NEWS12 March 2024

Researchers should capitalise on knowledge to drive strategic initiatives

Annual Conference 2024 News Public Sector UK

UK – Research teams and agencies should capitalise on their deep knowledge of an organisation to input to wider strategic initiatives, according to a presentation on how the Building Safety Regulator, established after the Grenfell Tower fire, set out its theory of change.


Speaking at the MRS Annual Conference in London today ( 12th March), Arabella McNeill, head of insight at the Health and Safety Executive, the body that oversees the Building Safety Regulator, outlined how the theory of change came about for the regulator. 

McNeill said: “Although the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) had been created on a piece of legislation, and there were lots of policy documents, there was no singular document that articulated BSR’s vision or how it was going to deliver on that vision.”

The BSR was established after Dame Judith Hackitt was commissioned to write a review after the Grenfell fire. One of the recommendations was the development of a new body to oversee issues with the current system for ensuring fire and structural safety that had been lacking. 

As a ‘major government project’, as part of the funding the BSR must demonstrate to the Treasury that it has a robust evaluation plan. 

McNeill explained: “We have to be an effective regulator, and to do that we need a high quality evaluation plan, and therefore we needed a high quality theory of change. We knew we’d have to do a lot of sense-making. BSR is a substantial programme of activities that aims to transform how residential buildings are constructed, make sure residents are safe, how the building control profession is regulated and how to drive up competence.”

Outlining why the research team at the Health and Safety Executive was best placed to carry out the work – which didn’t start off as a typical market research or insight project – McNeill said: “We’d worked across the BSR with all the main policy and delivery teams in the preceding two years, which meant we had a really good understanding and overview of all the different activities and we’d built up a knowledge of the proposed new regulations, the operational services and the audience groups. We’d built influential relationships with stakeholders whose input we needed.”

McNeill continued: “We also knew the other people who had that deep knowledge were our research partners so together we were in a strong position to draw on combined skills and knowledge. 

“Often in insight teams you’ve got that bird’s eye view of the organisation, and you’ve a good relationships so I think insight teams and their partners are often well placed to add value in non-traditional initiatives.” 

The Health and Safety Executive worked with Verian to carry out the work for the theory of change, which is a systematic way of expressing how a change is expected to happen in a given context. 

Louise Skowron, senior director at Verian, said: “All too often in our role as researchers, we find we are brought in at the last minute, or our research isn’t really taken to where we would ideally want it to be taken.

“The timely nature of the project meant we could take a consultative, collaborative role. It was a time when the regulator was being established and needed to be shaped. 

“We were engaged in this relatively utilitarian project that had an aim and goal but it also became a focal point for storytelling in the organisation and gave people a direction or purpose that hadn’t been communicated to them before.”

After a series of internal interviews and brainstorming sessions, the team developed maps to communicate the theory of change. Despite initially looking to commission a designer to create a beautiful visual tool for this, the researchers found that there was “no appetite” for it internally, said Skowron: “People wanted the raw maps, not a beautifully designed tool, as they felt they could change and input to it.”

Discussing the outcomes of the work, McNeill said: “The project delivered on its primary objective to articulate the high quality theory of change but beyond this the project has really helped BSR address one of the key challenges many organisations face: how to bridge the gap between strategy and day-to-day activities and help teams think across siloes and show your staff how their day-to-day job delivers change and fits within the bigger picture.

“We spent more time socialising the outputs of this work than we did creating them, internally,  but also externally.”

The organisation has used the maps for strategic development to help structure and shape the published Building Safety Regulator strategic plan and to inform the policy team’s planning processses. Newly recruited teams have also used them to understand more about the role their team plays within the organisation, and the BSR has also used the maps to create operational KPIs and build relationships with external stakeholders. 

McNeill added: “The project has helped to embed the insight team further within the fabric of BSR. We as an insight team can use the maps to proactively plan what further insight we might need in year one, two or three. We can [as researchers] really capitalise on our knowledge and our research skills to lead and deliver these non-traditional strategic initiatives.”