Public spending and the ‘info-effect’

Public spending and the ‘info-effect’

Survey experiments on attitudes to public spending help to underscore cross-party commitment to universal free health, support for less generous welfare spending and substantial opposition to international aid

As part of research conducted for the Public Administration Select Committee, YouGov recently sought to measure British attitudes to government spending on a range of commitments, and to what extent these are affected when respondents are given extra information about the cost and proportional size of individual departmental budgets or spending items. This included testing attitudes in both domestic and overseas areas.

In both cases, respondents were posed slightly different versions of the same question about whether the UK government should increase, decrease or maintain current spending levels.

In the second version of the question, respondents were first shown some explanatory text about how much the government recently spent in a one-year period. They were then asked the same question about whether they preferred to increase, maintain or decrease spending, except this version of the question further included details on how much each item cost over the past year – both as a percent of overall public spending by the UK government and as the actual amount of money (approximately).

No spending item showed a swing in preference from ‘increase’ to ‘decrease’ between the two samples, perhaps unsurprisingly.

But there were prominent shifts of majority or plurality preference that helped to illustrate a kind of ‘info-effect’, whereby telling respondents how much government commitments actually cost in proportion to the overall budget tended to reduce the number of those favouring increased spending, and either leveled out the balance between support for ‘increase’ versus ‘maintain’, or shifted overall preference towards the latter.

Several areas also differ from this pattern in ways that help to reflect the national mood on hot topics including health, welfare, Europe and international aid.

Domestic spending

In the domestic category, two different samples were shown slightly different questions. In the first case, a nationally representative sample of 1982 British adults was asked the following:

‘Below is a list of items of government spending. For each one, please say whether you think the UK government should increase the amount of money it spends, or decrease the amount of money it spends, or should keep the amount of money it spends about the same as it is now.’

In the second case, a nationally representative sample of 1609 British adults was shown the following explanatory text about how much the government recently spent in a one-year period:

‘In a one-year period from 2011 – 2012, total public spending by the UK government came to about £665 billion’.

These respondents were then asked a similar question as posed to the first sample, except it also included details of how much each item cost over the past year, both as a percent of overall public spending by the UK government and as the actual amount of money (approximately) – e.g. ‘State pensions (11% OR £74 billion)’.

Responses in the first sample show majority or plurality support for increased spending in 6 out of 9 areas of government spending, including state pensions, transport, education, police, defence and the National Health Service (NHS), while a majority and plurality respectively prefer to keep spending levels on Culture and Justice the same as now.

In the second sample, the number of those in favour of additional spending drops in each case and by an overall average of 10 percentage points. In many cases, the number of those saying they want increased spending either falls slightly below or broadly into line with those who favour maintaining current spending.

Table 1: For each one, please say whether you think the United Kingdom should increase the amount of money it spends, or decrease the amount of money it spends, or should keep the amount of money it spends about the same as it is now.

Survey 1

Survey 2

Survey 1

Survey 2

Survey 1

Survey 2

Total
increase

%

Total keep
the
same

%

Total
decrease

%

Welfare benefits, such as housing, disability and employment allowance

24

17

33

28

37

45

State pensions

55

42

33

41

5

7

Transport, such as buses, trains, air travel (and coastguard)

46

36

40

42

8

12

Education, such as pre-schools and schools

55

44

35

41

4

6

Culture, Media and Sport, such as museums, libraries, parks and sport

20

14

52

49

22

27

Police and crime prevention

55

45

36

41

4

4

Justice, such as prisons and the courts system

35

24

45

48

13

16

Defence, such as the UK's Army, Navy and Air Force

40

28

35

42

19

21

National Health Service, such as hospitals, GPs, social care, dentistry, eye care

68

57

22

29

4

6

*Questions asked on April 11 - 12 did not include the item-cost figures

Fieldwork for Survey 1 was conducted online between 11-12 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1982 British Adults. Fieldwork for Survey 2 was conducted online between 14-15 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1609 British Adults. In both cases, the data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

In other words, there’s a kind of ‘info-effect’ as mentioned above, where telling people about actual cost tends to level out the balance between those choosing ‘increase’ and ‘maintain’, or shifts preference more towards the latter (such as Justice, where the gap in preference for maintain over increase rises from 45% versus 35% to 48% versus 24%).

