What we do
Each Audit presents the findings from a public opinion poll survey, providing detailed commentary on a range of measures that have been chosen as key measures of political engagement. Repeating questions in successive years enables us to chronicle the public’s responses year on year and track the direction and magnitude of change since the Audit was first published in 2004, building trend data on public attitudes to key aspects of our democracy.
The study provides not a prediction but a snapshot of public perceptions of, and engagement with, politics at a particular moment in time. Its findings go beyond the normal vicissitudes of the political and electoral cycle, offering greater depth and insight into public attitudes to politics than can be found in one-off polls and instant responses to events and news headlines.
Building blocks of engagement
In the Audit we look at core, inter-locking areas that we know are vital facets, or ‘building blocks’ of political engagement. Given its multi-dimensional nature, the indicators we have chosen are not exhaustive. But in capturing aspects of public behaviour, knowledge, opinions, attitudes and values towards politics they help us understand the drivers of political engagement and the relationships between them.
Across the Audit series a number of ‘core’ indicator questions have been asked each year, supplemented by a range of thematic and topical questions, some of which are re-visited on two or three year cycles.
Knowledge and interest
Levels of public knowledge and interest are explored because they are known to be important factors in engagement given the strong correlation between familiarity and favourability. The more people know about an institution, service or process the more positive they tend to be towards it and the more willing they may be to participate and get involved.
Action and participation
Political engagement can be measured in terms of what people think, but also in terms of what they do. We therefore look at levels of public action and participation in the political process, capturing both formal and informal forms of engagement that require varying levels of time and commitment. The Audit study was initiated in response to the drop in turnout at the 2001 general election, so tracking the public’s propensity to vote has always been a key aspect of the study. But while public participation is the lifeblood of representative democracy, politics is about more than casting a vote once a year so the study also looks at a repertoire of other activities through which people can express their views between elections and without relying on political parties or MPs. And we look not just at what people claim to have done in the last year but what activities they say they would be willing to do in the future if they felt strongly enough about an issue, enabling us to chart the gap between actual and potential engagement.
Efficacy and satisfaction
Building on the familiarity indicators, we look at the public’s favourability towards aspects of the political system through a series of questions in relation to their sense of efficacy and satisfaction. We explore public satisfaction with the way our system of governing Britain works and the extent to which people believe their involvement in politics would be worthwhile in bringing about change in the way the country is run.
Engagement operates at a number of different levels. We therefore track the public’s appetite for both local and national involvement in decision-making, and, as a further facet of their sense of political efficacy and satisfaction, the extent to which they feel they have any influence over decision-making at each level.
Parliament, parties and politicians
We also focus on public perceptions of Parliament as the core institution of our democracy. We look at the public’s knowledge of Parliament, their perception of its importance and relevance, its effectiveness in performing its accountability function, and in engaging with and addressing the issues that matter to them. The relationship between elected representatives and citizens is at the heart of our system of representative democracy. Power is vested in citizens who turn out on election day to choose who will represent them in Parliament as their MPs and they retain the right, next time round, to ‘kick the rascals out’ if they are dissatisfied with them. Periodically in the Audit series we therefore revisit questions about public attitudes to MPs, particularly focusing on public satisfaction with MPs in terms of how they do their job as one measure of how well the public think they fulfil their representative function.
In our democratic system, political parties are the link in the chain between citizens and representatives. There has long been concern that they are no longer representative of the wider public and therefore cannot mobilise mass participation in the political process, leading to a widening of the gap between citizens and the political elite. We therefore look regularly at the extent to which political parties command public support and among which groups of the public in particular.