Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2011: Core Module - Attitudes to Government, the Economy and Public Services in Scotland

This report uses SSA data from 1999 onwards to explore changing attitudes to government, the economy and public services. It also discusses findings on who people think should be responsible for providing and paying for particular public services.

This document is part of a collection

1 Introduction

Background and context

1.1 2011 was an eventful year in Scottish politics. The Scottish Parliament elections in May saw the SNP form the first majority government in the Parliament's 12 year history, securing 45% of the constituency and 44% of the list vote. The Scottish elections followed the first full year of Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government in Westminster, a year in which Scotland's relations with the rest of the UK received increasing attention. The Scotland Bill was published by the UK Government in November 2010, with the aim of devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament, including additional powers to vary the rate of income tax and powers over stamp duty and landfill taxes. Meanwhile, within the term of the current parliament the SNP will hold a referendum on whether or not people in Scotland would like the Scottish Government to negotiate for Scotland to become an independent country. Thus while it remains unclear exactly how Scotland's relationship to the rest of the UK will develop over the next four years, it was clear by mid-2011 that this relationship would change.

1.2 These political developments took place against a background of ongoing economic austerity, uncertainty and public sector budget constraint. Scotland and the rest of the UK officially exited recession in late 2009,[1] but the recovery was muted, with low economic growth between 2010 and 2011[2]. The UK economy returned to recession in April 2012 (at the time of writing, figures for Scotland for the first quarter of 2012 were not yet available).[3] While growth has been low, the price of basic goods has continued to rise placing increasing strain on household budgets and businesses (ONS, 2011). 2010 and 2011 also saw significant cuts to public sector budgets in the UK. The Scottish Government's total budget for 2011-12 was reduced as a result of UK Government cuts to public spending. In the Scottish Government budgets that followed (Scottish Government, November 2010 and Scottish Government, September 2011), although some areas were protected (for example, the NHS), budgets in other areas were cut. Meanwhile, a pay freeze for Scottish public sector workers (with exceptions for workers earning under £21,000 per year) was announced in November 2010, and extended for another year in September 2011 in order to prevent compulsory redundancies (Scottish Government, September 2011). At the same time, Scottish Government funding for local government was frozen at the same amount as it had been in the previous year.

1.3 The 2011 Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) took place against this backdrop of political change and economic austerity, with fieldwork from June to October 2011. SSA is an annual survey of social and political attitudes in Scotland. Run by ScotCen Social Research since 1999, it provides a reliable and robust picture of changing public opinion over time. This report presents findings from the Scottish Government 'core module' of questions on public attitudes to government, the economy and public services. It reflects on how opinion on each of these areas may have been shaped by the changing political and economic context. The core module has been funded by the Scottish Government Office of the Chief Researcher since 2004 and in many cases continues time series begun in 1999. The 2011 module also included a new section on attitudes to who should fund and provide different public services.

Why monitor public attitudes to government, the economy and public services?

1.4 In their paper on trust in government, Christensen and Laegreid (2005) argue that 'public opinion about governmental institutions is quite inconsistent and ambivalent and is characterized more by cognitive complexity than by consistency'. Given the inherent challenges in capturing such complexities of opinion, why is it nonetheless important to try and understand attitudes to government and how these have changed over time? And why might it be important to measure perceptions of the economy and public services, alongside more objective performance measures like Gross Domestic Product or hospital waiting times?

1.5 From the perspective of politicians, the most obvious answer to these questions is that public opinion on these issues matters insofar as it affects voting. If the public is satisfied with the performance of the government, it is less likely to vote them out at the next election. But in a modern democracy, governments are not only interested in engaging the public at election times. The recent emphasis on co-production of public services (as discussed in the Christie Commission report, 2011) emphasises the role of the public in shaping the future of public services in Scotland. Meanwhile, the Scottish Government has been keen to engage all sections of Scottish society in a 'national conversation' about Scotland's constitutional future. And the UK Government, too, is increasingly interested in mechanisms for more 'direct democracy' - for example, the right to initiate a referendum ballot on any local issue or veto council tax increases where these are deemed excessive. Yet all of these initiatives rely on the public being interested and willing to engage with government outside of the ballot box. This willingness is likely to depend in large part on their views of government - for example, whether they trust it to act in their interests and make fair decisions, whether they believe it will listen to their views, and whether they think it has the power to do anything about those views. Thus understanding who holds positive and negative views of government can help government understand their likelihood of engaging with such developments and debates and plan strategies for engaging those whose voices may otherwise go unheard.

