FEATURE1 January 2011

In the public space


With government spending facing huge cuts, it would be easy for local authority researchers to start panicking. But Neil Wholey, Westminster City Council’s research chief, has some ideas up his sleeve.

If there was one thing that attracted people to life in the public service it was job security. When the chill winds of economic uncertainty hit, researchers in the private sector knew they were just one cancelled contract away from redundancy. Not so their public sector counterparts. Until now. The latest prediction from the Local Government Association is that 140,000 council employees are facing the chop this year (that’s up from the original estimate of a mere 100,000 ) and it’s hard to imagine that council research departments are going to be immune.

“I’m fearful that research is in a vulnerable position with budget cuts, and because researchers haven’t been able to be as supportive of their organisation as they might be”

“We’re getting tales of people being told they need to cut their budget by 50%, and that’s a scary prospect,” says Neil Wholey, head of research and customer insight at Westminster City Council. “For us, it comes down to whether the objective of the surveys, and the other work we do, goes. If so, well… yes we’re looking at cuts. But if not, I’d envisage we’d continue with the work – and possibly increase it.”

Wholey is a remarkably positive and energetic person, not at all the cliché of the public sector drone. He’s sceptical about a targets culture that has encouraged local government research to focus on ticking boxes rather than offering its sponsors any value. He’s marketing Westminster’s comms services to other councils via a private company. And he’s the co-founder of a new body, LGinsight, designed to help local authority research teams share best practice and collaborate on projects.

In other words, he’s a rather good match for this coalition government – embracing the ‘Big Society’, with a dollop of social conscience, strong market instincts and a desire to drive efficiency.

“Local government is effectively hundreds of different experiments in improving outcomes – it’s very diverse,” Wholey explains. “But I’m fearful that research is in a vulnerable position with budget cuts, and because researchers haven’t been able to be as supportive of their organisation as they might be.” As far as Wholey is concerned, the problems all start with targets.

Targets in his sights
“Central government had encouraged local authorities to fill in spreadsheets, effectively, to meet the needs of national indicators,” he explains. “So the statutory research boiled down to six or seven key indicators which were put in a spreadsheet and sent off into the ether – with no real understanding of what drove the data.”

In other words, targets were being set, but no one had any idea how to meet them. And a lot of local government research was simply a way of judging how close councils were coming to hitting them. “That’s the problem,” says Wholey. “A lot of councils have spent a lot of money on surveys they haven’t used effectively. So when the government says, ‘we’re getting rid of targets’, the whole purpose of the surveys goes.”

Worse still, in August the government scrapped the requirement to conduct the local authority Place Surveys – which had replaced the Best Value User Satisfaction Surveys. “All councils are looking at their budgets,” says Wholey. And without those target benchmarks and mandated surveys, research could be in the firing line.

So how is Westminster different? Wholey arrived – after six years working at Mori, often with local authority clients – and found that the residents’ survey was being conducted annually. “Most councils would do it every two or three years,” Wholey says. (The requirement was a Place Survey at least every three years.) “Every year seemed a bit excessive – but then I saw that the council leadership would actually do something if they observed a change in people’s satisfaction. The rapid response from Westminster was a defining feature.”

This was an obvious launchpad for something more ambitious, and under Wholey the sample has bumped up from 1,000 to 2,500, allowing his team to deliver insights on a much more granular level, looking in more detail at particular local areas. It’s the real secret to the survey’s success – and may yet be the factor that protects it from the cuts.

Without a genuine feedback loop through which research can drive decisions, surveys are seen solely as a verdict on council services. “People in the council end up saying there’s nothing they can do about it, it’s their fate,” Wholey says. “If they think things are going to be tough for the next couple of years, that the cuts will hurt satisfaction levels, they don’t see the point of doing a survey that they know is just going to say ‘you’re bad’.”

Better, he says, to confront weaknesses and offer specific advice – as diplomatically as possible – on how to fix them. And if a council magazine, say, isn’t helping residents make better use of council services? Well, nothing is sacred.

Exporting research
Driving better decision-making, then, particularly around council communications, is the primary purpose of Westminster’s research function. But it has a second defence against the spectre of cuts: it makes money.

“We’re thinking around the topic of extracting more value from our existing data. We’re also thinking about communicating research – how do you get people to listen to your insights?”

Westminster is at the forefront of a trend for local authorities to commission services from whichever supplier can do the job best. That might mean negotiating IT contracts that are shared between boroughs, say, or working with the voluntary sector on care for vulnerable adults. (In fact, Westminster is going further, entering talks with Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham about a much deeper merger: “I’m hoping research will play a part in that, helping evaluate the options.”) And it also means exporting services – like research.

