker if it was a role that they couldn’t otherwise fill – one in ten (12%) wouldn’t be prepared to employ a public sector worker at all.

 

To put it another way 67% (two-thirds) of the small businesses surveyed either would consider a public sector worker regardless of the role they are filling or have no view on the subject.  And the 33% who wouldn’t are only 80 out of 240, or if you prefer 80 of the total stock of 1,187,275 UK businesses of this size.  Incidentally, don’t you love that one in ten (12%)? Something wrong there I think.

Put like this the headline “Poor perception of public sector workers puts small businesses off employing them” isn’t quite so impressive.

Note also how in the presentation of their conclusions a sample of “240 key owners and financial decision makers” become “SME employers… small businesses…SME owners.. [and finally] private sector employers”.  These are not the same things.

In a related blog, the company claims

The government may need to rethink their employment strategies in light of the research.

I think not.

In short this is not serious research but a PR puff designed to draw attention to uSwitchforBusiness.com.  The shame of it, as with all endeavours of this sort, is that myths about public sector workers are perpetuated and extended and real people – redundant workers looking for a new job – can be seriously damaged.

Footnote – the uSwitchforBusiness.com survey bears an uncanny resemblance to a publication by another company in 2010, again PR puff dressed up as serious research

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