The power of consultation

Local government is entering a new era. Authorities now have the scope to make more decisions at a local level, and this shift to a bottom-up approach to policy development comes in a time of austerity. Budgets need to be cut across the board but, for the first time, local communities are to be involved on an unprecedented level. This creates both opportunities and challenges for local authorities, and places greater emphasis on empowering communities to engage in decision-making processes. But how best to go about this?

BENEFITS
As a tool in policy development and service delivery, market research can offer very tangible benefits. In a time of cuts to local authority budgets, it is essential that spending decisions meet the priorities of local people; research is one way of ensuring that spend can be properly targeted in a context where people’s views are fully understood.   
    
Neil Wholey is head of customer insight and research at Westminster City Council, a local authority which caters for 250,000 residents and a further million people who commute into the council area in central London. His team’s job is to provide insight to help the council run its services effectively, efficiently, in a targeted manner and to the benefit of local residents and businesses. He said: “We ensure that we deliver research which allows the Council to take decisions on the basis of robust evidence – not just a hunch about how we think things are or what people feel, but the actuality. That leads to more informed decision making and is critical to the smooth running of the council and its services.”

TYPES OF RESEARCH
Matt Dobbin, research director at Discovery, a market research agency with offices in London and Norfolk, says that such research has two key forms: “Although there are many different types of research, it can be segmented by the sort of information it gives you. If you need numbers – for example, an understanding of the percentage of people who think a particular thing or have used a particular service – that’s quantitative research. Conversely, if raw statistics aren’t so important but you need to have a particular understanding – not only what people do but why, not just what people want but why, you need qualitative research, which is my particular area of expertise.
    
“Research is not just about the different types of research methodologies, it is a skill.  You have to ensure that the solution you give to a research brief from your client will get the results they need. It shouldn’t just be feedback and opinion, but something meaningful which is applicable to the task in hand.”
    
For the benefits to be fully realised, research must therefore be rigorous, objective and ethical. The regulatory body for market, social and opinion research in the UK, the Market Research Society (MRS), can offer guidance and support to those looking to use research in local authorities. All its members and company partners abide by its code of conduct, which is regularly updated.  
    
“Getting quality insights from research comes from well-designed strategies which are beyond reproach, reliable and robust,” says Vanella Jackson, chair of MRS. “Properly conducted research has huge amounts to offer local authorities, for example, as it seeks to establish where cuts should be made through a more community-based approach to decision-making. Research that follows our code and guidelines can reveal clear solutions that represent local opinion.”

THE POWER OF CONSULTATION

Neil Wholey, an MRS member, explains how research can have this effect. Like all councils, Westminster engages in consultation programmes across a range of issues with residents, businesses and other stakeholders. Often, the council will present proposals on a particular initiative and seek the views of relevant people in response to this. However, the role that market research can play is very different.“Consultation is an extremely useful tool to understand people’s views on a particular issue in response to what the council is proposing. However, it can be somewhat passive. The people in our borough typically lead busy lives and cannot always make the time to take part. Here is where research comes to the fore. It provides additional information which helps us ensure we have the full evidence we need to make a decision representative of everybody, not just those that have responded to a consultation process.”
    
Matt Dobbin, research director at Discovery, a MRS Company Partner, agrees: “To get the best results, respondents really need to understand the full context of the topic you’re researching, otherwise you won’t get the best insight. That can be frustrating not just for the researcher and their client, but for the interviewees as well. For public bodies that need to understand what their customers, partners or stakeholders really think, research needs to engage. You need to have a two-way dialogue, rather than just fire a series of questions at people.”   
    
For those looking to use research, the MRS produces The Research Buyer’s Guide – www.theresearchbuyersguide.com – which holds information on MRS-accredited research suppliers, including their areas of specialism.
    
“Commissioning research from an accredited supplier who will adhere to the MRS code of conduct ensures you receive advice on what research will be suitable for your purposes, and gives you a professional practitioner who will abide by not only the sector’s ethical framework detailed in the MRS Code but also relevant legislation such as data protection,” concludes Vanella Jackson, MRS chair.  
    
“As our case studies show, properly conducted research offers real ROI, aiding decision-making in a way that puts the localism agenda into practice.”

CASE STUDY: NORFOLK COUNTY COUNCIL
Norfolk County Council (NCC) had an urgent need to reduce costs. To understand how best to proceed, it needed an honest and open discussion with residents about the tough choices ahead.
    
In 2010, NCC appointed market research consultancy Discovery, an MRS Company Partner, to develop a unique research approach to allow citizens in Norfolk to give their responses to a complex set of questions about service provision and budget reduction; the aim was to consult with them on how the council’s budget should be spent but also take this a step further and seek views on the kind of organisation NCC should be by 2013. The purpose was to get beyond gut reactions and allow people to take ownership of the financial dilemmas affecting not just the council but their communities.
    
“We developed a research approach that would effectively turn residents into councillors,” says Matt Dobbin of Discovery.  “The first phase focused on education so that respondents were fully aware of what NCC does and how services benefit people in the community. They were then invited to consider options for how services should be realistically delivered in the future.
    
“We held a series of detailed group discussions across Norfolk to get respondents to think as citizens rather than council tax payers. We used creative analogies to broaden out the discussion and encourage people to think around the subject; and developed a series of visual aids to provide further stimulus material they could respond to.
    
“By educating people first and then exploring viewpoints, the research showed an initial lack of awareness about what local government already provides, and then genuine amazement and positive thinking about what councils do and, for some, a view that NCC is doing too much. This encouraged respondents to consider what should be funded and how; people were keen to envisage services being delivered in a different way.
    
“NCC is now actively consulting with the business community, voluntary sector, different tiers of local government and NHS partners to look at what services they could deliver in place of NCC, testing the findings from our stage of consultation. The work has had a huge impact on NCC’s spending priorities and how it engages the public in spending decisions.”

CASE STUDY:  THE ‘TRI-BOROUGH’ PROPOSALS
The recent ‘Tri-borough’ proposals in London show an example of meaningful research in action. The initiative involves Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea councils coming together to share some services across the three bodies to deliver cost and efficiency savings. Officers were briefed to investigate the practicalities of delivering shared services and the detail of how the proposals might evolve.
    
“We developed a telephone survey to proactively ask people their views on the proposals, covering issues such as where there would be a good cultural fit between the three authorities and the areas where shared services might best work,” says Neil Wholey, an MRS member and head of customer insight and research at Westminster City Council. “We found that this yielded more comprehensive results than relying on a standard consultation process, where only a small number of people might reply and those that do may not be representative of our total population.   
    
“The approach had an added benefit too.  Local people expect Westminster City Council to be at the heart of the debate on service delivery and engage them with new ideas. By conducting this research, we showed them we were doing that.
    
“The research approach for the Tri-borough initiative wouldn’t be appropriate to every case though. We are always conscious that we should only use research when it is needed; there is no point investing time and money if you already have the data you need or in situations where standard stakeholder consultation can provide the answers. At all times we ask ourselves whether we have the intelligence we need to make an informed decision on a particular issue – if we do, that’s great, but if we don’t, that’s where market and social research steps in.
    
“The end game for us with research is to ensure policy development is based on fact, that initiatives are targeted to the right people and there is minimal wastage, and that in this era of localism, people get involved in a debate about our services without it costing us the earth.”

FURTHER READING

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