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Promoting progress: how social research can improve government decisions

Jane Frost CBE, chief executive of MRS looks at how social research can improve government decisions in light of changes imposed and driven by the pandemic.
 
It is now over two years since the first lockdown and it is clear that many of the changes that were initially forced upon us are here to stay. Behaviours switched overnight, from how we worked and travelled, to our buying habits and hygiene practices.
 
During that time, businesses and government bodies became increasingly reliant on detailed, up-to-the-minute research, not only to monitor the spread and impact of Covid-19, but also to understand new trends, concerns and demands from stakeholders, whether they were constituents, customers, employees or patients.
 
Research, including vital surveying of mental health, consumer prices and spending, carried on throughout the pandemic. Sometimes only in home or face-to-face research can deliver the required depth of information so practitioners conducted their work in-person when needed, adopting stringent safety measures while they did to protect the public. This was the case from the outset of the first lockdown, with research such as Ipsos and Imperial College London’s REACT studies, which map and analyse Covid-19 infections, providing key insights to the government.
 
In the private sector there were numerous examples of research adding tangible value. Insight agency Kantar’s work for Shell for instance, just after the pandemic began, helped identify key consumer concerns enabling better business action planning. As a result Shell managed to keep 99% of its forecourt retail sites open, with a third of its visitors saying they felt safe using the facilities. This compared to a tenth for second-preferred destinations.
 
At the same time, agency C-space was central to shaping supermarket retailer Tesco’s lockdown strategy, influencing payroll, resource distribution and communications activity. The supermarket’s sales outperformed its competitors early into the pandemic and it was ranked by Message House as top of a list of 50 brands for doing the right thing during lockdown.
 
These examples demonstrate clearly the power of research to inform effective decision-making. As we emerge from this phase of the pandemic into something approaching former normality, Government too should continue to leverage insight to make sure social initiatives are reaching the right people, helping hospitals to run at maximum efficiency and ensuring schools and homes are being built in the right places and in the right way.
 
This is crucial as our economy and society continue to recover from the impacts of the pandemic, while facing international supply chain pressures and a cost-of-living crisis. Research should be central both in terms of informing strategies for immediate issues but also promoting proactive societal change.
 
Covid-19 and The Forgotten C
 
Faced with a public health crisis unlike anything seen for a century, the NHS was put under increasing strain. The charity Macmillan was concerned that, with the focus firmly on Covid-19, cancer care was becoming a ticking timebomb. The challenge was going to be convincing the authorities to take action at a time when all eyes were on coronavirus.
 
Macmillan got to work running a quantitative survey of over 2,000 people living with cancer, as well as in-depth interviews with healthcare professionals and experts, analysing cancer registry data and its own internal service figures.
 
Findings revealed mass disruption to cancer screenings, diagnoses, treatment and support systems.
 
In fact, as of October 2020 there were 50,000 missing cancer diagnoses across the UK. Anxiety around visiting GPs or hospitals was leading to a backlog of undiagnosed people, which it was estimated would take at least 20 months to clear. Compounding this issue, 30% of those undergoing treatment were experiencing a delay to or rescheduling of treatments or tests. It is no exaggeration to say that lives were at stake.
 
These crucial insights achieved extensive media coverage, dramatically raising awareness of the issue and gaining the attention of key stakeholders. Prince Charles was quoted on the front page of The Telegraph supporting the campaign and warning that cancer was in danger of becoming “the Forgotten C” and the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock subsequently met Macmillan’s chief executive to discuss the problem and how to solve it.
 
By the end of summer 2020, NHS England had publicly acknowledged the need for a national cancer recovery plan and the government had announced £3 billion of additional funding to support the recovery of NHS services, £1 billion of which was to help tackle the significant backlogs in care.
 
This life saving research is a blueprint for supporting effective government action. It highlights that data collection alone is not enough. Useful insight requires analysis by trained professionals from accredited organisations, who can take the numbers and turn them into trusted solutions that are based on the reality of – not assumptions about – human behaviour.
 
Progressive prisons
 
But it’s not just about the pandemic. Research has for many years played a vital role in driving progressive and proactive change to improve practices across public and private spheres. For instance, the designs of many prisons – especially in the UK where several date back to the Victorian era – are not the effective promotors of rehabilitation they could, or should, be.
 
In a career spanning over 20 years, Yvonne Jewkes, Professor of Criminology at the University of Bath, has conducted extensive qualitative and quantitative research on prison design. She has interviewed inmates and officers, visited confinement facilities across the world and organised surveys about how architecture can be enhanced, so that it fosters better mental health, and therefore rehabilitation over punishment.
 
Armed with hard evidence from this research, in 2015 Professor Jewkes and Professor Dominque Moran of the University of Birmingham presented to the Ministry of Justice and succeeded in changing the conversation around prison design. As a result of these consultations, new prisons will be built with larger windows covered by hardened plastic rather than bars to let more light into the whole building. More light will help to improve the mood, behaviour and health of prisoners, leading to a greater chance of rehabilitation.
 
But this is only one aspect of her research, and nothing can ever replace the liberty that prisoners have lost. Even in the most progressive prisons in the world, there are mental health challenges. However, through evidence-based discussions, we can ensure prisons are humane places that foster growth, considering everything from how the shape of a corridor impacts anxiety levels to promoting education, from the quality of furniture to the benefits of access to family.
 
And it’s not just about the prisoners. If the system has a negative impact on them, then officers and other staff – even subconsciously – are more likely to be affected adversely too, which could affect their future health both physically and mentally.
 
Harnessing social research
 
These examples show just how far research can support government organisations in the social sphere to solve problems reactively and proactively, in the short and long term.
 
Social insight such as this helps us to understand why people behave in the way that they do, how they want to live and their wider attitudes, priorities and concerns – as well as how those are changing over time. For effective decision making and any resulting actions to be successful in terms of both impact and cost, particularly given stretched budgets across government and businesses, they must be grounded in robust research.
 
A greater use of high-quality, accredited research can only help to improve efficiencies and targeted activity while helping people to lead better, healthier, more fulfilling lives, no matter their circumstances.