How imperial units survey design flaws could have been fixed

The Government ran the “Choice on units of measurement: markings and sales” consultation from 3 June 2022 to 26 August 2022. The survey that accompanied the consultation received over 100 000 responses. According to Government guidelines (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/consultation-principles-guidance), a response should have been published by 18 November, 12 weeks after the closing date. This article explains what was wrong with the survey questions and how the survey could have been improved.

The Government says, “This consultation closed on 26 August 2022 and received over 100,000 responses. Due to the large volume of responses, analysis is still ongoing. A final government response to the consultation will be published in due course.”. When that happens is anyone’s guess.

In a nutshell, the consultation explores the possibility of removing the requirement to use metric units in some areas of trade and commerce. It is a deeply flawed survey over an unnecessary, wasteful and potentially damaging proposal. Some Ministers might regard the reintroduction of imperial units as important, but the public does not. On “More or Less” on BBC Sounds, Matthew Smith of YouGov revealed that 61% of the population do not think that it is important whether shops sell in imperial or metric and only 30% thought it was.

At present customers have a legal right to be informed of the quantity and price of any product on supermarket shelves in metric units, in a way which allows comparison between different brands, and what the government proposal amounts to is simply to take away this right. So not more choice, less choice.

Here, I suggest my own ideas to improve the survey design. These are not the only ways that the survey could have been improved. There are many ways to improve this poorly designed and biased survey.

Question 1 asks:

“For All,
a) Are there any specific areas of consumer transactions that should be a priority for allowing a choice in units of measurement, and why?
b) Are there any specific areas that you think should be excluded from a choice in units of measurement, and why?
c) If an item is sold in imperial measures, should there be a requirement for a metric equivalent alongside it?”

Question 1a is badly phrased. It also makes an incorrect assumption. It implies that a decision has already been made and the only question is where to start. Most businesses are likely to give the answer “all areas” to Question 1b but this is not invited. There are no disadvantages to including the metric equivalent alongside imperial measures, so it is not clear why Question 1c is there.

It would have been better to drop Question 1c and rephrase the first two questions as:

“For All,
a) What specific areas of consumer transactions should be included in a choice in units of measurements, and why?
b) What specific areas of consumer transactions should be excluded from a choice in units of measurements, and why?”

Under each question, respondents could be provided with boxes:

  • No Areas
  • Some Areas [Specify which ones in the text box below.]
  • All Areas
  • Does not matter to me
  • Not Sure/Don’t Know

This could have been supplemented with questions about optional supplementary indications – keeping them (the status quo) or phasing them out (using only metric units).

Question 2 asks:

“For Businesses,
What would be the consequences of your business having the freedom to sell products in imperial measures, if you wished?”

Why does Question 2 only ask about imperial units? It should ask about the use of metric units, dual units and imperial units. For example, Question 2 could have asked:

“For Businesses,
a) What are the advantages and disadvantages of using only metric units for your business?
b) What are the advantages and disadvantages of using dual units for your business?
c) What are the advantages and disadvantages of using only imperial units for your business?”

Options (a) and (b) are already covered by the optional use of supplementary indications (the use of imperial units alongside metric ones); exclude them for option (a) and include them for option (b). These questions not only cover the reintroduction of imperial units but also the status quo and moving forward to the sole use of metric units.

Question 3 was for consumers.

Question 3a asked:

“If you had a choice, would you want to purchase items:
(i) in imperial units?
(ii) in imperial units alongside a metric equivalent?”

How do you answer this question if you don’t want imperial units? The short answer is that you cannot. Respondents either had to refuse to answer this question or pick an option that does not apply to them. No matter how many respondents answer this question and no matter which option they pick, Question 3a guarantees that 100% of respondents express a preference for imperial units because there is no option to say No to imperial units. It lacks statistical integrity. It is missing the option “(iii) Not in imperial units?” (i.e., in metric units only).

Question 3b asked “Are you more likely to shop from businesses that sell in imperial units?”. This is a leading question. Instead of Question 3b, the survey should have asked:

“How likely are you to shop from businesses that sell in:
(i) in imperial units?
(ii) in dual units?
(iii) in metric units?”

For each option above, respondents should have been provided with the following options and a text box under these options to say why (if applicable):

  • Very likely
  • Quite likely
  • Neither more nor less likely
  • Quite unlikely
  • Very unlikely
  • Does not matter to me
  • Not Sure/Don’t Know

Question 3c asked:

“Do you foresee any costs or benefits to you from businesses being permitted to sell:
(i) solely in imperial units?
(ii) in imperial units alongside a less prominent metric equivalent?”

Less prominent metric equivalent? What has that got to do with the Government’s choice of measurements agenda? What do they mean by less prominent? Nobody asks for any consumer information to be made harder to see or find.

What is wrong with the metric equivalent being equally prominent? Why bother asking about a less prominent metric equivalent and how can this be helpful to anyone? Its only purpose seems to be a fight against the metric system. This is unhelpful to consumers and traders except for rogue traders who wish to rip off their customers by using smaller units that look deceptively cheaper.

Question 3c should have included options (iii) “In imperial units alongside an equally prominent metric equivalent” and (iv) “Solely in metric units”.

