FEATURE27 May 2011

Social research ‘far from its deathbed’ says new TNS-BMRB director

Features People

Ben Toombs is the new qualitative director at social research agency TNS-BMRB. We spoke to him about the prospects for public sector research as spending cuts bite, and whether MPs really are living in the same world as the rest of us.

Ben Toombs is the new qualitative director at social research agency TNS-BMRB. As well as conducting qual research on the agencyside he has spent time with the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department for Transport focusing on strategic communications, behavioural insight and policy evaluation projects. We spoke to him about the challenges of working for public sector clients, and how he sees the future of social research.

“In the short term, policy still needs to be made and communicated, and research continues to make an important contribution to doing both effectively”

Research: Your appointment coincides with the news that the Department of Health is reviving the Change4Life anti-obesity campaign with a £14m investment – is this a sign that there’s still life in public sector work?
Ben Toombs: The commitment to Change4Life is one sign among many that social research is key to the government. The market has certainly changed considerably in the past year or so, and agencies engaged with social research are having to respond to those changes. But in the short term, policy still needs to be made and communicated, and research continues to make an important contribution to doing both effectively. In the longer term, I think the opportunities for research to have an impact are going to change and that the next year or so will set the tone for the future. It will be the agencies that recognise those opportunities that will prosper and emerge stronger. In that sense, far from being on its deathbed, social research is an interesting and exciting place to be right now.

A recent report found that a sizeable chunk of researchers feel their work is not valued or understood by clients. Is that true in your work with government?
Having work valued and understood is as much the researcher’s responsibility as the client’s – it comes down to the relationships we develop, early agreement on the purpose of our work, and the quality of our analysis and outputs. So to a certain extent researchers should be looking to themselves on that score. More specifically, social research projects often form a small part of the answer to a large question and the project impact is not always immediately obvious as these are complex issues. But it’s rare for me to feel my work has been wasted.

Both the current and previous governments have faced strong public opposition to some of their policies. How is that reflected in your work with the public?
We inevitably invite views on what isn’t working as well as it might. That can give rise to cynicism, and of course some of it can be directed at the government. But, depending on the topic it can also expose satisfaction or approval of what the government is doing in the face of wider societal pressures. Ultimately, people don’t blame the government for everything that affects them, any more than they would praise it [for everything positive in their lives], and we aim to get a far richer understanding of their attitudes and behaviour.

“There’s certainly a place for online methodologies in social research. But I can’t see that the kind of work I do is really at risk from them”

Politicians are often accused of being out of touch with the real world. From your dealings with them, is that fair?
My contact with politicians has mainly come in two ways, I’ve interviewed them as respondents, and when they’ve taken particular interest in our research findings, they have requested debrief presentations. In both cases the individuals in question have been interested enough to want personal involvement in social research, demonstrating a desire to be in touch with the real world.

There are some big developments happening in online qualitative work. Where do you think the future for the qual industry lies? Is it at risk from social media research?
There’s certainly a place for online methodologies in social research, and there might well be instances where those types of passive monitoring offer a quicker and more cost-effective solution than active qualitative research. But while they’re part of the toolkit, I can’t see that the kind of work I do is really at risk from them. To start with, spontaneous conversation about social issues is usually negative, because that’s what people like to talk about. You need to dig a bit deeper to get beyond the attraction of gossip about bad news and find out what people really think for themselves, and you can’t do that by looking at their Facebook page. Even if you could, there are still many groups of people who don’t use Facebook much, so your sample is likely to be pretty biased. Traditional and online methods both have their merits, and they will often complement each other. But in the end the emphasis has to be on active, targeted research, whatever the medium.

How does qual work differ between the public and private sectors?
I would say the biggest differences between the public and private sectors relate to how it is procured and what it is used for. Basically the private sector can commission research however it pleases, and does so to help it make money; whereas the public sector has to put pretty much every project out to tender, and commissions research to help it spend money effectively. That sets up a whole load of differences in how research is received, the relationships you can develop with clients and of course the number of proposals you need to write. In terms of the research itself, there’s often a lot of cross-over between the two sectors, particularly in areas like communications, customer insight and online services, and there’s certainly scope to use similar tools and techniques where appropriate.