22/07/2010

By Jason Theodorou, Fresh Business Thinking

As the CEO of high profile online market research company YouGov, Stephan Shakespeare is deeply aware of the influence that public opinion holds in the halls of Whitehall — and is equally aware of how easily that voice can be hijacked by the loudest and least deserving interest groups.

Shakespeare started YouGov in 2005, and the site has been established as an accurate guage of public opinion — taking it's data from a panel of 250,000 UK residents, and building it's research on online opinion polls.

The site famously predicted Labour’s 2001 General Election win by 1 percentage point, and Shakespeare himself was described by the Guardian as ‘the online pollster who always seems to get it right’.

In light of the coalition government's recent call for the UK public to have their say on government spending cuts via Facebook, we spoke to Shakespeare at an event in London Bridge to see if he approved of the government's use of social media - and to find out how businesses can best make their voice heard in the era of 'new politics'.

Fresh Business Thinking: The coalition government is logging on to Facebook to receive the public’s ideas on spending cuts. Is this a brave or ill-considered move?

Stephan Shakespeare: Where they went absolutely right was in opening the debate up to the public. They see that, in a contemporary digital world, you need to put together many different opinions to create a real consensus, and get fresh ideas to decide how to implement spending cuts.

Where I think they went wrong was in asking people to simply ‘send in their ideas’ and vote on them, without putting into place any kind of process to aggregate the comments.

Fresh Business Thinking: What has been the impact of this lack of process?

Stephan Shakespeare: Sometimes the wackiest and funniest ideas get the most attention, and when there are ten versions of the same sensible idea, the attention-grabbing one will be the idea that everybody flocks to. There are distortions, with a great deal of attention paid to a very fun idea rather than a serious one.

In addition to this, the scoring system is all wrong. Users cast votes from 0 to 5 on a given idea, depending on whether you agree with it — so if just three people vote on a minor idea, and give it as score of 5, that idea will get an average of 5 and go straight to the top [of the agenda].

Fresh Business Thinking: How does YouGov do things differently?

Stephan Shakespeare: When it comes to public attitude towards the new government, we poll our users every day — so we have a continuum of government approval. Our role is to be the public response, in a more scientific way, to the things happening in government.

Fresh Business Thinking: In this ‘enterprise led recovery’, what’s the best way for businesses to get their ideas across to Chancellor George Osborne?

Stephan Shakespeare: Twenty years ago, you would ask a lobby organisation to organise a dinner with a Minister, and you would hope to influence them. There was an idea that difficult things were best discussed behind closed doors, by a few sensible people having a drink.

With this government, transparency is the key, so if you want to make a case you need to do so as publicly as possible. Do it in ways which involve customers, clients, and the community. You need to show that you are willing to stand up for your concerns, rather than simply having a quiet word in the Minister’s ear!

Not all arguments are best made in public, but you do need to win public opinion. There are many voices clamouring for the ear of government, especially when there are spending cuts being made. As a business, you need to be more skilful and realise that there is a fight for the public voice.

Fresh Business Thinking: Do small businesses stand a chance of influencing the government?

Stephan Shakespeare: The big incumbents, who are used to having privileged access because they are big companies, will have far fewer chances to influence the Government in the future. The new government is clearly signalling to small businesses that they can be heard.

One way in which they are doing this is by cutting up giant bids into smaller bids, so that the public sector does not always have to do business with giant companies.

Fresh Business Thinking: Finally, as the founder of YouGov, how do you think the general public views the coalition government after the Budget?

Stephan Shakespeare: With the expenses scandal, we've just had a really quite devastating blow to the body politic - the general public has had a very low opinion of politicians. However, a government coming in will always get a little honeymoon, where the public decides to give them a chance.

In this case we have a coalition. The general public generally likes the sight of parties working together. Right now, the coalition government has a favourable wind to its back. It is quite astonishing that even with large spending cuts, the public are willing to give them a chance.

It’s good timing really, to do the most unpopular thing you need to do right at the beginning.