Government Imperial Units consultation bedevilled by inaccuracy, bias, bodges and computer blunders

The Government consultation into the choice of units of measure in the retail sector [ref 1] has been bedevilled by inaccuracies, bias, bodges and probably computer blunders. The Foreword of the document (unsigned) is not only riddled with inaccuracies and half-truths, but the explanation of the law relating to units of measure in the retail trade bypasses the fundamental principles behind the display of prices.

Evidence obtained by the UKMA indicates that the staff of Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS) bodged and attempted to skew the consultation questions in order to produce a particular result. As a result, the PDF version of the questions and the web version of the questions were out of synch with each other. This was only noticed by the BEIS after at least one UKMA member had answered the questions. When the two versions were re-aligned with each other, the BEIS appeared to have overlooked a subtle computer process resulting in the UKMA member’s responses (and possibly other responses) being displayed as “Not answered”. This gave the appearance of the BEIS having not only changed the questions, but having also tampered with the respondent’s answers.

In response to correspondence by the member concerned via his MP and a Freedom of Information request from the UKMA, the BEIS gave assurances that the original answers would be taken into account when the analysis was done. [ref 2],[ref 3] Given the nature of the subtle computer process, the author of this document, a software engineer of 40 years standing, has doubts that the BEIS will be able to honour their assurances.

Unwittingly tampering with evidence

Probably the biggest blunder made by the BEIS was to take a document that was already biased (see later) and to try and introduce more bias into it. Question 3a asked respondents whether they preferred shopping in establishments that displayed “only imperial units”, that displayed “both imperial and metric units” or that “did not display imperial units” (i.e., only metric units). It appears that somebody in the BEIS then decided to remove the third option. This option was removed from the PDF version of the questionnaire, but only half removed from the web-based questionnaire. The result was two questionnaires that were out of synch with each other. Having two questionnaires that are out of synch with each other really calls the whole consultation into question.

A few days before the BEIS withdrew the third option to Question 3a, a UKMA member answered the web-based questionnaire and chose the third option. He twice requested PDF copies of his responses, once before the change and once after the change. On the second copy, he found that his answer had been changed to “not answered”. He wrote to the BEIS via his MP to ask what had happened. The BEIS denied having changed his answer and assured the member that his original answer would be taken into account when the analysis was done. It was also noticed that the answer to Question 1c had been changed. It should be noted that Question 1c was also tampered with, but for the sake of brevity this report will not examine that change.

The following images (redacted to preserve anonymity) highlight the differences between the author’s original version that he submitted to BEIS and the corrupted version:


The author, rather than accusing the BEIS representative of lying, postulated that the BEIS used a computer software package such as SurveyMonkey® to administer the consultation and that the apparent change in response was a knock-on effect from dropping the third option in Question 3a. This is the sort of behaviour that he would expect if the software package was built around a relational database which was interrogated using SQL queries. The user interface of the computer package would hide both the database and the means by which it was interrogated.

Although the spokesperson for the BEIS gave assurances that the respondent’s original responses would be taken into account, the author believes that if the software incorrectly interpreted a single respondent’s answers, then it would repeat the same incorrect interpretation when all the respondents’ answers are grouped together. He therefore believes that the BEIS spokesperson did not really understand how to go about solving the problem and, as a result, their assurances are nothing more than unattainable platitudes.

Other shortcomings

The BEIS document lacked integrity from the start. The opening paragraph of the Foreword stated that the transition to the metric units took place in the late 1990’s, which is simply not true – the bulk of the metrication process took place in the early 1970’s. The document went on to say that we buy our beer in pints and weigh our babies in ounces. The authors of the document had clearly never bought any beer in a supermarket, nor were they aware that even though babies’ weights are often quoted in pounds and ounces (not just ounces), the official records are in metric units. For the sake of brevity, other faux pas will not be catalogued.

