OPINION6 May 2010

Decision day


How will the outcome of the 2010 election affect the market research industry?

So far in this blog we’ve focused mostly on how research has affected the campaign – in other words, the opinion polls. Now that voting is underway, it’s time to have a look at how the outcome could affect research.

Government communications spending
Let’s face it, the prospects aren’t good no matter who’s elected, but the Conservatives have shown more eagerness than others to cut the budget of the government’s communication arm, the Central Office of Information. The COI’s turnover has skyrocketed since Labour came to power in 1997, and research has grown as a proportion of its work, accounting for £29.4m of the £539.7m spent in 2008-09. But even at the last general election, long before the financial crisis, the Conservatives were talking about slashing the COI’s budget by more than half. Ex-MP Edwina Currie suggested recently scrapping it completely to see what difference it made (a proposal that would seem to be in line with George Osborne’s ideas on behaviour change – see below).

How the polls perform
How closely the polls predict the final result will affect the public perception of MR, which could have an impact on recruitment and on the public appetite for government spending on research. The polls have certainly been very prominent in this election, and some in the industry have a feeling of doom because there are just so many new and unpredictable factors that could throw a spanner in the works. But if they perform well, and especially if some of the more innovative approaches can show their worth, they might bring us some valuable positive PR.

Small and medium-sized businesses
Although more than half of the revenue of the top 100 UK research agencies comes from large enterprises, most agencies are small or medium-sized. Maggie Drye of Insitas outlined some of what small business owners are looking out for in a post for us last week, including better deals from the banks, more balanced employee protection legislation and tougher rules governing late payments. Another research industry bugbear is public sector procurement, but with all the parties seeking ‘efficiency savings’, it’s hard to see the situation getting easier any time soon. Labour says it will commit £4bn of public funds, plus private contributions, to supporting growing businesses. The Lib Dems say they’ll take steps to get banks lending again, reform business rates and set up local enterprise funds. The Tories also want to reform rates, as well as putting particular focus on reducing the red tape involved in setting up and running a business – an offer that will no doubt resonate with many research agency owners.

Data protection
Labour’s manifesto manages to talk about ‘using technology to cut crime’ without mentioning privacy. The Conservatives and Lib Dems, though, are big on privacy. The Tories say Labour’s approach is the worst of all worlds: “intrusive, ineffective and enormously expensive”. Both Tories and Lib Dems would curtail surveillance powers, scrap ID cards and scrap the ContactPoint database of children’s details. The Lib Dems propose this as part of a broader ‘Freedom Bill’, while the Tories say they will introduce privacy impact assessments “of any proposal that involves data collection or sharing”. Researchers looking to use new technologies to harness user-generated information may find themselves facing suspicion from a new government. Treading carefully around the issue of privacy will be more important than ever.

Public engagement
This is another area that, surely, is ripe for ‘cost efficiencies’. New Labour has become infamous for its perceived overuse of focus groups, citizens’ juries and deliberative events, and its rivals will want to be seen to make a break. On the other hand, there is talk from all sides of ‘a new politics’ – of more public involvement and accountability. Nick Clegg says he wants to “reinvigorate our democracy” by dispersing power and “breaking open Westminster and Whitehall”. There must be a role there for good research.

Behaviour change
Behaviour change theory is a hot topic in research circles at the moment. Of the main parties, it’s been the Conservatives who have paid this area the most attention – George Osborne even shared a byline in the Guardian earlier this year with Nudge author Richard Thaler. Under a Tory government, public bodies carrying out marketing campaigns would be required to state how they intend to change behaviour, and a portion of the ad agency’s fee would be contingent on achieving the desired outcome. As we wrote at the time, this is an approach that could transform how research is used and valued by government.

We’ve not covered everything above, so please let us know the issues that are concerning you this election in the comment box below.