The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Social research basics

The Central Office of Information is the biggest purchaser of social research in the UK, an area that requires sensitivity, creativity, and determination. Ian Theo outlines some of the COIís work in this area, and what makes for a good qualitative partner

Fireworks, fraudsters, fear of crime and Foundation Degrees: a disparate group of subjects with one common factor — the Central Office of Information. These are just some of the topics tackled by researchers at COI in the last year.

Part of the Cabinet Office, COI works with Whitehall departments and public sector bodies to produce public information campaigns on a vast range of issues including health, welfare, benefits, education, business and crime.

Research is required on government campaigns to ensure the effectiveness of the communication and to provide evaluation. The campaigns are funded by taxpayers’ money and research-based evidence is vital to demonstrate that money has been well spent.

COI’s research unit has 23 managers who commissioned projects worth £16.5m in 2003/04. Around half of that money was spent on qualitative research, mainly strategic and creative development, with the remainder made up of quantitative (tracking and evaluation) and some desk research.

Our work is based around government communications, designed to deliver impartial, non-political information. Our research covers all areas of communications, from contributing to policy formulation and communication strategy to creative development and evaluation.

Unwelcome messages

The messages imparted by the Government are not always welcome (e.g. wear a condom; the perennial return your tax form or receive a fine) and the public does not easily engage with some Government ‘brands’ in the same way as they might with that of a commercial company. This needs to be taken into account when creating campaigns, considering media options, and consequently when considering research.

The Government has a responsibility to communicate with everyone on a range of subjects. The messages being put across can target all sections of society or they can be aimed at specific audiences, for example vulnerable groups, who may not be attractive to the commercial world but are nevertheless important.

These audiences are fascinating from the research point of view, but can pose certain challenges. Recruitment can be difficult when hard to reach audiences are involved. Often databases are not available so, for example, recruiting benefit fraudsters may require particular skills and an adaptable approach.

Sensitive topics

Other examples of audiences that require sensitivity include children of drug-taking parents; young people involved in the sex trade; and Internet users with learning disabilities. This means that particular attention needs to be paid to recruitment questionnaires and guidance for recruiters.

Our recruiters need to be creative, determined, and think beyond the conventional. They also need to be able to gain the trust of potential respondents to ensure attendance at a group or depth interview. Difficulties of recruitment mean that timing is a concern when planning and setting up a project.

Qualitative researchers who work on COI business (apart from having the regulation brain the size of a planet) need a willingness to get to grips with quite complex issues in a short space of time, e.g. sustainable development or genetically modified crops. They will be stimulated by the social issues involved and occasionally they will need nerves of steel, because some target audiences and topics are daunting.

COI uses a roster of research agencies. This method of procurement is compliant with EU purchasing rules. The latest roster came into effect on 1 December 2004. It is updated every few years to keep up with changing client needs and developments in the research industry. Tendering projects with our roster companies is best practice. When tendering we are looking for a thoughtful approach to the brief, and evidence that all the bases are covered. We appreciate being questioned on the brief.

Fostering understanding

The roster allows us to operate within tight deadlines, e.g. when working with advertising and other creative agencies. The roster allows us to get to know and understand our research suppliers, for example, the type of researcher who is prepared to spend a lot of time interviewing old people may not be well suited to researching youngsters who play on railway lines, so it is very much ‘horses for courses’.

COI research managers are dedicated to particular government departments or public sector bodies. This allows us to gain an understanding of their issues, and those of their target audiences. Researchers at COI have a unique combination of experience of the research industry and government communications.

Our advice to clients covers not only their objectives, but also how the research findings will be used. At COI, we write briefs that focus on the research objectives and outcomes rather than the methodology. We actively encourage our agencies to interrogate the brief and given the reality of the modern marketplace and timescales, we often develop the brief in partnership with them.

An important concern for us is to ensure that we work closely and in partnership with agencies in a way that gets the job done well and on time. Apart from ensuring a full briefing, this mainly involves allowing enough time for proper recruitment, and being flexible enough to change recruitment criteria quickly if necessary.

Realistic timing

Similarly we aim to ensure that there are no unrealistic time constraints, negotiating sufficient time with the client for analysis and report writing, particularly on large-scale projects.

The production of stimulus material can be another challenge. In our field of research the issues are often complex and not particularly engaging to respondents. Deliberative techniques are useful and, as a result, the development of appropriate stimulus material is vital. The research agency is encouraged to get involved in the development of the material, alongside the creative agency.

Client handling skills are a key part of the job. Researchers at COI act as a facilitator between the parties (client, researcher, COI colleagues, creative agencies) and provide advice and guidance to all.

Experience and understanding of research can vary within Government departments — we can be dealing with marketing communications teams, senior policy advisers, political advisers and Ministers (or any combination of these). We provide ongoing strategic research advice to clients, as well as advice on budgeting, costs, methodology, timing, and implications of the findings.

Centre of excellence

COI’s aim is to be the centre of marketing excellence for government and this extends to research. If we are approached by a client for “a couple of focus groups” on delivering a complex stakeholder mapping exercise, then we can advise on the most appropriate methodology to meet the objective.

Our main clients are communications professionals in government departments. We do, however, also come into regular contact with people working in policy and other areas. We encourage our clients to attend fieldwork where possible as this leads to an appreciation of the research process, and also gives them direct experience of their target audience.

The experience can, however, sometimes prove traumatic. For example, one statistician from a major government department was shell-shocked to discover that ordinary members of the public were openly dismissive of his life’s work, saying that they thought his figures were made up.

What makes research at COI different are the issues and the target audiences. The researchers working on government communications business are flexible and resourceful. They understand our role and we work together for the benefit of our client’s campaigns. It’s a partnership of mutual trust between our suppliers and us — and there’s never a dull moment.

 

Ian Theo
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005