Better procurement, better outcomes

Market research provides evidence which is critical for effective decision making in government and therefore needs to be carefully commissioned, urges the Market Research Society’s Jane Frost.

Market and social research, whether qualitative or quantitative, is the provision of systematic information to assist and guide business and policy decisions. Within this overall framework, the specific objectives of research projects and services are quite diverse and can be designed to meet virtually any need in government; as long as the research has been conducted appropriately, by experienced and skilled research professionals.

The role of market and social research in government is crucial – for example in understanding public behaviour and motivations to manage demand and increase engagement, in making decisions on which policy path to take, how to implement it and in understanding its impact, and in knowing how to recruit and talk to those members of the public such as the harder to reach.

Procuring research
Historically, research has been procured by government from a variety of private sector providers – large, small, specialists and full service plus some academic and social science institutes. However, with research budgets having been tightened and research specialist departments such as COI having closed, government research procurement is undergoing a period of significant change.

The pressure for the procurement of high level intellectual capital services, such as research services to fit with procurement models used cost-effectively in the procurement of products and low-level servicing requirements, is strong. However, such approaches are highly unsuitable for the procuring of research or indeed any other highly specialist service. Using standard ‘one size fits all’ approaches runs the risk of creating significant obstacle to SMEs participation in government research procurements; stifling innovation, restricting access to the latest thinking with the result that government may not get the right research which provides the return on investment required. An example of this is procuring research by methodology, rather than by considering the research challenge that needs to be addressed and then seeking a solution that addresses that problem in the best way. To procure research methodology is to strip research down to its tools, rather than the more appropriate consideration of the knowledge and skill that a good researcher will bring to any research project. 

Critical evidence
The Market Research Society (MRS) is the world’s largest research association and the UK’s professional body, trade association and regulator for market, social and opinion research. It represents 75 per cent of all the research businesses in the UK and on the issue of public sector procurement, its members – most of which are SMEs – have been calling for change. Market and social research provides evidence which is critical for effective decision making in government and it therefore needs to be carefully commissioned. Despite this, it is not always done effectively and the MRS has been campaigning on behalf of its members for a change to the status quo. 

Good procurement is also essential. It should be based on an understanding of the market dynamics from which the client is sourcing, it should reduce bureaucracy, increase transparency on both sides and encourage innovation and creativity. But this isn’t always the case and MRS has been making strides in working with government to improve procurement practices, moving away from what can sometimes be a blanket ‘one size fits all’ approach to a more flexible and fruitful alternative.

The researcher’s point of view
As part of MRS’ consultation with its membership in 2012 on the issue of procurement, research agency Step Beyond surveyed members of the Independent Consultants’ Group (ICG), a 400-strong group of research professionals. The extract from the survey report, below, highlights what SMEs in the sector are calling for when it comes to public procurement and government support:

“The issue from my point of view was that the client demanded the fees as a condition of remaining on the roster, which felt like an abuse of power,” said a founder of a market research agency who spoke to MRS about her experience. “The audit involved a questionnaire of over 100 questions and the auditor spent a day in our building, interviewing everyone in the company.

“The areas we were said to ‘fail’ included such minor issues as not having passport photos of employees in their personnel file, and not having a weekly record of fire alarm practice.  I can see why they might need to do this for major suppliers of goods, but we had only had one small project from them – and no guarantee of more. It was the assumptive and blanket nature of the demand, not to mention the inappropriate nature of the investigation in relation to the services we supply, which was so galling.”

Towards ‘intelligent procurement’
Following the closure of the Central Office of Information in 2012, MRS has been engaging with the new Government Procurement Service (GPS) to advise on the procurement of research services. Extensive consultation with the membership of MRS was undertaken, providing recommendations on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of research procurement. Prior to that, in 2011, MRS was involved in a pan-European research response to the EC’s Green Paper on modernising EU public procurement.  MRS is also, in partnership with the Social Research Association, leading a Research Commissioning Group to improve procurement practices in the public sector. The Group includes procurement staff working within government as well as researchers from across the field.

From this work a picture of intelligent procurement of research has emerged. At its heart, this is a move away from a one size fits all approach towards a flexible, inclusive, transparent and streamlined alternative which benefits both providers and commissioners.   Crucially it requires commissioners to distinguish services based on intellectual capital from supplies of material products or services such as hotels and catering.

Intelligent procurement involves a reduction in cost; huge cost savings and increased return on investment are possible with the right approach and focus.

MRS Company Partners and members that adhere to the MRS Code of Conduct should be used to ensure ethical and reliable findings on which good decisions can be based.

Research should be procured by business issue, not by methodology and it should not be procured on the basis of lowest cost, but marking that includes considerations as to quality. It should be procured as a two-stage or restricted processe to reduce wasted efforts.

It should also be procured with less administration in mind; research experts should be used in the procurement process to ensure the right decisions are made and that there is no unnecessary activity for providers or commissioners.

SMEs should be supported when procuring research. The research market is SME‑dominated and procurement should be open to suppliers both large and small. Any barriers to SMEs should be removed such as onerous auditing processes and volume discounts on costs incurred as part of the services procured.

What’s more, standards should be ensured. The decisions made on the basis of research must be reliable and ethical if they are to be defended.

Thought should also be given to innovation.

Rosters should be flexible and open to new providers and methodologies as they evolve. Providers should also feel able to give feedback on the process to allow improvements to be made – the existing ‘Mystery Shopper Scheme’ for SMEs is a good working example of this.

Guaranteeing good research
MRS is both membership organisation and regulator for market and social research, and its Code of Conduct sets out the standards to which its members (either as qualified individual researchers or accredited Company Partners) must adhere. These are regularly updated to take into account methodological developments such as the use of social media, or on ethical matters such as best practice on research with children. The MRS Code of Conduct is supported by robust compliance framework including disciplinary and complaint procedures and an advisory helpline, Codeline.

The UK government recognises MRS’ role as the regulator and liaises frequently with MRS on all issues regarding research practice. Only research conducted by MRS members and Company Partners is regulated research. MRS is campaigning for all government research to use only those providers listed in the Research Buyer’s Guide which MRS produces – if research procured is going to inform policy and business decisions, it needs to be relied on, ethical and able to withstand scrutiny (internally, from the press and from the public). The MRS Research Buyer’s Guide lists MRS Company Partners and organisations with MRS members, their contact details, geographic area and research specialisms. 

All organisations and individuals listed in the Research Buyer’s Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct. Only using MRS members and Company Partners ensures reliable and ethical research at all times. Procuring in this way also helps to manage risk around cost and value for money.  The former COI recognised the Code of Conduct and set out that all research procured should adhere to the Code.

Final thoughts
Professional research can best be delivered through an enlightened procurement process and there is excellent scope for the research and procurement communities to work together. MRS can advise buyers how to best commission research in line with fair business practice and in a way most likely to deliver research rooted in insight and evidence, so that good decisions can be made – on policy and in business. We will continue to work with the GPS and Research Council UK Shared Service Centre (which is taking the lead in the development of the new research framework) to ensure the voice of both SMEs and larger agencies is heard and that ‘intelligent procurement’ practices are taken up to benefit both those procuring research and those providing it. The UK is the second largest research market in the world (second only to the US) and the UK research sector is recognised as leading the way in the development of creative and innovative research approaches. The public sector should be making the most of this.

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