The section of the document describing the law and the questionnaire failed to mention the term “supplementary units” or to describe their purpose – namely that the primary unit used in pricing goods is the unit of measurement that is entered into the weighing device and is also the unit of measurement that appears on the receipt. The impact of this can best be described by a UKMA member who once noticed that one product in Tesco was priced at £1/kg (45p/lb) while at the other end of the display rack, a different product was priced at 99p/kg (45p/lb). Did the two products have the same price or not?

Conclusions

The primary conclusion is that this consultation was a farce, biased from the beginning and designed to buy a few “Red Wall” votes by placating a group of market traders who, twenty years ago, had been convicted of using unauthorised weighing devices. This bias was made worse when somebody in the BEIS tried to skew one of the less-biased questions and the BEIS staff made a mess of the operation. In such circumstances any decent polling organisation would have ditched the whole consultation.

If the Business Secretary is minded to publish the results of the consultation, the UKMA expects to see two sets of analysis to the response – one based on the version of the questionnaire which listed three options for Question 3a and another based on the version which only listed two options for that question. The US Department of Defense document “Designing an Effective Survey” counsels against such “quick and dirty surveys”. [ref 4] On the other hand, given that the consultation period took place before he was appointed, he can, without loss of face, dismiss the whole consultation as having been “compromised by technical problems”.

The Business Secretary would do well to recall that in 1215 the authors of the Magna Carta realised the wisdom in having one system of units of measurement for “the whole realm”, something that the French eschewed. The lack of a single system of units in France was one of many grievances that led to the French Revolution and, perhaps, perversely, to the establishment of the metric system. [ref 5]

References:

  1. “Choice on Units of Measurement: Markings and Sales” (June 2022) (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1081018/choice-on-units-of-measurement-markings-and-sales-consultation.pdf), Office for Product Safety and Standards.
  2. Freedom of Information response to Mr Ronnie Cohen, dated 20 October 2022, BEIS reference: FOI2022/22562
  3. BEIS response dated 19 October to a question by Mr Martin Vlietstra, submitted to the Department on his behalf by his MP, the Rt Hon Ranil Jayawardena MP. BEIS reference: TOB2022/22821
  4. “Designing an Effective Survey” page 11, (September 2005) Mark Kasunic, Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute (https://resources.sei.cmu.edu/asset_files/Handbook/2005_002_001_14435.pdf), (Funded by the US Department of Defense).
  5. Adler – “The Measure of All Things” (2002), Published by Little and Brown, ISBN: 978-0316859899

9 thoughts on “Government Imperial Units consultation bedevilled by inaccuracy, bias, bodges and computer blunders”

  1. Over here in the States we could easily refer to the clown car that is the current UK government as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight”. So true, alas. 😦

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  2. Is there any possibility that the UKMA either alone or in partnership with others could bring about a lawsuit against those in the BEIS and also extend to those outside the BEIS that have any role in perpetuating this fraud? What is described here is criminal and should not be allowed to be ignored.

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  3. This is an excellent article. It will be brought to the attention of the MP for Redditch. It’s hoped that she together with her colleagues reads it all. Sadly, she and the current Government do not support the completion of Metrication in the UK.

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  4. It still feels like a double edge sword. While it is great that such a proposal has been met with widespread ridicule, there is still seems to be little appetite to move of from the current fudge. I have seen plenty of people saying that imperial units haven’t gone away. With people asking what their height is with expecting the answer be given in feet and inches. Or pointing out that the signs are still in miles without asking why aren’t they in kilometres. When imperial hasn’t been taught in schools for half a century and they are in metric in virtually the rest of the world. With the vast majority of people having no clue how many yards in a mile or what those fractions are supposed to mean.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. @Alex, Exactly.

