Using surveys for consultations

The Market Research Society explains the principles and practices behind good research and how it can benefit the government sector.

As the election campaigns heat up, social and government policy is in the spotlight. Polling figures are making the headlines every day, heightening interest in public opinion. Now is the time for robust decision-making – by both the politicians and the voting masses.
A general election is the time for social, market and opinion research to step into the limelight. Researchers monitor the views of the people, report on changing opinion and provide intelligence on how to run the country. But this is also a time when research is scrutinised, as public opinion swings and parties must respond. Hard evidence, accurate polling and quality consultation are the recipe for success.
As research comes more into the public view, huge opportunities are presented for those who know how to apply it. Whether at a central government or local authority level, decision-makers must be confident that policy and communication strategies will strike a chord with the voting public. The pressure is also on to be more accountable – to demonstrate that the public pound is being properly spent and that cost efficiencies are maximised. Underlying this is the need for robust, ethical and properly conducted research studies which show the public that their views matter, and the authority that their decisions are the right ones.
The Market Research Society (MRS) is the regulatory body for market, social and opinion research in the UK. It exists to serve all those with an interest in provision or use of research, business intelligence, market analysis and customer insight. Crucially, MRS can help public sector organisations use research to engage and deliver results for their audiences.

What is research?
Research is based on the principle that a relatively small sample of people can provide accurate opinion and insight on any given subject or issue that is representative of a much larger population. This data can then be applied to gauge public opinion and offer insight to perceived attitudes. At its most effective, research operates as a means of communication between public sector service providers and their stakeholders. Effective research holds the key to understanding any target audience.

Research is used in many ways within the public sector, for example:

  • Attitudinal – research can enable organisations to assess perceptions and opinions relating to customer satisfaction and preference in the provision of services and products.
  • Policy development, implementation and evaluation – it can provide effective evaluation of each stage of complex policy development.
  • Public consultation – it can help acclimatise government thinking with public opinion.
  • Communications – it can enable two-way dialogue with key stakeholders and help guide on the most effective channels for communication.
  • Public relations – research can help organisations understand the behaviour and attitudes of target audiences, helping them with successful media positioning and branding.

Mark Speed, managing director at public sector research specialists IFF Research, a member of the MRS Company Partner service, comments: “Research supports policy development, implementation and evaluation – it is crucial to ensuring government and public bodies provide the services their customers want. But whether being used by a charity to develop a fundraising campaign or by Whitehall to debate a new policy, the research will be scrutinised – and the end product must be reliable and offer a good return on investment.
“Public sector research campaigns are usually funded by the taxpayer and relate to ‘real life’ issues. When we are undertaking research for public clients we must recognise the gravity of what we provide, and ensure everything delivered is effective, cost-efficient and focused.”

Ensuring accuracy
Research can only deliver true value if a study is well designed and the correct professional and ethical guidelines are adhered to. In the case of election polling, where accurate prediction is everything, researchers must be confident that their processes will truly reflect public opinion. The key is to follow the rules set down by the industry and to produce high-quality and effective research studies to yield results robust enough to influence a policy decision.
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 an ethical, reliable and robust research.
Rowland Lloyd, MRS Chairman, comments: “Researchers can be tarred by the image of standing with a clipboard and asking dull questions – but in the run up to an election, we stand centre stage and have the chance to prove the true value of what we do. Research is fundamental to government decisions and to reporting on how the public feel. It is often highly complex and getting any element of a research study wrong can have disastrous results – particularly when examining a swing in opinion of a mere few per cent.
“The rules laid down by the MRS Code of Conduct and the Data Protection Act of 1998 restrict malpractice in research. These rules are constantly updated – we have recently issued new advice governing incentivising respondents, for example. Providing research stays within these parameters it can provide unparalleled levels of understanding that can be relied on to inform strategic decisions.”
Types of research
There are broadly two types of research used across the public and private sectors – quantitative and qualitative. These each have their own specific purpose and the use of each depends on the objectives of the activity.
Quantitative research involves using large samples of respondents to provide reflective data on major issues. Such research is used to inform decisions on, for example, what percentage of a local community would like to have mandatory recycling of domestic waste.
By contrast, qualitative research involves much smaller samples and more personal questioning, which can provide more detailed insight and explore the thinking and behaviour of specific groups. An example of this is holding a small focus group discussion to gauge how different people react to a proposed ad campaign on a sensitive local health issue. A combination of approaches can often yield the most fruitful results.

