Tuesday, 28 June 2011

How could the Fairbanking Awards be unfair?

On 14th June 2011, the charity, FairBanking, presented its first four Awards to products that meet its criteria for Financial Wellbeing. Zero-credit questions the fairness of these Awards for the following reasons:

The original consumer research, which led to the development of the Financial Wellbeing Indices is insufficient to correlate findings to the financial wellbeing of the UK adult population as a whole. 

In November / December 2008, a 30 minute online survey was conducted amongst 654 respondents with gross household incomes between £15,000 and £60,000. Approximately 300 questionnaires were completed by each of young workers aged 18 to 29, and family members aged 25 to 39. 

Qualitative research was conducted as a precursor to designing the survey questions and gender quotas, together with a requirement that respondents held a current account, were applied. 

However, in targeting working households of pre-determined age ranges, the coverage of this research was not intended as a total population sample of UK adults and its results cannot apply to this population as a whole.

Furthermore, by conducting the research online, the survey necessarily required a non-probability sample, rendering the calculation of error problematic. Reports show no clear evidence of weighting and as the 2006 MRS guidance on internet research clearly states:

The internet is a limited medium from which to draw a truly representative sample. Research conducted via the internet can only target internet users and, more specifically, it can only target internet users who are prepared to answer online questionnaires.

In 2005, ESOMAR likewise considered issues of non-response, drop-out and survey fatigue in relation to questionnaire length and at 30 minutes, the financial wellbeing of those who chose not to participate fully in the 2008 consumer research is worthy of consideration.

It is also worth noting that throughout October 2008 to January 2009, Communities and Local Government consulted on Digital Inclusion because:

17 million people in the UK still do not use computers and the Internet and there is a strong correlation between digital and social exclusion.  

Reporting the original consumer research from 2008 in “Fair Banking: The Road to Redemption for UK Banks”, the charity’s founder, Antony Elliot, stated quite openly that:

Although these two groups are subjects of the research, it is likely that the conclusions apply more widely to adults in working households with this range of household income between the ages of 18 and 39 – approximately 20% of the UK Adult population. If this assumption is correct the research is relevant to approximately 9 million people.

Thus, at the time of reporting in 2009, the relevance of this research to the wider UK adult population was a) restricted to 20% of that population and b) an assumption - an approach that is entirely in line with professional research reporting.

Despite this, press coverage of the 2011 Awards has undoubtedly taken the view that assessment pertains to the UK Adult population as a whole. For instance, on Monday 20th June, the Daily Mail reported:

In a damning indictment of profit-hungry British banks, just two current accounts in the UK have been judged good enough for a new fair play quality mark.

At what point did assumption become assertion? This is a critical question.

It seems that at some point after the Financial Wellbeing Indices were created in 2008, Fairbanking applied regression techniques to the 7 point Lickert question “How satisfied are you with your overall financial circumstances?” and that from these, a series of component variables for current, savings and credit card accounts were developed. However, to achieve an overall ratings score, components were weighted by a “subjective element” and the origin of this – consumers or a consultant – remains unclear.

In “Fairbanking Ratings: Is UK retail banking showing signs of reform?”, we note that Antony Elliot is no longer the report author, but rather: 

This report is a reflection of many contributions from people both within and outside the banking sector, supporting the aims of The Fairbanking Foundation.

A far cry from Antony’s assumptions in 2009, this document claims a 60% response rate for the charity’s most recent research, which surveyed 45 banking institutions, of which 20 were credit unions. As there are some 48 building societies and more than 280 credit unions that are ABCUL members in the UK alone, never mind however many banks, 27 of these is considerably less than 60%. 

To address non-response, the products of those not approached for original research were reviewed by web-visit, a methodology we ourselves employ when research funding is tight. Appendix 2 sets out the self-assessment questionnaires sent to the 27 participating Banking Institutions and besides that conducted in 2008, no further original research is reported for 2011.

Returning to the Daily Mail article of 20th June it would appear that despite featuring heavily in the credit card section of the 2011 report, Barclays failed to win an Award, because: 

...the High Street giant didn't submit to full Fairbanking testing and so missed out.

How fair is that? The report rated the product highly, but the card did not get an Award? Surely, the Awards can only be fair when based on what is reported from the independent research?

Not only do we question the fairness of presenting some highly rated products as Award winning and others not, but we fail to see how those who have developed products for a niche can benefit from their presentation as mainstream. It is regrettable. We were genuinely impressed by the attention to customer service on a recent visit to Think Banking / Gregory Pennington and can only wonder at their frustration. 

However, perhaps the greatest unfairness is the failure to report accurately what has been rated and by whom, when Fairbanking volunteers have spent two years dedicating their time, energy and commitment to the charity. Whoever is responsible for making such a mess of this worthwhile cause needs to desist.

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