Getting The Questions Right

Professor Christina Pagel

My Harkness year coincided with Donald Trump’s election and the 2017 Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare. So I promptly ditched one of my Harkness projects in November 2016 and decided to understand better what Republicans actually wanted national health policy to do. I asked state politicians across the US about their priorities for the goals of health policy. The mathematically aggregated results from 182 Republican and 192 Democrat politicians were illuminating, highlighting enormous differences on the role of government and tackling disparities.

Importance map derived from legislators’ ranks of different possible goals for health policy. The main goals are highlighted – the lighter grey goals consist of a variety of goals related to the quality and safety of health care. First shown in Pagel, Harvard Health Policy Review, Oct 15th 2017 

Once back in the UK, my thoughts turned to Brexit. I was frustrated that polls asked people about their preferences regarding the Single Market or Customs Union vs controls on immigration when to me the real question was what people wanted the UK to achieve. Binary questions explicitly assume the pollster knows what voters’ top priorities are. I wanted to ask voters instead, and thanks to the Harkness work, I had the methodology ready to analyse ranked responses.

This ended in two large surveys carried out independently over the summer, the first supported by UK in a Changing Europe and the second supported by the People’s Vote Campaign. Both surveys asked people (over 15,000 in total) to rank a list of 13 challenges the UK faces over the next 5 years. We then explored how ranks correlated with referendum and party votes and what this might mean for the Brexit debate.