What research can achieve for government

Reliable, ethical and representative evidence is a crucial component in every decision maker’s toolkit. Market and social research is used to support and inform business and policy decisions in all areas of public life. It provides the government with valuable insight behind the behaviour and motivations of its citizens, something that is becoming increasingly important in light of impending political events that could change the UK – and European – political landscape.
Where important decisions are being made regarding public services an evidence-based approach is vital. For example, research helps departments understand where resources are needed most and ensures funds are spent efficiently. Issues of accountability, public opinion on policy decisions, cost efficiency and returns on investment can be better managed with the right information.

Worth a conservative £3 billion (Gross Value Added) to the UK economy, of which £1 billion is exported, market research is one of the UK’s leading industries. It generates significant intellectual capital, and provides government departments with the ability to reach marginal societal groups through innovative techniques. This insight is vital when selecting where to deploy resources. But how does the government know what research to conduct, when and how? That is where research procurement comes in.

When procuring market research the government is investing in intellectual capital. It is important that the correct questions are asked and the right insight is garnered on which to base operational and policy decisions. It is essential that research is conducted using appropriate agencies for projects to guarantee that evidence is applicable for use.
Active role
The coalition government closed the COI – the body responsible for procuring market research – in 2012 in a bid to cut spending costs. As a result, it became unclear where and how departments could purchase research. As the leading sector body, MRS took an active role in making recommendations for the development of the replacement procurement arrangements for market research.
Over the past two years, MRS has assisted the government in developing and delivering an affordable and sustainable post-COI market research procurement framework. After extensive consultation with its stakeholders, MRS made comprehensive recommendations to the government in its 2012 report (see panel).
After initial recommendations were made in 2012, initially the GPS, and subsequently the UK Shared Business Services (UK SBS) and the Crown Commercial Services (CCS), used the report to devise a pan-government procurement framework for market research.
Following its implementation, MRS completed an in-depth operational review of the success of the procurement implementation process. MRS summarised lessons learnt, along with recommendations for the future. It believes that there is scope for improvement within the government’s approach and will work with UK SBS to implement eight key recommendations.

Eight key strategies
1. Improve communications with stakeholders – CCS and UK SBS need to communicate their relationship and services, including clarifying responsibilities for other frameworks and procurement services clearly, to guarantee they are the go-to place for expert commercial and procurement services.

2. All centrally held documents should be accessible – Government departments are currently replicating cross-department checks on suppliers’ policies and procedures during the framework evaluation process, wasting time and resource. A centralised, transparent approach should be adopted.

3. Provide a workable standard template building on existing materials – Experienced commissioners and procurement professionals throughout government should develop procurement templates.

4. Enhance research procurement skills and experience – Some government departments don’t have procurement experience so training and access to CCS advice should be provided.

5. Streamline the access routes to procurement portals – There are too many entry points – clarification on how the procurement process works is required.

6. Gather performance metrics – Third party information should be gathered to measure performance of UK SBS, CCS and the framework.

7. Adopt a continuous improvement approach – By ensuring the framework is focused on increasing efficiency and effectiveness the process will continue to develop and improve.

8. Amend the framework terms and conditions – Some areas of the framework’s terms and conditions should be revised, specifically the inclusion of consequential losses as a contractual requirement.
Not only taking an active role in shaping procurement policy for the sector, MRS acts as an honest broker. The inclusion of MRS in assisting government in developing its market research procurement arrangements, highlights how crucial supply quality is when procuring market research for policy development.

The power of research
Market and social research is about engaging with stakeholders in a meaningful way. Good research opens the doors for intelligent, informed and impactful discussions to ensure value is being delivered from the information obtained. During times of political change it is very important for political bodies to monitor the public’s attitudes and perception of prospective policies, as well as views on existing initiatives. The Scottish Referendum on 18 September is set to be challenging whatever the result and already significant amounts of research have been conducted to measure sentiment and predict the outcome, particularly in the form of opinion polls. However this only represents one of type of research – there are many qualitative and quantitative techniques that provide insight for a range of issues and support hard pressed civil servants.
Good research provides those in power with one of the few real ways of listening to and engaging the public, and crucially allows those who are harder to reach to be heard. Often, the public sector is open to innovative technology based research methods such as online communities, online forums and social media tracking, which allow research to both specifically target and more generally encompass hard-to-reach groups. Other techniques, such as the use of peer‑to‑peer researchers, are being implemented to reach groups that wouldn’t usually put themselves forward to speak to researchers. This type of information can be invaluable to informing strategy and shaping policy.
Overall the government has embraced research and recognises its importance to public service policy creation, monitoring and evaluation. From informing resource spending to planning for the future, it is encouraging to see government’s willingness to adapt its approaches to how research is being procured and is taking steps to ensure research is used effectively to solve complex economic, societal and environmental issues.

Further information