    What is the point of arguing about issues that have little real bearing on our lives. The powers that be will do whatever they want regardless.
    Unless there is some meaningful step forward towards both completing the change to SI, AND ALSO to eliminate the habitual use of imperial by DfT, NHS, police, local councils and most of all the government itself (to mention just a few), then I feel after some 60 years of fighting this nonsense nothing will make any difference to me now.
    Not one single organisation, company, media or department has made even a token effort to fully use SI, even less to eliminate the ongoing use of imperial.

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  6. @BrianAC It is a vicious cycle. Rather than getting people use to metric throughout life, they feel the need to patronise people by converting it into an inferior antiquated system which is harder to use. So things just end up with this ridiculous fudge and people end up needlessly confused without realising that they are. The most frustrating thing about it is that people refuse to see the issue with it and muddle on with it regardless. As such nothing changes because ultimately there is little pressure for them to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This patronisation is in contrast to the approach that was taken in South Africa and, I believe, in Australia. AS part of the metrication process in South Africa, the sale of measuring devices that were calibrated in imperial units was outlawed – any shop selling such a device receive a R50 fine (equivalent to £350 today). One of the interesting side-effect was that South Africa did not manufacture kitchen measuring jugs and metric-only jugs were not available in English, so the shops stocked jugs that had words like “sucre”, “riz”, “farine” etc.

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  8. Blunders by the Department for Business, Energy and Industry Strategy (BEIS)

    When I wrote to the MP for Redditch:

    I, together with my colleagues, would really appreciate it if you and your colleagues made the effort to read the following article:
    Government Imperial Units consultation bedevilled by inaccuracy, bias, bodges and computer blunders – Metric Views

    In addition, would you please request all the Minsters and all the Management Staff in the BEIS to not just read it but also to respond to it.
    And kindly name the person responsible for writing the Foreword to this document.

    +=+=+=+
    Her reply from KEVIN HOLLINRAKE MP Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business

    Dear Rachel,

    Thank you for your email dated 8 November 2022, addressed to the Secretary of State, enclosing correspondence from your constituent, regarding imperial measurements. I am responding as this matter falls within my ministerial responsibilities.

    The Government is reviewing the current law on units of measurement, and this early-stage consultation will feed into the review. It will gather views to ensure that we have the best evidence available to make any changes as appropriate. The consultation seeks to understand the areas where the current legislation has been burdensome to consumers and businesses, and any barriers it has created. It also aims to identify potential areas of inclusion and exclusion for review.

    The purpose of the review is to identify how we can give more choice to businesses and consumers over the units of measurement they use for trade, while ensuring that measurement information remains accurate. The review will take into consideration all consumer transactions made on the basis of measurement, with the aim of providing greater freedom for businesses and consumers. It will consider the possibility of, for example, marking the quantity of a bag of sugar in pounds only, or in pounds with a less prominent metric equivalent. The review will be focussed only on the use of units of measurement in domestic trade. UK law currently requires metric units to be used for all trade purposes, with only limited exceptions.

    While imperial units can be used alongside metric units, the imperial markings must be no larger or no more prominent than the metric ones. Currently, imperial units are only authorised for use on their own in specialised fields, such as for sales of draught beer and cider and milk in returnable containers, where the pint is used, and transactions in precious metals where the troy ounce is used. There are sanctions for non-compliance.

    The UK has a long and proud history of using imperial measures and their use is closely associated with our culture and language and is one that many people remain attached to. The UK’s exit from the EU has created an opportunity to review the law on units of measurement for consumer transactions and to take back control of our measurement system.
    I hope this response is helpful.
    Yours ever,
    KEVIN HOLLINRAKE MP
    Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business

    +=+=+
    AND he didn’t name the person who wrote the Foreword to that document.

    Cheers,
    Philip

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  9. The blog entry was entitled “Government Imperial Units consultation bedevilled by inaccuracy, bias, bodges and computer blunders”. The minister failed to address the issue of inaccuracies in the text, failed to address the issues of bias, failed to address the issue of bodges and failed to address the issue of computer blunders.

    In short he failed to answer any of the issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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