FEATURE10 December 2010

Chime’s Neil Russell on why ‘Big Society’ is good for MR

Features People

Neil Russell joined Chime’s research and engagement division earlier this month as a research director. In the latest of our online Spotlight interviews he tells us why the government’s Big Society plans mean more work for research agencies and gives the coalition a few tips on how to improve the procurement process.

Russell joined Chime after working for Harris Interactive, where he headed the public sector division and previously had spells with Millward Brown and TNS. News of his appointment can be found here.

The government is currently looking for feedback into how the procurement process could be made better. What would you tell them on behalf of the research industry?
Many tenders are subject to questions and answers made and given by email. This does not allow for a proper exploration of the needs and uses of the research, and fuels both the commoditisation of research and an inefficient process. Greater personal contact renders the tender process more of a joint exploratory and learning exercise.

We often hear about public sector work being at risk of being commoditised. Is it? If so, what can the industry do to change that way of thinking?
Research is often commissioned to provide evidence that strategy is working. This requires consistent, stable measurement and is easily seen as commoditised. It creates a strong emphasis on process rather than passion for the findings. Passion requires investment. It implies time spent in getting to grips with the implications of the research. So, we need to invest more in the quality of thinking and the communication of that quality.

How has the change in government affected research spend so far, and what changes do you predict over the coming months? 
We have actually completed a very successful year despite a market wide dip in commissions in the face of uncertainty over funding. We have seen a distinct move to understanding how to engage the public: feeding the Big Society agenda.  This will continue to grow as bodies wrestle with the concept of ‘Big Society’ and what it means for their activities.

Have you ever worked on a public sector project that has ‘changed’ something in society?
Several – and many with controversy. They include the setting up of the Child Support Agency, the relaxation of the tie between brewers and pubs, and the retention of the Lay Magistracy in England and Wales. 

What is the most challenging research project you have worked on?
Research to establish the incidence of child abuse in the UK. This was emotionally taxing as many respondents were telling stories from their childhood for the first time and, as a consequence, we had to make sure that good support networks were in place. The research led to more effective campaigning in support of the cause of the child.

What are the main differences between public and private sector research?
The key difference is the emphasis on research method and process. Private sector research has more emphasis on the strategic implications of the research. The value of the research is then proved through the subsequent return on the investments that are made. Public sector requires transparency of process as evidence that public monies are well spent.

If you had the chance is there anything in your career that you would do differently?
I never look backwards – there are no regrets.

What do you think makes a ‘good’ researcher?
The base level is a natural inquisitiveness. Persisting with the “So what?” question to understand what is REALLY needed and how it will make a difference. A lot of good research is lost in a quagmire of data. A good researcher provides the stepping-stones to help the end user through that quagmire. They then have the skills to deliver the message in a persuasive and engaging way. 

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
I’ve given up with ten-year plans. They blind you to the opportunities and delights of the moment.

What was the last thing you spent too much money on?
My personal laptop and the software to go with it. I love creating quirky films and used that as an excuse to get a high spec machine. In reality I have only tapped in to a fraction of its potential.