OPINION1 April 2011

Cut savvy

News Opinion

Government departments are having to take tough decisions on ways to reduce spending. Some surveys have inevitably been abolished as a result. NatCen CEO Penny Young argues for a more strategic and co-ordinated approach in deciding what social research to cut.

As of today, the Citizenship Survey is no more. The £4m annual study of people’s views of their local area, of community cohesion, identity, values and volunteering, was cancelled by its sponsor, the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) because it felt the cost of the survey simply could not be justified in the current fiscal climate. This was despite the fact that its own consultation showed most users of the survey’s data expressing serious misgivings about the decision.

A lot of useful things were said in response to the consultation, but for me the key submission was from Jil Matheson, the national statistician, who argued that the survey could prove invaluable for flagship government initiatives such as the Big Society and the Wellbeing Measurement project. She also made a strong case that “taking decisions on specific surveys separately may mean that we make less effective decisions, despite efforts to consult users of each survey”. Still, CLG decided to cut the survey entirely – not even to scale it back. It said that if users valued the data so much it expected them to “take steps to provide it themselves in the academic or external market”. In other words, let them pick up the tab.

“My concern is that we are perhaps seeing early signs of individual decisions that make sense to individual departments combining to have a damaging effect on the knowledge and evidence base as a whole”

We didn’t have to wait long before there were more signs of trouble. The chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, complaining that the NHS Information Centre was proposing to withdraw funding from the Office for National Statistics’ General Lifestyle Survey, and that the result – a budget shortfall – would be very damaging for the collection of statistics on drinking and smoking.

There are no two ways about it: government needs to save a lot of money on social research, just as it does elsewhere. My concern is that we are perhaps seeing early signs of individual decisions that make sense to individual departments combining to have a damaging effect on the knowledge and evidence base as a whole. In response, we need to be arguing for a more strategic and co-ordinated approach across government to decisions about major research projects.

Here’s three ideas to consider:

1. A co-ordinated approach to decisions on the future of major surveys. The challenging budget settlements are about to hit government departments, and so we will see a stepping up of decisions about individual surveys. There simply must be co-ordination across government about these decisions. We need a speedy project that: (a) identifies cross-government information needs; (b) considers where research evidence has wider value to users and the public and should properly be funded by government; and (c) works out how to deliver those needs in a streamlined fashion using an efficient number of surveys or other data sources.

Without a coherent commissioning strategy, not only will the taxpayer fail to get the best value from spend on social research, but there will be a negative and lasting impact on the knowledge and evidence base.

2. An authentic approach to engagement. Consultations by government departments are clearly becoming a contentious area. While we saw a U-turn following public discussion on the future of the Forestry Commission, the reality is that many consultations are being cut short and there is clearly a danger that contributors aren’t listened to. Rather than simply posting up a consultation document with some formulaic questions on a website and then not liking the answers, surely a government committed to the Big Society needs a new approach to engagement with stakeholders as it considers its research strategy. How about co-creation of the research programme with users and potential producers? This could be an exciting development that moves us beyond increasingly expensive and constipated procurement processes – the commissioning side could work collaboratively with the user community and agencies to redesign the major surveys at a high level before they are commissioned.

3. Strong leadership of social research within government. It’s not for me to tell government how to organise its research capacity and so this is tricky ground. But I would observe that the physical sciences are fortunate to have a powerful voice at the heart of government in the form of the chief scientific adviser: the influential Sir John Beddington, who runs the Government Office for Science. The civil service remains a fundamentally hierarchical place, and there is no structural equivalent at such a high level in social research. Perhaps there should be.

This is an issue that won’t – and shouldn’t be allowed – to go away, so I hope these ideas strike a chord both within government and among other social research suppliers. We might compete with one another in the market place but that mustn’t prevent us from having a shared voice on issues that matter.

Penny Young is the CEO of the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), which previously ran the Citizenship Survey though more recently the study has been managed by Ipsos Mori and TNS BMRB. She blogs on social research topics here.

1 Comment

13 years ago

I agree that there needs to be a co-ordinated approach to determining what the priorities for national statistics, which inform both central and local (government) level decision making should be and how survey research fits into that provision of information. We can debate the future for social research in terms of the role the survey should and will play in the next decade - but administrative and qualitative data will not meet all data needs. A co-creation model would be a bold step - but one that would signal a commitment to engaging with key stakeholders and fostering innovation. Our national statistical assets and heritage are important. They define who and what we are as a society. As an industry are we willing and able to rise to the challenges that lie ahead and work together to secure the future of statistical assets? I believe we can.

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