Question 3d asks “Do you have experience of buying solely in imperial units?”. This is simply a marker of age. This is like asking “Do you have experience of buying in £sd?”. If you are asking this question, you might as well add “was it better and, if so, why?”. Without this addition, the question is irrelevant.

A better way of asking Question 3d would have been:

“On a scale of 1-10 where 1 is worst and 10 is best, how would you rate your experience of buying:
(i) Solely in imperial units?
(ii) In dual units?
(iii) Solely in metric units?

Explain each answer in the text box below.”

For each option, respondents could have been given a scale of 1-10 with the additional options:

  • Not Applicable/Does Not Apply to Me/No Experience
  • Does not matter to me
  • Not Sure/Don’t Know

Question 4 asks:

“For Trading Standards,
What potential impacts might there be on regulatory activity, including any costs or benefits?”

This is one question I cannot find anything wrong with. I presume that the Government included this question in the survey before trading standards organisations told them that it will involve lots of costs and no benefits.

Because of its highly biased nature, the consultation exercise may well be greeted by the government as giving it the answer it asked for. It is not, however, worth the paper it is written on and deserves to be thrown forcefully in the bin. Even if it gives the ‘desired’ outcome, the exercise has no validity. There is no examination of the case for the status quo or for using metric only. A weights and measures consultation should consider all options for the future of measurement policy and the survey should reflect that. It should aim to cover the whole spectrum of opinions to allow all respondents to express their views.

While I do not prejudge the outcome of the recent consultation exercise, it is clear to me that it is not a balanced consultation. It is very likely that a significant number of respondents will express a preference either for imperial units only or for imperial units alongside a metric equivalent because these were the only two choices they were offered. Based on this fact alone, the consultation exercise is not a valid test of public opinion and should not be used as any kind of basis for making changes in the law.

References:

8 thoughts on “How imperial units survey design flaws could have been fixed”

  1. On the BBC’s Radio 4 programme “More or Less” – did say they intended to follow up this matter.
    I don’t know when this will be.

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  2. Never mind how poorly-worded the survey was, there was no need for a survey at all.

    Twenty-two years after the introduction of decimal currency, conducting a survey to see if people would like to go back to shillings and old pence, would have been ridiculous.

    Twenty-two years after the final stage of the switch to decimal weights and measures for trade, conducting a survey to see if people want to go back to non-decimal weights and measures is equally ridiculous. This whole affair makes our country a laughing stock.

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  3. As a yank I’m embarrassed and frustrated that – in the very nation that foisted the imperial “system” on the globe – there is active debate to finally rid itself of the arcane. Meanwhile, across the pond, to maintain antiquity or not hasn’t been up for debate on a national scale since about 1977. I’m not sure who the US thinks it’s impressing.

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  4. It has to occur to everyone that the “survey” was flawed on purpose in order to produce an overwhelming result in their favour. The reason it may be taking so long to publish the results is that despite their attempts, the results are not overwhelmingly in their favour. So now they have to fudge the results. 100 000 responses is not much when you consider a population of over 65 million. Yet, if these 100 000 are opposed to any reversion, it has to mean the vast majority of the population are as well opposed.

    If this were the US instead of England, someone by now would have brought forth a lawsuit over the scam. Businesses that can and will lose huge profits in such a regression should be fighting back with the loudest voice.

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  5. m,

    It has been over 50 years(since 1971) since decimal currency was introduced in the UK and almost 60 years (since 1965) when the metric system was introduced. Not 22 years.

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  6. I agree Daniel, it seems quite obvious that they are intentionally being misleading in order to get the result that they desired. It feels like they were hoping that they could cater to that misplaced nostalgia that came on the back of the Brexit vote in a similar way to reintroducing those navy blue “British passports”. Which were ironically just a previous standard from the League of Nations and were never banned in the first place, just look at Croatia. With the Jubilee and various scandals offering a perfect opportunity (so they thought) to try and push it.

    When in reality people have become comfortable in buying stuff in metric units and there is very little appetite in going back. Just a shame there isn’t much appetite to move forward.

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  7. @DanieI,
    The final stage of the switch to decimal weights and measures for trade was in 2000, not 1965. This was when the sale of loose goods switched to metric units, and imperial units ceased to be legal for trade.

    I am well aware that the switch to decimal currency took place in 1971. At risk of repeating my original post, my point remains that carrying out a survey about returning to imperial units, 22 years after they have ceased to be legal for trade, is as ridiculous as the prospect of carrying out a survey into returning to pre-decimal money would have been in 1993.

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  8. The survey had quite a bit about “imperial markings [which] must be no larger or no more prominent than the metric ones”. However the survey missed one very important point – is it reasonable to assume that the more prominent pricing information is the information that will be entered into the weighing device and, where appropriate, be the information printed on the receipt?

    A few years ago, I noticed that one product at the end of the vegetable stand was priced at “£1 per kg/45p per lb” while another product at the opposite end was priced at “99p per kg/ 45p per lb”. Did these two products have the same price or not? Since the kilogram price was the more prominent, I could reasonably assume that the weighing device measured in metric units and that the weight would be displayed on the label or receipt in metric units.

    The survey failed miserably to point out that if the imperial units were displayed more prominently, but metric weights were entered into the weighing device, then a dispute could easily arise should the rounding error result in a higher price being charged than the price being displayed.

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