Advice & guidance

The MRS website ( should be your first port of call for advice and guidance. The site includes A Newcomers Guide to Market Research, as well as general market research information and copies of the MRS Code of Conduct. MRS also produces an annual directory of research suppliers – The Research Buyer’s Guide ( which only includes organisations accredited by MRS. The Research Buyer’s Guide includes suppliers’ contact details, geographic area and industry specialisms. All companies and individuals listed in The Research Buyer’s Guide are committed to adhering to the MRS Code of Conduct.
Elsewhere, LARIA (the Local Authorities Research & Intelligence Association) has its own website ( and works closely with MRS. MRS and LARIA issue Using Surveys for Consultations as a joint guide for all local authorities looking to conduct market, social or opinion research. The document complements the MRS Code and offers advice specifically on researching public and social opinion on issues of local importance, such as planning proposals and local authority service provision.

“These sources provide an excellent starting point for any public sector organisation looking to benefit from research,” says Rowland Lloyd. “As the IPO case study reveals, research can provide important evidence to support public sector decision making. People need to grasp the opportunity to reach beyond traditional barriers of communication and perception, using the appropriate rules and guidance, in order to take advantage of all that research offers.”

Commissioning research
“Choosing the right research supplier depends on what is the objective of the research project, who is the target audience, and what budget is available,” comments Michelle Harrison, CEO of social research provider TNS-BMRB. “As a supplier, our job is to advise government departments on what approach will deliver what they want to achieve – highlighting the benefits or shortfalls of each. Using an MRS-accredited supplier who complies with the MRS Code of Conduct ensures that you receive objective and reliable advice before deciding which route to take. This professional responsibility to conduct well designed and cost effective research coupled with the greatest care and protection over personal data is always important, but is critical in the public sector.”
Further advice on how to commission research that complies with the MRS Code can be found in the Research Buyers Guide.

How research is used

TNS-BMRB is an MRS Company Partner and provides social research and insight services to government. Its research programmes explore the nature of society and provide evidence to support government decision making. This is done in three ways:

  • Large-scale surveys track trends, experiences and behaviours in society. For instance, the British Crime Survey provides data needed by policy makers in the Home Office and the Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England tracks young people’s experiences through to adulthood for the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
  • Research to inform specific policies or public services – such as monitoring the experiences of patients within the NHS, or the impact of policy change in the welfare system. Across government, TNS-BMRB’s remit is to understand the efficacy of policy and service delivery and provide decision makers with the information needed to drive improvement.
  • Public engagement and consultation – ‘building a conversation’ between citizens and government. This has become increasingly important as government wrestles with issues that require public co-operation, such as climate change, or those with moral and ethical implications, such as the progress of science.

Case study – The Intellectual Property Office
The Intellectual Property Office, Aardman Animations, SGA Productions and the Science Museum partnered to launch Wallace & Gromit present A World of Cracking Ideas, which ran from March-November 2009. The exhibition, sponsored by the Intellectual Property Office, was designed to inspire a new generation of innovators in the UK and beyond. Oscar-winning characters Wallace & Gromit were at the heart of the interactive show which aimed to appeal to all ages by telling the story of innovation and inspiring creativity. The aim of the exhibition was to show visitors how they can protect their ideas using intellectual property, promote understanding of intellectual property rights and awareness of their use.
Crucial to evaluating the exhibition’s success was measuring whether these objectives were achieved. The IPO commissioned IFF Research to assess in detail the impact of the exhibition on the target audience and provide a benchmark for evaluating future activities. IFF surveyed 900 visitors face-to-face before and after entering the exhibition and at evening seminars. They were also questioned through follow-up postal surveys, presenting insights on the impact of the events, of the supporting communications activity and of intellectual property in general.
Guy Robinson, Head of Business Support Policy at the Intellectual Property Office, explains: “IFF’s research demonstrated a high-level of awareness of intellectual property following the exhibition. The one-on-one contact helped us to measure the impact of our communications activity on different groups’ attitudes and perceptions. The research was crucial in highlighting the value of developing a tailored exhibition sponsored by high profile characters to deliver complex messages to a broad audience – and validated the case for taking the exhibition to Glasgow in 2010.”