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LOCAL DEMOCRACY WEEK: PUBLIC ATTITUDE RESEARCH IN BARNSLEY

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The residents of Barnsley have had their say about council services in the largest survey of public attitudes ever ...
The residents of Barnsley have had their say about council services in the largest survey of public attitudes ever undertaken by Barnsley MBC. The report, commissioned from market research consultant MVA, was launched on 3rd June as part of Local Democracy Week.

MVA used their 'Action Indicators' technique for the 6 months' research programme, which included 1,373 in-depth household interviews. This technique combines importance and satisfaction ratings into a single scale to prioritise public opinion and identify areas of concern. On the whole, people's satisfaction of council services was high, with 69% of residents saying that they were 'very' or 'fairly satisfied' with council services. The survey has highlighted some areas which residents consider to be important and have room for some improvement.

Council leader Steve Houghton said: 'This is the largest general survey of public attitudes ever undertaken by the council. It provides us with valuable, and reliable, data on what the public currently thinks about our services and on their priorities. The results point out some areas for review, not least in the information we provide to the public, which we will be looking at in greater detail in the weeks ahead. Council and public priorities are very similar which shows that generally we are on the right track'.

Key points of the research findings are that the public give most of the education services a high level of significance which has delighted the council. 'Education is also a high priority for the council and we aim to produce a significant improvement in standards. This year we have ploughed an extra£4.2m into education passing on in full the funds made available by the government', explained cllr Houghton. 'We are currently working with parents and teachers in an Education Partnership Plan which will set out significant proposals for the future'. The plan will be launched next month by the secretary of state for education, David Blunkett.

Leisure services, markets and the town centre achieved particularly high levels of satisfaction (83%). The vast majority (85%) of residents were satisfied with refuse collection, waste disposal and recycling. Barnsley has just completed the introduction of a wheeled-bin collection system throughout the borough.

The survey identified some services where the public attach a high level of importance but has a low level of satisfaction. These include:

-Road maintenance and road building

-Snow clearing and gritting

-Dealing with drug abuse

-Council housing repairs

-Street cleaning and gully emptying

The report from MVA suggest that 'the council needs to look at the reasons for the public identifying these services as ones that are important to them yet there is some degree of dissatisfaction or misunderstanding of the service offered. Some of the services are being looked at in detail through council's 'best value' review others may need further research work to get to the root of the issues involved'.

The report cautions however that 'people find it easier to criticise services that are delivered impersonally rather that those services delivered on a one to one basis. Common services like road maintenance and snow clearing tend to be criticised everywhere'.

The research examined the information needs of the public, any difficulties in obtaining information, and their current levels of awareness of council services. Residents said they would like to receive more information on how council tax revenue is spent, contact names, service phone numbers and general information on what services are available.

'The council recognises the need to improve the quality and quantity of information provided to the public. We are assessing the best ways of communicating the information required', said cllr Houghton. 'The public's perception about what the council is responsible for is often uncertain. For example 69% of people interviewed thought that the council was still responsible for Barnsley College and 45 % thought we ran the hospitals! We need to provide much clearer information about our services'.

Barnsley is running a 'Question Time on the Internet', with leading councillors answering questions from school children and members of the public as part of Local Democracy week. 'Barnsley has already set up an excellent web site giving information on our services, however, the survey revealed that only one in ten residents had used the Internet so we are trying to encourage greater use of this new means of communication with the council', said cllr Houghton.

Barnsley is developing public consultation as a long term programme within the council's strategic planning process. Chief executive John Edwards explains: 'Best value is a key focus for the council, so we have to demonstrate that we are providing what the public wants. Only by establishing how our performance rates with public perception can we understand if services need improving or merely require better communication'.

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