1.6 In relation to public services, the Scottish Government's national indicators, which set out key targets against which their progress in meeting strategic objectives can be assessed, include a commitment to 'improve people's perceptions of the quality of public services'.[4] As noted in the 2010 core module report (Ormston and Reid, 2011), the distinction between satisfaction and service quality is important here - services may be improving on various objective indicators (for example NHS waiting times, and the proportion of trains or buses running to time), but this may not always be reflected in public opinion. However, subjective perceptions of services do matter - both because voters will hold governments to account on the basis of these subjective perceptions, and because objective measures of quality may overlook key elements of service design and delivery that particularly matter to the public and to services users. Meanwhile, measuring perceptions of how public services should be funded and who should provide them can help those tasked with planning services to understand how far the public may be prepared to tolerate some of the changes suggested as potential ways of delivering efficiencies in a context of budgetary constraint.

Report structure

1.7 The remainder of the report is structured as follows:

  • Chapter two discusses changing attitudes to the Scottish Government and Parliament and UK Government across a range of key areas (trust in government, awareness of government activities, perceptions of responsiveness to the public, and perceptions of efficacy)
  • Chapter three changing views of the economy and living standards in Scotland
  • Chapter four summarises views on changing standards in public services with respect to the health service, education and public transport
  • Chapter five focuses on perceptions of influence over how Scotland is run and responsibility for standards in key policy areas
  • Chapter six discusses attitudes towards who should provide and fund particular public services (focusing particularly on care for older people)
  • Chapter seven summarises the key findings and conclusions.

Research questions

1.8 This report presents findings on three key questions:

About the data

1.9 The Scottish Social Attitudes survey (SSA) is based on interviews with representative probability samples of the Scottish population. In 2011, the sample size was 1,197.[5] Interviews are conducted in respondents' homes, using computer assisted personal interviewing technology. Most of the interview is conducted face-to-face by a ScotCen interviewer, but some questions each year are asked in a self-completion section. The survey has achieved a response rate of between 54% and 65% in each year since 1999 (in 2011, the response rate was 55%). The data is weighted to correct for over-sampling, non-response bias and to ensure it reflects the sex-age profile of the Scottish population. Further technical details about the survey are included in Annex B.

1.10 While the analysis in this report focuses particularly on 2011 data, extensive use is made of earlier years of SSA. It also builds on the findings presented in previous SSA reports on attitudes to government and public services (particularly Bromley and Given, 2005, Curtice, 2007, Given and Ormston, 2007a and b, Ormston and Sharp, 2007a and b, Ormston, 2008, Ormston, 2010, and Ormston and Reid, 2011).

Analysis and reporting conventions

1.11 All percentages cited in this report are based on the weighted data (see Annex B for details) and are rounded to the nearest whole number. All differences described in the text (between years, or between different groups of people) are statistically significant at the 95% level or above, unless otherwise specified. This means that the probability of having found a difference of at least this size if there was no actual difference in the population is 5% or less.[6] The term 'significant' is used in this report to refer to statistical significance, and is not intended to imply substantive importance. Further details of significance testing and multivariate analysis conducted for this report is included in Annex B.

Use of 'Scottish Government' and 'Scottish Executive' in this report

1.12 On 3rd September 2007, the ruling administration took the decision to change the name 'Scottish Executive' to 'Scottish Government'. Questions in SSA 2009 therefore referred to the 'Scottish Government' rather than the 'Scottish Executive'. However, the term 'Scottish Executive' is used in this report when referring to findings from 2007 and earlier.[7] Footnotes and endnotes to tables and charts provide further details on any changes to question wording over time.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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