“We’ve run our reputation tracker for about a third of London boroughs,” says Wholey. “Obviously the fieldwork is subcontracted, but we design the questionnaire, do the reporting and fit it in with our normative data. So [the councils buying the research] don’t need an in-house specialist – and Westminster benefits from income and from shared learning about what’s going on in
other councils.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Westminster employees form the comms teams in Richmond, Harrow and Sutton and they sell consultancy services to many other boroughs. “It’s very attractive,” says Wholey. “Westminster has won lots of awards – we have a really good comms plan and we can deliver. So why not offer that to other authorities?”

WestCo – the private business set up to administer these services – hasn’t been short on controversy. True, that’s nothing new for the council that gave us Dame Shirley Porter, but Wholey isn’t the least bashful about what the company can do for his own team’s fortunes.

“We’re now asking, can we offer more than just comms, research and graphic design?” he says. “Can we provide more strategic guidance? So we’re moving much more in to coaching organisations, asking about their leaders’ vision, seeing whether we can bring in partners for them. Often the contracts are to deliver a step change in the research function – but we always adapt to the local circumstances. The key principle is listening to the leadership and asking what we need to do to meet their unique needs.”

Insight in mind
In other words, it’s a case of tailoring insights about the way a council conducts research – and uses it. In the same way that Wholey has built on this research ethos in the comms department at Westminster, he’s keen to see collaboration between research departments around the country developing out of LGcommunications, an independent organisation that represents public sector comms teams.

LGinsight – the research spin-off – is now up and running. “LGcomms was moving in the direction of evaluation anyway, it was already commissioning research,” says Wholey. “Comms teams can feel a bit vulnerable when they don’t have any particular evidence that what they’re doing delivers results.”

The idea is to create a network of researchers to share data, offer one another support and produce innovative thinking about local government insight projects. “We do have Laria [the Local Authorities Research & Intelligence Association] which does wonderful work, but mainly around demographics,” says Wholey. “Public sector researchers also need the kind of defence LGcomms is providing its community.”

As well as forums, networking events and conferences, LGinsight will be launching ‘commissions of enquiry’ – attempting to put intellectual and research rigour into the issues the community is facing. “We’re thinking… around the topic of extracting more value from your existing data,” Wholey says. (One of his own current projects is smarter analysis of the call centre data at Westminster as a means of testing the effectiveness of service tweaks.) “We’re also thinking about communicating research – how do you get people to listen to your insights?”

A winter of discontent?
So does that all mean external agencies can expect to see themselves increasingly frozen out of local authority work as comms teams either draw in their horns or simply look inwards? Bluntly, yes. “We went through a procurement process at the beginning of the year and that’s helped to drive down some of our fieldwork costs,” says Wholey. Research functions – even value-adding ones – will have to take their share of the budget pain.

External suppliers could do worse than focus on the kind of deliverables that Wholey himself is emphasising. Ultimately, the robustness of his own research function will be judged by the contribution it makes to the new, austere environment. Bottom line? There’s no such thing as business as usual any more.

“Over the next year the focus is on helping service departments get tangible benefits by explaining what they can do to save costs or be more efficient,” he explains. “I’m hoping that we can help avoid the decision just to cut something or keep it as is. A small tweak can have a large impact on spending in a big organisation like this. Research can challenge some of the existing processes and assumptions people have about reconfiguring what we do.”

It’s hard not to respect the sentiment. “Every year, I should be able to look back and say we’ve improved things in some way,” Wholey concludes. “We need to make sure we’re at the heart of decision-making, by being a supporting mechanism so people understand that even in tough times, their destiny is in their own hands as service providers or political leaders – that there are choices that they might not be aware of themselves.”

Community of insight

Neil Wholey hopes that his latest initiative, LGinsight, will help local authority research teams pull together to share best practice and skills at a time when budgets are tight.

“Our idea is to try to create a cloud mentality, where people can tap into collective wisdom”

A lonely researcher who commissions a great survey but then hasn’t the resources to really exploit it can appeal to the network for help. “Our idea is to try to create a cloud mentality, where people can tap into collective wisdom,” Wholey explains. “What you need is leaders who can step forward and take responsibility for pulling things together. Otherwise, nothing much happens.” (That’s an appeal, by the way, for researchers to get stuck in rather than a claim to be the leader.)

He accepts that like many community networks, the whole thing might never take off. And he also knows that unless there are clear deliverables, he simply won’t get the necessary buy-in. “That’s why we commissioned a national poll from Populus,” he says. “That’s why we will be running events in the new year. The challenge is whether we can get more authorities to do substantial work for LGinsight. There are no guarantees. But at least we can provide a structure for a year or so to see if this kind of thing works.”

Richard Young is a freelance writer and editor