Wed 24 February 2021

The companies given the contracts are expected to employ “behaviour change models”, reports Sam Bright

The Home Office has agreed contracts worth nearly £10 million for the supply of research and opinion polling, Byline Times can reveal.

On 19 October, the Government released documents detailing the agreements struck with two private sector companies – Britain Thinks and Ipsos MORI.

According to the documents, Britain Thinks will conduct polling and research work on immigration, Europe, policing and crime. This work is designed to inform the department’s communications strategy, so that it can successfully “influence” people.

“This research is crucial in understanding key Home Office audiences and tailoring the Customer’s messages and communications to effectively reach and influence them,” the contract documents read.

The companies are expected to conduct surveys, questionnaires, test messages and “[employ] behaviour change models”. Whatever that means.

Both UK and foreign nationals will be subject to this research, including businesses, migrants and holidaymakers.

Interestingly, the contracts relating to crime mention that research may be conducted on vulnerable and minority audiences – the latter including “ethnic groups, [sic] LGBT”. This is not mentioned in the immigration and Europe contracts.

Ipsos MORI has been commissioned to research crime and policing, as well as to conduct non-specified opinion polling.

In a statement to Byline Times, the Home Office emphasised that the £9.95 million bill for this work is the upper spending limit, and that the outlay will vary, depending on how much work is commissioned. All the contracts will initially run for a two-year period, with two separate one-year extension options.

Britain Thinks and Ipsos MORI did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

Polling and Outsourcing

These contracts reinforce two trends occurring within Boris Johnson’s Government. The first is a large investment in opinion polling, which is occurring in several departments. In August, for example, Byline Times revealed that Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office had spent £380,000 on opinion polling in a single month.

According to reports, the Cabinet Office has an agreement in place with YouGov to deliver a daily tracking poll on voter attitudes to Government policy – asking 30-40 questions.

The second trend is the Government’s concerted drive to outsource public sector work to private companies.

Gove’s department has agreed contracts worth £180 million with giant management consultancies to help with the delivery of Brexit. The consultants will work alongside civil servants and will function as agents of the Government. However, as Stephen Colegrave observed this week, unlike civil servants, management consultants are primarily motivated by “fees and the promise of future fees”.

The Coronavirus pandemic has provided impetus for this outsourcing agenda to rapidly increase. Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has set a budget of £13.8 billion for the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) from private sector firms, on top of the country’s £12 billion Test and Trace budget, much of which has been awarded to outsourcing giants.

Indeed, as revealed by Byline Times, the billion-pound outsourcing firm Capita was asked to deliver a “chief product officer” for the Test and Trace system – charging £1,822 a day for doing so.

At a time when public services are more vital than ever, and when the Government has been withholding money to extend furlough and the provision of free school meals, the outsourcing of huge public contracts to expensive corporate firms raises questions.

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