Several items of on this list stand out for how they differ from these patterns. While support for NHS spending sees a similar drop, there’s no leveling out between those who prefer to increase and maintain simply because support for additional spending in this area remains so high. Only Conservative respondents see a near leveling out between those preferring to increase and maintain spending in Sample 2, with continued majorities in favour of increased spending across Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP supporters.

Hence, as the figures help to remind us, and as other opinion studies have shown over the last thirty years, the British public retains strong support across the political spectrum for the principle of a publically funded, national health service.

Other items that stand out are culture and welfare. Again, the info-effect in the second sample reduces overall support for increased spending in each case. But this time, both items see a fall in support for both increasing and maintaining current spending (marginally in the case of culture).

On welfare, these numbers also potentially reinforce the findings from other, long-running studies such as the British Social Attitudes Survey, which suggest that British attitudes to welfare are hardening across the political spectrum.

Foreign spending

The same survey process was then repeated for a list of items of government spending on foreign policy. As the comparison of results shows in Table 2, the introduction of additional information about the cost of spending items had little perceptible difference on responses between the first and second sample. This could be because the percentage costs of foreign policy items look significantly smaller than domestic items and prompt less of a response. It could also demonstrate a greater sense of detachment from debates on foreign policy.

Notwithstanding, responses provide some clear indications on public priorities in foreign policy.

In a list of eight foreign policy items, a strong majority supports maintaining current levels of funding for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Similar majorities support current levels of spending on the intelligence services, reflecting other findings in the YouGov study indicating that terrorism is strongly regarded as the greatest international threat to Britain. (See results for this question here)

Table 2: For each one, please say whether you think the United Kingdom should increase the amount of money it spends, or decrease the amount of money it spends, or should keep the amount of money it spends about the same as it is now.

Survey 1

Survey 2

Survey 1

Survey 2

Survey 1

Survey 2

Total
increase

%

Keep
the
same

%

Total
decrease

%

Intelligence services, such as MI5 and MI6 (0.3% OR £2 billion)

28

25

54

55

11

11

Peacekeeping Operations in places such as Africa, Haiti, Cyprus and the Middle East (0.6% OR £4 billion)

9

7

38

34

46

50

Maintaining the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons system (0.3% OR £2 billion)

11

11

48

46

31

33

International aid to poorer countries (1.3% OR £9 billion)

9

8

26

24

59

59

British council - which promotes UK cultural relationships with other countries (0.03% OR £0.2 billion)

11

9

42

40

38

41

The United Kingdom's financial contribution to the European Union (1.2% OR £8 billion)

3

3

25

24

63

64

BBC World Service (0.04% OR £0.3 billion)

13

9

49

49

28

32

Foreign and Commonwealth Office - which promotes UK interests and protects UK citizens overseas through embassies and diplomats (0.3% OR £2 billion)

12

11

56

58

23

21

*Questions asked on April 15 - 16 did not include the item-cost figures

Fieldwork for Survey 1 was conducted online between 15-16 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1952 British Adults. Fieldwork for Survey 2 was conducted online between 16-17 April, 2013, with a total sample of 1937 British Adults. In both cases, the data has been weighted and the results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.

A strong plurality (nearly half) want to keeping spending on the BBC World Service the same as now, while Britons are near evenly split between a preference to maintain or decrease funding for the British Council. Attitudes to spending on the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons system shows nearly half of the public favours maintaining current spending (48% in Survey 1/ 46% in Survey 2) versus 31% and 33% respectively who favour ‘decrease’. This item also splits respondents more evidently along party lines, with Conservative and UKIP supporters broadly in favour of maintaining spending while a majority of Lib Dems and a smaller plurality of Labour support a decrease. (See here for more on attitudes to the nuclear deterrent)

Several areas also show significant majority support for a decrease in spending:

  • 63% in Sample 1 and 64% in Sample 2 support a decrease in the United Kingdom's financial contribution to the European Union, versus roughly a quarter preferring to maintain current spending levels.
  • 59% in both samples support a decrease in providing international aid to poorer countries, again versus roughly a quarter preferring to maintain current levels.
  • 46% of respondents want to decrease spending on peacekeeping operations in places such as Africa, Haiti, Cyprus and the Middle East, versus 38% wanting to maintain (This gap increases slightly in the second sample including cost information to 50% versus 34% respectively).

See full results

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