Giving a voice to the silent majority

Market researchSince the general election last spring, the new coalition government has, like most new administrations, introduced a considerable number of policy changes and new programmes, alongside the much-reported deep budget cuts.  

In this very new and challenging landscape, market and social research has an even more important role to play for civil servants and professionals working at all levels in government. Accountability, evidence-based decision making, public views, cost efficiency, ROI and making the right policy decisions – as well as the right political ones – are all key issues that sit at the forefront of decision-makers’ minds.  

“It’s a common misconception that the public sector has stopped commissioning research and seeking consultancy support. With tighter budgets and the raft of new policies and programmes that the coalition government has brought in, research is actually becoming even more useful,” says Sinéad Jefferies, director at Opinion Leader, a MRS Company Partner. “However, the commissioners are becoming more stringent in defining the benefits of research, so it’s about making sure the research will genuinely add value and isn’t just nice to know.”

Research that matters
The challenge for decisionmakers is to identify what kind of research will be most helpful and where to source the most effective research from. There are many kinds of research which have been used to inform public sector policy and decision making, including:
• Attitudinal – to assess perceptions and opinions relating to customer satisfaction and preference in the provision of services and products.
• Policy development, implementation and evaluation – to evaluate each stage of complex policy development.
• Public consultation – to acclimatise government thinking with public opinion and to provide supporting evidence for policy decisions.
• Communications – to enable two-way dialogue with key stakeholders and guide on the most effective channels for communication.
• Public relations – to understand the behaviour and attitudes of target audiences, to ensure successful media positioning and branding.

Affecting behaviour
There is currently an increasing focus on how to effect behavioural change, so called ‘nudge’ policy, for which research is an essential component in measuring effectiveness.          

Government spending is also being reduced and a host of new policy programmes have been introduced across the board, which need to be consulted on, implemented, communicated and then evaluated. For all of these areas, research can provide an accountable and accurate basis for decision making. Good research allows those that are not usually heard to be listened to – in the new world of cost-cutting and new policy, there is a risk that these people can be disenfranchised.  

“Commissioning effective research ensures better policy – research gives a voice to the silent majority, with representative findings and inclusive methods,” says Sinead Jefferies.

“The most valuable research,” says Vanella Jackson, chair of the Market Research Society (MRS) the regulatory body for market, social and opinion research in the UK, “is well-designed, addressing whichever business or policy that needs to be addressed and is done in adherence to the correct professional and ethical guidelines.” The MRS Code of Conduct ensures ethical practice throughout the sector through regulations and guidelines. Research suppliers that are MRS company partners and individual research practitioners that are members of MRS have to abide by the MRS Code, and in turn, users of research can be assured that employing an MRS accredited provider results in reliable and robust research.

Reflecting a changing world
Representative and ethical research also ensures that policy is based on sound evidence, that it can be evaluated successfully and that costs can be kept to a minimum during implementation. “Research is a key ingredient of accountability,” says Sinead.  

What about how the research itself is conducted? Society and the way we interact with one another and our community/environment has changed so much in recent years that it is difficult for policy makers to keep pace with the change. Again this is where research can provide essential insight.

“Today, research goes beyond the traditional and the merely quantitative – it’s not all about clip boards, or about focus groups. It’s about engaging with everyone, but in a meaningful way” says Vanella Jackson, MRS chair. “Good research will open up whole new areas for discussion, and a good researcher will have the knowledge and insight to interpret the findings in a way that adds tremendous value to their clients’ understanding.”  

Often, the public sector has been more willing than the commercial world to open up to new research methods. New approaches such as online communities, online forums and social media tracking allow research to both specifically target and more generally encompass hard-to-reach groups, who can get left out of policy decisions, public communication programmes and public consultations. These online tools allow the impact of policy on the most vulnerable in society to be seen. However, Sinead Jefferies injects a note of caution and advises that some of the more cutting edge techniques “should always be used as part of a portfolio of complementary methods.”  

Those wanting further information on market research should visit the MRS website to start with – It includes A Newcomer’s Guide to Market Research, as well as the annually updated Research Buyer’s Guide (, which lists MRS Company Partners and organisations with MRS members, their contact details, geographic area and industry/sector specialisms.  All organisations and individuals listed in the Research Buyer’s Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct.
In addition, LARIA (the Local Authorities Research & Intelligence Association), has its own website ( and works closely with the MRS. LARIA can offer bespoke advice specifically to local, public sector, health care providers

Case study: Adult Autism Strategy

In 2010, MRS Company Partner Opinion Leader conducted a series of engagement events on behalf of the Department of Health in order to develop the government’s Adult Autism Strategy. The research involved engaging with stakeholders including adults with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC), carers and families of people with ASC and a wide range of professionals.
“I feel like I am walking on a tightrope all the time, but everybody else is able to walk on the ground,” said one adult with autism.

Adults with ASC are a diverse audience, with each individual experiencing unique challenges in everyday life including difficulties with verbal and non verbal communication, social interaction and sensory issues such as extreme sensitivity to noise, light and colour.

To overcome these research issues, a range of methods was used to ensure that everyone had a chance to be heard – these included an online community of people with ASC, online group discussions, video ethnographies, 360 degree case studies, group discussions and in-depth interviews.

Opinion Leader set up an advisory group which included adults with ASC, family members and carers to help us to design stimulus materials and generate discussions which were appropriate for those across the autistic spectrum. All of the team members at Opinion Leader received training on how to communicate with people with autism.
“You need to forget about the ‘normal’ rules of communication and learn how to communicate with each individual in a way that works for them,” said one National Autistic Society Trainer.

Adopting a truly person-centred approach to the research enabled Opinion Leader to generate a degree of insight which would not have been possible using traditional research approaches. Opinion Leader has used similar approaches in other work it has conducted for government clients, with great effect.

The research and engagement activity conducted by Opinion Leader has been used to ensure that the Adult Autism strategy produced by the Department of Health (published in March 2010) is fully grounded in the experiences of people with ASC, carers and professionals.

“The Autism Project Programme is underpinned by the dual principles of co-production and inclusivity. Programme activity and the development of the strategy and statutory guidance have been informed by the views of external partners, particularly service users and family carers. The Opinion Leader research, through its innovative programme of engagement and dialogue, helped DH to secure their active participation in the work of the programme at all levels and ensure that the voice of service users was heard at the highest level in government,” said a spokesperson from the Department of Health.

Meanwhile a spokesperson from the Central Office of Information (COI) said: “This piece of research was ground breaking in the way it challenged our thinking on traditional research techniques, using a truly person led approach to tackle the considerable challenges of engaging with adults with autism across the spectrum. It provided vital, rich insight into the experiences, needs and priorities of adults with autism to form a significant part of the evidence base for the government’s adult autism strategy.”

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