09/04/2011 12:01 EDT | Updated 11/04/2011 05:12 EDT

Federal Government Replicates Two Focus-Group Surveys On Economy, Costing Taxpayers Thousands

Flickr: ~Twon~

OTTAWA - Canadian taxpayers shelled out almost $200,000 last winter for two focus-group surveys that asked virtually the same questions — and delivered the same answers.

The Finance Department and the Privy Council Office, the prime minister's own department, each ordered the surveys with detailed questions about the economy from pollster Ipsos Reid.

The final reports repeat the same conclusions, using almost the same phrasing. The overlap raises questions about waste and efficiency at a time of government restraint.

"Generally speaking, participants were not looking for a quick fix to Canada's budgetary deficit; rather most felt that a gradual and steady return to balanced budgets was appropriate," says a February 2011 report for the Privy Council Office, which cost $76,000.

A month later, based on similar questions to other focus groups, Finance received a $110,548 report from Ipsos Reid that concluded:

"Generally speaking, participants were not looking for a quick fix to Canada's budgetary deficit; rather there was general agreement that a gradual and steady return to balanced budgets was appropriate."

The two reports, posted on the web in the last few weeks, were based on focus-groups held in cities across Canada.

The PCO contract, awarded mid-January, included 12 focus-group sessions in six communities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Kitchener, Ont., from Jan. 31 to Feb. 10.

The Finance Department contract, awarded just six weeks later, included 10 focus-group sessions in five communities, including Vancouver, Toronto and Kitchener, Ont., from March 7-14.

The conclusions are strikingly similar. One report (Finance) says "participants tended to express measured optimism when asked to reflect on the state of Canada's economy."

The parallel section from the other report says "participants tended to express cautious optimism when discussing Canada economic prospects ..."

Both reports found little support for corporate tax cuts. Both said participants knew little about the Economic Action Plan, the government's recession-fighting package, except for the Home Renovation Tax Credit. Both said participants were "split," with half favouring issues with a "social focus" as the most important, while the others cited the economy.

A Finance Department spokesman says the surveys were designed to consult Canadians' views and concerns before the March 22, 2011, budget.

"Given the impact of a budget on Canadians, there was a need to have the most topical and up-to-date information possible," Jack Aubry said in an email.

"A snapshot of public opinion was conducted in February, along with a follow-up in March in order to determine the impact, if any, that recent domestic and global events had on shifting perceptions."

Aubry added: "The research methodology differed significantly and the results are far from homogenous, though — naturally — some overlap did occur."

The second report in March, conducted for Finance, nowhere cites the earlier report in February for PCO, nor does it refer to any effort to measure whether opinions changed between February and March because of domestic and global events.

An election was triggered shortly after the budget was tabled, and it became the core of the Conservative party's platform.

A spokesman for Ipsos Reid declined to comment, citing client confidentiality.

"Ipsos Reid never comments publicly on any matter concerning data or studies released into the public domain by any client that is not posted to our site," John Wright, senior vice president, said in an email.

"Any acknowledgment would breach the confidentiality agreements we have with all of our private, public or not-for-profit clients."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been in hot water before over alleged wasteful spending on government polling, focus-groups and surveys.

The government spent more than $31 million on public-opinion sampling during its first fiscal year in office, 2006-2007, more than any earlier government. The previous high-water mark was that of the Liberal government under Paul Martin, with $29.1 million spent in 2004-05.

The embarrassing revelation by the Ottawa Citizen prompted the government to rein in spending on pollsters in late 2007, though there were later accusations the money was simply redirected to more intense media-monitoring.

A spokesman for the Privy Council Office, Raymond Rivet, noted that overall government costs for public-opinion research have been falling steadily since 2007, from $24.8 million in 2007-2008 to $7.9 million in 2010-2011.

While opposition leader in 2003, Harper disparaged opinion surveys.

"This party will not take its position based on public-opinion polls," he told the House of Commons in January that year. "We will not take a stand based on focus groups."

Harper at the time was referring to whether Canada should join any U.S.-led war in Iraq.