ESRA 2019 Programme at a Glance


Exploring the Link between Public Attitudes Surveys and Public Policy

Session Organisers Dr Paula Devine (ARK, Queen's University Belfast)
Dr Katrina Lloyd (ARK, Queen's University Belfast)
Dr Martina McKnight (ARK, Queen's University Belfast)
Dr Dirk Schubotz (ARK, Queen's University Belfast)
TimeWednesday 17th July, 11:00 - 12:30
Room D33

The drive towards evidence-based policy making in modern welfare states originated in the 1950s, and we have come to expect that governments and other policy makers use a range of empirical evidence when making public and social policy. Although public attitudes surveys are just one part of that jigsaw of evidence, they play an important role in the policy making process. In particular, public attitudes are vital in exploring if the views and actions of politicians are in step with those of the general public.

This session will focus on the link between policy and attitudes. This link can take different forms and directions. Thus, we are particularly interested in papers that, on the European and/or national level:
• Highlight examples where survey data indicate a mismatch between policy and public opinion
• Explore how public attitudes data have been used by lobbying and other social action groups in order to effect social change
• Discuss how attitudinal survey data have directly fed into policy-making processes
• Explore the role of survey data in evaluation and validation of policy, and in Outcome Based Accountability (OBA) in particular

Keywords: public attitudes, social policy, opinion, accountability

Conceptualizing the Link between Public Policy and Public Attitude Surveys

Mr Oliver Watteler (GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences) - Presenting Author

The use of attitude surveys in public policy processes forms part of political communication and can be observed at the two ends of the policy cycle, during the agenda-setting and during the evaluation phase. Interest groups and policymakers use public attitude surveys in order to present possible public demands for policy solutions. And surveys can later be used to assess public acceptance and thus the success of policy outcomes. This evaluative aspect is also part of evidence-based policymaking (EBPM).

Both aspects of data-driven policymaking have been criticized: the first one as being open for manipulation, the second one as underestimating the complexity of the policymaking process. But what is the actual link between attitude surveys and public policy?

A conceptualization of the link of public policy and public attitude surveys needs to take into account the results of public policy research and survey research, as well as how survey results are communicated. Firstly, public policy research informs us about what happens during the policy process, and one can identify uses of attitude surveys throughout the process by various political actors. Here, agenda-setting and policy evaluation are the phases most open to influences by other interpretations of the facts presented by political actors. Secondly, survey research offers insights in the process of opinion and attitude measurement. The total survey error framework sheds light on the quality of survey outcomes. Thirdly, surveys are one among many means used by political actors in political communication e.g. to put issues on the political agenda. The same actors might again use surveys in order to demonstrate failure or success of policy outcomes. Thus, we conceptualize the link between attitude surveys and public policy as a contingent on the setting but also on the quality of survey data.


Attitudes to Abortion in Northern Ireland: Do Politicians Reflect Public Opinion?

Dr Paula Devine (ARK, Queen's University Belfast) - Presenting Author
Professor Ann Marie Gray (ARK, Ulster University)
Dr Goretti Horgan (Ulster University)

Access to abortion in Northern Ireland is limited and controversial. It is only permitted if a woman's life is at risk or there is risk to her mental or physical health that is long term or permanent. Foetal abnormalities (even if fatal), rape and incest are not circumstances in which abortions can be performed legally. This is much more restrictive than in other parts of the United Kingdom (UK). Over the years, numerous attempts to change abortion policy and law in Northern Ireland have failed. Political representatives in Northern Ireland have argued that their opposition to the liberalisation of abortion law reflects the social and religious views of the public. Survey data allow us to test if this is the case.

In 2016, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT) asked a representative sample of 1,208 adults aged 18 years or over living in Northern Ireland about their views on abortion and abortion law. This is the most comprehensive survey of public attitudes on abortion to date, and explored the legality and illegality of abortion, in what circumstances abortions should or should not be allowed, and the criminalisation of abortion.

This paper will highlight key findings from the NILT survey to show how public attitudes are nuanced; for example, there is public support for access to abortion in some situations, but not others. It will also explore attitudes across a range of socio-economic and demographic groups, including political affiliation, in order to highlight if the stance taken by political representatives is in tune with public opinion.


Monitoring Education Reforms in Northern Ireland for Policy Making

Dr Katrina Lloyd (ARK, Queen's University Belfast)
Dr Dirk Schubotz (ARK, Queen's University Belfast) - Presenting Author

Historically, Northern Ireland’s education system has been divided across a number of socio-demographic variables. The vast majority of schools at both primary and post-primary level are segregated by religious background. Whilst most schools are now co-educational, a significant minority of pupils still attend single-sex schools. Finally, the continued existence of academic transfer tests at the end of the primary school period, which determine the type of school pupils attend, de facto means that many pupils are segregated by socio-economic background at post-primary level.

The Department of Education in Northern Ireland has recognised the need to address socio-economic and religious segregation. The 2016 Shared Education Act provides resources to schools in Northern Ireland to encourage them to share school infrastructures, but also to facilitate programmes, projects and classes through which pupils from different school sectors get to know each other and learn together.

ARK has been monitoring attitudes among children and young people towards sharing education since the inception of the Shared Education programme. In this presentation we will discuss some of the methodological challenges of developing and monitoring education policy indicators. We will focus on the question/indicator development, the difficulties of monitoring changes in attitudes over time when policy foci change, and the challenges of surveying children and young people from different age groups.


Why Are Relatively Poor People Not More Supportive of Redistribution? Evidence from a Survey Experiment across 10 Countries

Ms Franziska Mager (Oxfam GB)
Mr Christopher Hoy (Australian National University) - Presenting Author

Using new cross-country and experimental evidence, we test a key assumption of conventional theories about preferences for redistribution, which is relatively poor people should be the most in favour of redistribution. This study makes a significant contribution by showing how one of the foundational principles of theories of preferences for redistribution lacks empirical support in a diverse range of countries.

We conduct a randomised online survey experiment across 10 diverse high and middle income countries with over 30,000 participants, half of which are informed of their position in the national income distribution. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, people who are told they are relatively poorer than they thought become less concerned about inequality and do not become more supportive of redistribution. This finding is driven by people using their own living standard as a ‘benchmark’ for what they consider acceptable for others.

A practical implication of this is policy makers who are interested in understanding people‘s support for redistribution in their country should be as concerned (if not more so) of people‘s perception of inequality as opposed to what is actually the case.