In praise of the unloaded question

Yesterday, I watched a video of a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee questioning a team of senior folk from the Department for Work and Pensions. The session was about problems with a government IT programme - Universal Credit - brought to light in a recent NAO report (which was widely reported in the press with some hoo-hah). As I watched, I found myself riled. I have not been at all supportive of the approach taken to Universal Credit, but oddly it was more the nature of the committee's questioning that got to me. I woke up this morning realising that the cause was mostly the repeated use of loaded questions.

Wikipedia says that a loaded question is one that, “contains a controversial or unjustified assumption”, viz… “Oi Foden, have you stopped playing with yourself, yes or no?” a playground jibe I remember from my childhood; an answer either way bringing hoots of laughter.

Here are a couple of examples from the session (see transcript p18 & p21) when the committee were questioning a civil servant about the problems with the programme:

Questioner: “...When did you personally, as accounting officer, have your first indication that you … had not set a proper policy framework and business strategy for this programme?...”

Whether there was a lack of ‘a proper policy framework and business strategy’ had not been established with the respondent and so asking him when he realised he hadn’t set one, was bound to lead him to respond as he did…

Respondent: “I think it is worth walking through what we were doing and when, because it did not feel to me as if the entire thing was happening without a plan. If I quote—”

At which point he was interrupted…

Questioner: “...I would be really grateful if you would answer the question .. when were you, the accounting officer with the biggest project in your Department, first alerted to something going wrong?”.

He would have been crazy to respond with a date.

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Later there was the question...

Questioner: “Do you think the pilot was fit for purpose? Yes or no?”

This took me back to the school playground. It seemed to me that it had not been established with the respondent what the purpose actually was. Answering Yes or No would have again been daft. It went on...

Respondent: The (pilot) is testing useful things as we speak. Questioner: Was it fit for purpose? Respondent: It is testing useful things. Questioner: Was it fit for the purpose? Respondent: What purpose did you have in mind? Questioner: No, you— Respondent: For my purpose, it has worked fine, thank you.

It seems to me that the original question was poorly framed. Rather than repeating it when the answer was unsatisfactory, it would have been much better to pick up on what the respondent said and ask something like, “What is the pilot testing?”. This may have led to a better understanding of the purpose of the pilot and the respondent’s understanding of it. Clarity or good quality hanging-rope: opportunity was missed either way.

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There were several other similar exchanges later on.

I wondered why this was happening. Were the questions: born of a poor grasp of the topic; the result of genuine annoyance; a means to unsettle the respondent into revealing things he otherwise wouldn’t; a way of being seen to put on the frighteners; or political rhetoric with some more subtle aim? Perhaps it’s all of the above.  Whatever, I ended up feeling that this emotive questioning was excessive and got in the way.

I can’t help comparing it with John Humphrys’ interview with the BBC ex-Director General George Entwhistle about the McAlpine accusations. Humphrys did a consummate job of quickly exposing the issues, which probably precipitated Entwhistle’s resignation later that day. Humphrys started the interview with the plain question, “What went wrong?”

Use rhetoric to get juices flowing by all means, but understanding will come from asking simple questions; and by listening and responding carefully to the answers.