SCoPEd Consultation: Methodologically Challenged

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Richard House Ph.D., former Senior Lecturer in Psychotherapy, Counselling and Psychology at the University of Roehampton, subjects the SCoPEd framework consultation exercise to critical analysis.


Introduction and Context

In this commentary I wish to deconstruct, and subject to critical analysis, the apparent methodology used by the psy sponsor organisations in their recent SCoPEd consultation process. In precipitating a process that could end up having major implications for the practice of many thousands of psy practitioners, organisations surely have a grave responsibility to ensure that, as far as possible, any research that is carried out is methodologically robust, and transparently fair and unbiased. In the case of the SCoPEd consultation, I will show below that this is, alas, very far from being the case – which, in turn, places substantial doubt on the reliability of the initial findings as recently announced.

A Fair Consultation?

The first observation to make about the consultation process is that the most important question of all wasn’t even posed – i.e. “Do you think that it is necessary and appropriate for the psy organisations to develop an explicit written framework for competent practice in the therapy field?”.

Rather, the need for a competency framework is merely asserted and assumed by “organisational fiat”, as a background given; and only then do respondents answer the questions posed, having already tacitly and implicitly agreed to the need for such a framework by the way the consultation has positioned them, and by the very act of them completing the consultation.

It should by no means be tacitly or casually assumed that everyone who completed the consultation necessarily agrees that such a framework is necessary; yet there is no mechanism within the consultation as implemented to discover this vital information. One has to ask whether this was an oversight, or a quite deliberate “positioning” by those conducting the process.

So one has to ask, further, why were members not asked, first and foremost, to give their view on whether a generic framework is necessary and appropriate? Although of course this has to be speculative, it might conceivably be because by doing this, it would then have been far more difficult to position members into accepting the principle of a framework per se without any debate. And as mentioned above, the very “democratic” act of completing the consultation can easily be read as giving tacit legitimacy to that which, at the outset, should have been open to discussion and possible refutation, rather than merely assumed as an uncontested datum.

Thus, a fair and proportionate consultation that was genuinely aiming to find out members’ views – as opposed to one merely seeking rubber-stamping legitimation for a pre-decided view – would have sent all potential respondents both the proposed framework and a document of equal length critiquing the need for a proposed framework. This would then have left members free to make up their own minds, “un-nudged”, with an accompanying, genuinely open-ended set of consultation questions.

As it is, a methodological “coach-and-horses” can be driven through this whole process, as anyone with any expertise in research methodology will know. (I can just imagine what a group of sharp, methodology-savvy Roehampton PsychD research students would have made of this! – and it wouldn’t have been pretty…)

It’s therefore extremely disappointing to this commentator, at least, that this consultation wasn’t far better informed methodologically. Moreover, this in turn is, at the very least, consistent with the suspicions of organisations like the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy that this is yet another choreographed, top-down power move by our field’s psy organisations, still intent on importing the dead hand of state regulation into our work.

An “Independent” Research Company?

We read in the rubric from the organisational sponsors of “[t]he consultation exercise, which was run by an independent research company on behalf of BACP, the British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC) and the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), … [and that] … More than 3,000 members and stakeholders submitted a comment as part of the consultation process. These are currently being analysed by the independent research company for the key themes, which will be published in the summer.” (my emphasis)

The phrase “was run by” needs to be carefully interrogated and unpacked. It is indeed potentially reassuring to be told that the research company “running” the consultation process was “independent”; but such cosy reassurance is of no substance unless respondents are told in detail what the term “running” actually means in practice. For example, to have any methodological confidence in the consultation’s reported findings, the public needs to know what written remit the “independent research company” was given by the sponsoring organisations prior to the consultation exercise. This is critical, because it needs to be totally transparent to what extent the research company is, indeed, genuinely “independent” – e.g. merely in the sense that they carried out the data-collecting exercise, or in the sense that they themselves decided on the questions to be asked in it, and how those questions were framed.

Moreover, regarding the analysis of the comments received, we also need to know what, if any, guidance was given to the “independent” company by the sponsoring organisations, in terms of how the company analyses and presents the qualitative findings. If this information is not completely transparent, respondents will have no way of knowing whether the presentation of the results is a fair and representative depiction of the actual feedback which respondents gave in their thousands.

The Questions Themselves

Regarding the actual questions posed in the consultation procedure: first, respondents were asked, “Q1a – How will the framework affect clients or patients being able to find the right kind of help to meet their needs?” (my italics).

First, note that the tell-tale word “will” is used here, rather than “would”. If this were a genuinely open-minded consultation that hadn’t already pre-decided the desired outcome, the word “will” would most certainly not have been used in this question. Rather, the hypothetical “would” should and would have been used.

This is by no means a minor, semantics-oriented issue – for the way these questions are worded will have a major impact in creating the background “mood-music” to ease the driving through of any required institutional agenda. Those composing the wording of these survey questions will have been well aware of this (and if the sponsoring organisations weren’t, for any reason, then any reputable “research company” worth its salt certainly would have been).

In my view, and strictly speaking, respondents who were expecting a fair and open consultation which was not already positioning them by the way the questions were posed should have refused to answer this question. A much fairer and objective wording for this question would have been something like the following:

Q1aWould a framework like the one suggested have any impact, negative or positive, on clients/patients being able to find the right kind of help to meet their needs; and if so, how?”.

The key point here is that such a question might well have yielded significantly different results from the question that was actually posed (on which, see below).

Indeed, all four consultation questions commit this elementary methodological error in using the weasel word “will”. So, in relation to question 1b, a fair, more objective wording would have been as follows:

Q1b – Would a framework like the one suggested have any effect, negative or positive, on employers being able to establish which counsellors and psychotherapists to employ in their service; and if so, how?”

And for question 1c:

“Q1c – Would a framework like the one suggested have any effect, negative or positive, on trainees in their understanding of the pathways open to them for core training with adults; and if so, what and how?”

And finally for 1d:

“Q1d – Would a framework like the one suggested have any effect on professional bodies being able to promote the skills and services of their members; and if so, how?”

If the employed research company wished to test the reliability of the first reported consultation results, they could quite easily carry out a much smaller survey of practitioners who did not complete the first survey, using these alternatively worded questions. The results of such a survey would then provide clear evidence on the extent to which the original survey results are reliable and representative, or otherwise. Without doing such a follow-up, the reliability of the original survey results must remain in question.

Finally, regarding the raw presented statistical results, it’s clear that even when we ignore the multiple biasing effects of the way in which the whole consultation process was conducted (referred to in detail above), around 25 per cent of respondents – a considerable minority – were not happy with the proposed framework. If I were one of the psy organisations wishing to see this framework implemented, I certainly wouldn’t be feeling at all triumphant about these initial results.

In Conclusion

I have raised a number of core methodological issues in this commentary, and I ask the sponsoring organisations to reply to the concerns I have raised here in adequate detail.

If there is no full response, the silence will be deafening, and the many thousands of concerned practitioners will no doubt reach their own conclusions.

 

Dr Richard House, C.Psychol., AFBPsS, Cert.Couns.

Former Senior Lecturer in Psychotherapy, Counselling and Psychology, University of Roehampton; former PsychD research supervisor; former counsellor and psychotherapist in General Practice (1990–2007); author of Therapy Beyond Modernity (2003) and co-editor (with Del Loewenthal) of Against and For CBT (2008).

richardahouse@hotmail.com

 

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