A question of evidence

Alternative methodologies for market research have come about since the government’s austerity measures, and offer a cost effective way to ensure research lies at the heart of every local authority, says the Market Research Society.

In common with the rest of the UK economy, it has been some time since local government has had it this tough; a strict austerity agenda, set against a gloomy economic backdrop, has seen budgets slashed and spending cuts implemented across all services. 

Against this difficult backdrop, local authorities have been grappling with the twin challenge of how to maintain meaningful levels of customer feedback and insight while operating on lower budgets.

“Throughout the recession, local authorities continued to commission the research they need, but we have seen a reduction in general surveys and a shift to other methodologies”, says Jane Frost CBE, chief executive of the Market Research Society (MRS). “Encouragingly, in recent months, we’ve seen that commissions now appear to be rising.”

Local authorities have always needed to understand their performance and the drivers of success, whether there is a top-down target culture from central government, or not. This is where market research comes in. It provides the evidence and insight that allows councils to benchmark, make decisions and set the agenda. “Evidence does matter if you are to understand the public’s behaviour”, Jane Frost adds. “Getting under the skin of the public mood is invaluable when you need to know whether or not you are on the right track, on cost reduction, service provision or emerging policy”.

A changing research role
“Market and social research should be at the heart of every local authority”, says Gary Welch, research director at Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute. The recession has not been without its problems for councils and the role of research has been changing dramatically to reflect that; the days of protracted, ineffectual procurement exercises that did not deliver what was needed should now be over.

Self-survey tools and DIY options have their place for small-scale exercises, such as the effectiveness of a website service, but cannot replace the insight an expert research agency can bring.

“Local authorities are placing a greater emphasis on the value that researchers can add to their customer insight and survey data, and their ability to contextualise that”, says Gary Welch. “They are anxious, in the current climate, to know how communities might react, or are being impacted by service reconfigurations and cuts.”

“Our recent review for the Local Government Association pointed to the need for robust and comparable survey data to underpin sector-led improvement. Authorities want to know that they are on the right track”, Gary continues. Managers across all services within local government have to make some difficult calls when it comes to service provision and transformation and there is a need to ensure a strong performance and an understanding of needs on the ground, despite stretched finances. This means that benchmarking is still an essential part of the toolkit, helping to prove ‘bang for your buck’. Having strong evidence to hand is therefore very helpful for those looking for the right answers.

Gaining insights
One of the most effective routes to benchmarking your progress and assessing where to focus is through quantitative survey research, which uses large samples. Today, such surveys offer genuine in-depth insight and are no longer all done on clipboards on street corners, as the stereotype goes. “Qualitative research is important for benchmarking and also ensuring you reach minority audiences.” says Jane Frost. 

“Today there are an increasing number of methods of doing quantitative research –including telephone, online and social media research, many of which are very cost effective. Commissioners of research need to select the right one to meet their requirements. The key – whatever the methodology – is to ensure the quality is high, so that you can rely on the research.”

Public participation exercises, and perception/satisfaction surveys can so easily be dominated by the usual voices, with the views of minority groups not featured; research, done properly, ensures that the results are truly representative of the target population.

“Our work has to be ever more creative and innovative because of the dramatic changes in the way we communicate with one another. These advances have opened up a vast range of new methods to reach our targets in ways that they feel more comfortable in engaging.” says Welch. “And it’s not just about gathering data and information, a researcher offers insights into the data, helping an authority to make informed decisions and see the best way forward.” 

There are many other kinds of research which have been used to inform to the public sector policy and decision making, including: 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, and; Public relations – to understand the behaviour and attitudes of target audiences, to ensure successful media positioning and reputation management.

Commissioning Research
But how to ensure you are getting the right research for the right job? According to Jane Frost: “The evidence generated by research can tell you whether a service is valued or is being delivered in the right way; this is so important in these straightened times.”

“The secret is in the brief; to ensure you are getting ROI, choose a research supplier that will use a well-designed strategy, representative samples and ethical practices. An MRS member or Company Partner can be trusted at a number of levels, such as with using an ethical approach, adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct, and the Data Protection Act 1998, with hard to reach groups, and with making sure that the research really adds value to what you are doing and that the results come with helpful insights – a good researcher will always deliver this. This research will also bear scrutiny.” 

Gary Welch points to the importance of transparency in providing data so that it can easily be understood by everyone; “we produce infographics and try to present the data in an accessible way so that local authorities can easily share the information with their colleagues and elected members as well as with the general public.  This is important, too, as there is a current trend towards collaborative commissioning by councils, neighbouring authorities and organisations like PCTs. Everyone is working together.”

Further information
More information on market and social research, including survey research, is available at www.mrs.org.uk. The Research Buyer’s Guide (www.theresearchbuyersguide.com), where all MRS Company Partners and organisations with MRS members are listed, along with their contact details, location and areas of expertise. All organisations and individuals listed in the Research Buyer’s Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct.

LARIA (the Local Authorities Research & Intelligence Association), for researchers within local authorities , has its own website at www.laria.gov.uk