FEATURE29 October 2010

Boom follows bust follows boom?


As part of its cost-cutting efforts, the UK government is making previously mandatory research projects discretionary – a move that has already cost jobs in public sector research, including that of MRUK boss Jim Law. Is this a long-term policy shift or merely a way to save money in the short term?

Under the previous Labour government, and even the Tory administration before that, being a public sector-focused agency was a strong position to be in, says Law. Government-mandated surveys of service levels and public satisfaction meant almost guaranteed work for research firms.

That all changed in June. The coalition’s deficit-reduction agenda was first felt by Law when many of those mandates were lifted and surveys were made discretionary. And when government departments and public sector bodies are under pressure to reduce costs, discretionary spend becomes an easy thing to cut.

Police forces are one example, says Law. Forces across England and Wales were until recently required by the Home Office to carry out research with victims of crime to gauge their satisfaction in their dealings with police. Not anymore. Place surveys – which polled council residents about their views on council performance – have also been abolished.

Law also points out that the “bonfire of the quangos” – the mass cull of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations – removed, at a stroke, more than 300 public sector research buyers.

MRUK was sharply affected by these and other changes, culminating in the decision, revealed this week, to scale back the business from 32 to three staff and close three of five offices. TNS-BMRB, a rival public sector research agency, has also made job cuts – and they are unlikely to be the only agencies having to do so.

From where we sit now, though, it’s hard to pin down exactly what impact the reduction in government spending will have on public sector research revenues. At a departmental level it’s hard enough to know what research expenditure is, let alone across government, says Law.

What we do know is that priorities have shifted, and that £83bn is the targeted savings. Some argue, somewhat unconvincingly, that the government will still spend the same amount on research as it has always done, it’s just that different priorities mean that the money will go on different projects in different areas.

Indeed, Law suggests the move away from centralised control over information gathering could be seen as part of “the bigger picture to devolve responsibility” – the idea encapsulated in Prime Minister David Cameron’s many speeches on the ‘Big Society’. Cynics, though, might suggest that it makes sense to stop measuring performance and satisfaction levels so comprehensively when most public services are about to experience significant funding cuts.

Law, though, takes a pragmatist’s view that rather than a long-term policy change we are in the midst of a cyclical shift. “At the moment the focus is on saving money, but then there will come a realisation that there is a lack of knowledge and understanding.”

Recent years have shown that “boom and bust” remains very much alive, despite proclamations to the contrary by the previous government. Public sector researchers can hope that better times will come back round again.