Bad Apples Spoil Survey Population

Steven Brown, Senior Associate Editor

I’m suspicious of poll and survey results—always have been. Using the opinions of a small, supposedly representative sub-set of the population has never seemed to me like an accurate way to represent the sentiment of the population as a whole. If I had a better understanding of statistics, maybe I could put more faith in opinion polls—but, unfortunately, I did poorly in statistics class.

Simply put, I’ve always felt that a lot of room exists in opinion polls for capricious, or potentially false, responses. Recent news out of Southern California does nothing to improve my opinion of opinion poll results and their use as indicators of reality.

According to a report published in mid-March by the Reuters news service, employees of Southern California Edison hacked into a database containing contact information that was to be used in a customer satisfaction survey. The employees—at least 12 of them, according to Reuters—changed phone numbers in the database to those of friends and family.

Instead of surveying a pool of random, unbiased parties, SCE was essentially polling Mom, Dad and the next-door neighbor, and asking them what they thought of the job SCE was doing. To what extent the survey population was tainted had not yet been reported at the time of this writing, but that’s irrelevant. Any amount of tinkering with the survey population discredits the entirety of the survey’s results.

SCE launched an investigation into the problem after an anonymous tip and reportedly will take disciplinary action against the employees who perpetrated the hack.

SCE also promised to repay funds—potentially millions of dollars—it received based on the high marks from these customer satisfaction surveys. According to the Reuters report, utility regulators had approved $28 million from 1997 through 2000 for SCE based on the results of customer satisfaction surveys. Potential financial rewards of $10 million for 2001 and 2002 were still pending before regulators, according to Reuters. The amount SCE might have to pay back was not known when this article went to print.

Obviously, SCE is doing the right thing here. It appears that a few proverbially bad apples—the dozen or so employees that allegedly hacked into the survey database—are spoiling the bunch. SCE shouldn’t be viewed negatively in light of this situation.

But this situation does point to a real challenge that faces the utility industry. As long as funding is to be made available—or penalties are to be imposed—based on data utilities supply to regulators, the utilities have to find some way to assure the reliability, accuracy and objectivity of that data. Outage statistics, customer satisfaction ratings and the like must maintain their validity.

Corporate malfeasance dominates newspaper headlines and seems to lead every evening newscast of late. During this time, however, the power delivery part of the utility industry has managed to keep itself almost entirely on the straight-and-narrow. It’s imperative that stories like this one out of Southern California continue to be anomalies.

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