Making informed government decisions

Reliable, ethical and representative evidence is vital to decision-making. It provides government with valuable insight into the motivations of the electorate, and is especially vital at moments when policy and its justification are under scrutiny. As important decisions continue to be made, research helps departments to understand where resources are needed most, and ensures that they are spent efficiently. Issues of accountability, public opinion on policy decisions, justification of fund allocation and return on investment can be better managed when policy is firmly rooted in research.  

Number crunching
The census creates an authoritative data source for decision making. For example, insight into the age and socio-economic make-up of the population can be used to underpin health and social policy, supporting decision making on where new hospitals and care homes should be located. Information collected on travel and car ownership contribute to policy on roads and public transport, and help local authorities in understanding and legislating for pressures on traffic systems. However, across the public sector it is clear that quantitative data alone cannot provide sufficient insight, and that research into public motivation, opinion and behaviour is essential to supplementing and accurately interpreting information.
    
The past few years have thrown up numerous examples of policy decisions based on seemingly logical assumptions about the general public, which have run into trouble when public reaction was not as expected. In February 2014 we saw the Care.data scheme postponed as a result of the public’s reaction to the proposals to share personal data. This is an area where trust is vital and the public’s reaction could perhaps have been anticipated through qualitative research on issues surrounding data security. This would have allowed an appropriate communications campaign to be developed to educate the public on the benefits of the scheme.  
    
Similarly, when the last benefits and credits scheme was developed, policy was formed on a belief that flexibility of payments, in response to changing circumstances, would be preferable to certainty of payment delivery. However, it soon became clear that people were failing to report changes in their circumstances, and so efficiency and costs were immediately adversely impacted. It emerged that people were in actual fact loathe to report things that they viewed as private, such as a relationship ending. Subsequent insight work indicated that for people on a restricted budget, certainty of payment was more important than flexibility. When planning delivery of complex new policy, time spent exploring motivations can save costs and improve efficiency. Whilst the temptation is perhaps stronger for government bodies to use research as retrospective justification for decisions already made, it is becoming clear that decision makers must use research in the policy-making stage.

Beyond the figures
With reliable guidance now relatively easy to obtain, case studies demonstrate that insight at this stage can provide significant long-term value. When the Department for Constitutional Affairs (now the Ministry of Justice) was developing options to improve outcomes for those experiencing domestic violence, they examined whether further criminalisation was the most effective solution. More criminal sanctions might seem logical, but the DCA’s qualitative studies showed that as a course of action it was not necessarily effective in achieving optimal outcomes. The research found that victims were far from keen to criminalise their partners or to stigmatise their children by criminalising a parent.

The insight revealed that what victims actually wanted was a quick and straightforward escape route, and felt that resources should be concentrated on rapid re-housing and speedy access to necessary benefits.
    
As well as understanding the motivations and opinions which dictate public reaction to any given policy, insight is also invaluable in understanding the nature of the relationship between ordinary people and the government itself. Effective policymakers need to develop a cogent understanding of the nature of the public’s trust.  Whilst easily lost, trust is rarely pro-actively managed, perhaps in part due to how difficult it is to define. To return to the example of Care.data, the NHS’ original assumption that citizens would trust them enough that they would automatically move to the new system did not recognise that trust would not extend to commercial third parties.

Communication
The programme is now being ‘trialled’ as pilot schemes in six areas covering over 250 GP surgeries across Hampshire, Berkshire, Leeds and Somerset. For the scheme to be successful, communication is vital. The pilots must use social research to track confidence – to reach a level of trust where data sharing is accepted, robust feedback mechanisms need to be put in place to demonstrate that the public’s concerns have been both recognised and acted upon. Communication is also central to the effective functioning of the NHS more widely. It allows healthcare professionals to mitigate problems, demonstrating how insight plays an important role not just in decision making at the most senior level, but also in the everyday decisions made on the ground.  

Statistics can only be used to their full potential when placed in context, analysed, and considered in light of the unpredictable. Integration is central to modelling relationships, creating broader views of behaviour and deepening understanding in ways which would not be possible from single data sources.

Insight provides the human element which can so often be missing from decisions made based purely on facts and figures.
    
Policy and operations need to look at lead indicators like trust, not just rely on output data which is, by its very nature, out of date. Ultimately, market research is a valuable tool for timely and intelligent policy and everyday delivery.

Further information
www.mrs.org.uk