FEATURE21 October 2010

Will first cuts be the deepest?


Public sector and social research leaders have their say on the possible effects of the UK government’s Spending Review.


We’ll leave the subject of ‘fairness’ to others, but wanted to get a fix on what the cuts would mean for the world of social research. Government departments, who could always be counted on as generous research spenders under the previous Labour government, are going to experience on average a 19 per cent cut in their budgets. Also, a raft of quangos who regularly commission research have now been confirmed for the chop.

We’ve spoken to a range of voices from within the social research community who offer their view on what the new harsh economic realities will mean for their own business.

Martin Boon, research director, ICM Research

Martin Boon

Average budget cuts of 19% are lower than the direst predictions, but still pretty grim. It’s hard to imagine that public sector research spend will escape lightly, and I fear that as an administrative function it might suffer more than most. But, as always, the devil is in the detail, and that’s yet to come.

What really concerns me is the demolition of local council budgets, with all councils having to decide how to deal with a 27% funding gap. This might mean the death knell for Residents’ Surveys and the like, which would have a major impact on everyone from the largest leading lights in the sector right down to small, local agencies.

Richard Bryan, managing director, QA Research

Richard Bryan

In many ways this unprecedented cuts programme has to and will force new ways of thinking. It may strike a new era for innovation. Some might say that research could be a casualty of cuts – one way to spend less. But would this help to produce more for less?

Those councils and government departments that grasp the opportunity to reinvent will have need of research that clarifies and challenges their assumptions. Taking tough decisions is never easy, but research evidence can make the case for change more compelling.

Research agencies targeting the public sector will need to think creatively about offering cost effective products and services that support the public sector and shine a torch on an uncertain future. The public sector in its place needs to exercise more sophistication and judgement in procurement. If the price is too good to be true, it usually is. With challenges of this magnitude, you need data you can trust.

Neil Wholey, head of research and customer insight, Westminster City Council

Neil Wholey

With the whole public sector redefining the way in which it delivers services, organisations should be making research their first port of call but the disappointing reality is that many see it as a luxury rather than an essential.

Research is often used by the public sector to observe performance rather than to help improve it and for many, research has been reduced to a government spreadsheet that compares headline figures. The new government doesn’t want this spreadsheet, and therefore the purpose of social research melts away.

Too many in the public sector fear that all research will show them is that people hate them more as they cut services. To survive, it’s vital that researchers explain how their work can help decision-makers regain the initiative and deliver improved services at a lower cost.”

Mark Francas, global deputy head, TNS Political and Social

Mark Francas

The cuts will obviously have an impact on social research going forward. However, it may not be all doom and gloom for research, as within the new ‘austerity environment’, some new opportunities will emerge. Such as:

  • A greater focus on accountability of government programmes/services which may mean more evaluation of these programmes, albeit using cost-effective methods (e.g. a shift towards mixed-mode data collection). The programme evaluation that is commissioned will also need to have more of a focus on ROI.
  • A greater focus on allocation of resource. With the cuts in local government there will be a greater focus on where to allocate resources – meaning a shift away from traditional customer satisfaction monitors to ‘harder edged’ research tools which give direct, practical help to local authorities of exactly how to allocate their diminishing funds.
  • A continued focus on behaviour change – a continuing agenda for this government is to change peoples’ behaviour (in terms of their health, in terms of their preparation for their retirement, and so on). So there will be a continued role for social research in terms of well thought out, actionable methods that help government to design and evaluate behaviour change programmes.

Michelle Harrison, CEO, TNS-BMRB

Michelle Harrison

As far as the Spending Review itself is concerned there were no real surprises and after so much anticipation, it’s good to have it behind us. There are undoubtedly hard times ahead and it is imperative social researchers work in partnership with their clients to be as supportive as possible in challenging circumstances.

Since the elections in May, the public sector and social research industry have been preparing for all eventualities, and are, in the main, ready to face the changes ahead. As a research agency we know that we need to constantly drive value, continuously innovating to adapt our offering, but now we know all the facts, it’s good to just get back to business.

Want to add your thoughts on the impact of the Spending Review? Get involved in the comments section below.

1 Comment

14 years ago

We held a briefing for council officers involved in gaining customer insight last week and 11 London councils attended. The overriding concern we heard was that councils need to make their "customers" feel that they are being listened to despite the cuts. They not only feel that they need to continue the consultations with citizens but in fact increase them, whilst ensuring that they are being inclusive. From this an inference can be made that the cuts whilst forcing a decrease in consultation frequency may well force an increase in quality in terms of reach. As Michelle rightly says now we know what we are dealing with to some extent we can plan with our customers and move on.

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