FEATURE1 May 2011

Getting their priorities straight

Research projects are being cancelled to save public money. But some of the cuts raise questions about the government’s priorities. Jonathan Knott reports.

I genuinely think we can get good value out of a reduced research spend,” says Penny Young, CEO of the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen). “But the danger is that it’s being done in a fragmentary way, without thinking about the wider value of individual projects.”

Young is one of many senior research industry figures for whom the government’s recent decision to end the Citizenship Survey has prompted questions about its approach to research. The survey provided robust data on topics – volunteering, life satisfaction and community cohesion, for example – which were of direct relevance to this government’s stated priorities.

The Citizenship Survey is by no means the only government research project to have been scrapped. Earlier this year a Freedom of Information request by Simon Tanner, research director of Research as Evidence, revealed a total of £9m in research spending cuts across four major government departments from May to December 2010. There was no apparent method to the cuts, says Tanner. “It seems reasonable to curtail research due to changing ministerial priorities. But one of the projects the Department of Education ended was a major evaluation of academies, which are clearly a key strand of the government’s policy.”

A grand plan?
So what is the central government strategy for research? Is there one? When Research put the question to a spokesman for the Cabinet Office, they told us: “That wouldn’t work. That’s micro-management.” Financial considerations aside, it is apparent that the cuts to research stem in part from the coalition’s radical change of approach: dismantling Labour’s system of monitoring performance through centrally set targets, and devolving decision-making to individual departments, local authorities and communities. The message is clear: outcomes are now what matter. So cancer survival rates, for example, will take precedence over NHS waiting times or assessments of the public’s attitudes. Meanwhile, rather than trying to influence people’s actions through advertising, ministers now want to work with the grain of human nature to nudge people into desired actions (see box).

What about the impact of the ‘Big Society’? If services that were once provided centrally are handed over to social enterprises, charities and the private sector, there could be a role for research in helping organisations that compete for contracts to demonstrate that they can offer value for money. If Andrew Lansley’s controversial health reforms go through, for instance, consortiums of GPs will have their own research budgets. Even if the plans end up getting watered down, we could see primary care trusts commissioning more research.

Changes are also happening in local government. Andy Byrom, associate director in the local government unit at Ipsos Mori, says: “Rather than just providing services themselves, councils are increasingly taking a strategic lead in reaching out to other organisations, including private investors. Some are commissioning research to help them understand what encourages inward investment.”

The bigger picture
Beyond the immediate picture of cuts, councils will have more freedom in what research they commission, with the ending of the National Indicators that were used to manage local government performance and the mandatory Place Surveys that gauged people’s perceptions of their local areas. One new trend is a greater appetite for local pilot schemes and field trials testing policies related to behavioural change. But a downside of local autonomy is that it makes comparison between different areas tricky. Many in Whitehall believe there is still a role for central government in analysing the ‘Big Society’, says Anna Pierce, an Ipsos Mori research director. “What would be really useful for government is to work out a national picture of where things are going well and where things are not going well,” she says.

There is no consensus on how to do this, but efforts to measure national well-being rather than just GDP are surely relevant. The Office for National Statistics is currently consulting on the issue, and new questions have been added to the Integrated Household Survey. In practice it’s a methodological minefield, but a public well-being dataset would provide a useful secondary resource to researchers, and the idea may offer opportunities for original research too.

But some believe this development represents a tendency to focus on the bigger picture at the expense of closely analysing specific policies. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s plans to improve social mobility, for example, will be assessed using a score card of measurements like birth weight and earnings at the age of thirty – but many think more specific data will be needed. “They’re big measures but they don’t give you much information beyond six or seven figures,” says Simon Tanner. “I don’t see how you can make policy on the back of that.”

“This government is committed to measurement,” says Penny Young. “But it is hoping that administrative data and outcome measures will be enough. When some of those graphs refuse to shift, research will be needed to work out why.” Even paying providers by results would not end the need for research, she says: “You can’t just wait for a private firm to fail. You need lead indicators, and some of those will not be pre-existing.”

Jim Law felt the impact of the cuts for himself when his job managing public sector specialist MRUK was made redundant last year (along with most of the other jobs in the firm), and he now runs his own agency. At a local level, says Law, councils generally welcome the input of research: “It helps them respond to the community, but equally to defend their decisions. Not having that information will render them more open to criticism.”

So research will be needed. But in an age of austerity, agencies will have to be canny to succeed. Ipsos Mori’s research audits, for example, involve looking again at existing data to find new insights. And some local authorities are already working together in schemes that increase both cost-effectiveness and comparability – including a project among London’s councils to share and compare local performance data every quarter, and a think tank run by Westminster Council to support local government research. We may see more similar initiatives in which organisations pool resources.

But NatCen’s Penny Young believes a co-ordinated government approach to research is “the only way you can get value for money and avoid duplication”. Many would join her in arguing that in straitened times, this gets more important – not less.

Jonathan Knott is a freelance journalist

Changing behaviour

Nobody was surprised when the coalition government began to rein in expenditure on advertising and marketing. The Conservatives had long criticised the huge increase in the Central Office of Information’s spend under Labour – and the need to cut the national deficit made this area an obvious target.

The COI has already taken steps to incorporate behaviour change theories into its work to make campaigns more effective and measurable, but the hope is that behaviour can be influenced simply by framing decisions in the right ways, rather than through costly ad campaigns.

A review published in March proposed that the COI – which lost nearly 300 of its staff last year – be significantly further slimmed down. The new organisation will be “positioned further upstream in the policy making process”, the government says, with one of its roles being to help share expertise on behavioural insight.

Much of the work on behaviour change has so far come from academics in neuroscience and economics, and the role of social researchers is less clear. But although they have new competitors, the shift also represents an opportunity for social researchers: smart firms can capitalise on their commercial experience to be providers of fast, flexible research with a direct relevance to daily decision-making. “A lot of behaviour change is about understanding how people work, what their motivation is and how you can get them to change,” says NatCen’s CEO Penny Young. “We have to be more assertive about the skills social research can bring to the table.”