OPINION8 April 2011

Narrating the changes in local government research


Local governments are being battered by public spending cuts, and their researchers are sharing the pain. But battle-weary though they might be, Westminster City Council’s Neil Wholey finds an esprit de corp remains, and with it a willingness among researchers to reinvent themselves.

Membership levels are steady, though, and its conference in York this week saw Laria finding a new energy and purpose. Researchers expressed a desire to learn new skills and to tackle business transformation projects rather than just performance-manage – and to actually fight their corner rather than huddle there with a pile of stats.

A survey of the current mood among attendees found 59% uncertain and 41% feeling vulnerable in their role, with only 11% feeling secure. 74% said they found the current mood challenging, but 60% said they were looking to develop leadership and management capabilities and the same proportion ( 62%) are looking to brush up on their use of insight.

Martin Reeves, the chief executive of Coventry City Council, sought to reassure the crowd with a motivational speech about how research should be at the beating heart of a council. He said that everyone in the room should be focusing on the story the research is telling; narrating the changes that are taking place in local life.

“Public sector researchers have shown themselves to be willing and able to push forward new and creative research techniques and insights”

Public sector researchers were boxed in to a corner by the last government. While there was a huge increase in spending on public sector research, this was often filtered into performance monitoring and league tables. These included targets for public opinion measures, such as satisfaction with the council, with guidelines from government being that all targets had to be outside the margin of error so that we could be assured real change had occurred. Therefore targets were always to increase performance by three or four percentage points, rather than understand what actually drove performance.

For decision-makers, research was often a big table of numbers with little guidance on why change was happening, or an annual PowerPoint presentation of the latest survey which reviewed the past but never scoped out the future.

It is not surprising that when the new government scrapped the performance targets regime the minister for local government, Grant Shapps, dismissed market research as “a cosmetic exercise which never changes anything”.

The general message from government that such things are wasteful and bureaucratic hits the type of people who are represented by Laria hard. Virtually everyone at the conference had a story about a reorganisation they were going through or had completed. Many individuals were either waiting to find out if they were being made redundant, or had come along to the conference knowing this would be their last for their organisation. Some familiar faces were already gone.

Changes to the public sector in the UK are huge, including the largest and fastest budget cuts for generations. Local public sector researchers need help to deal with this. Research companies need to think again about what they provide to the sector and suggest new ideas and insights. It will involve a robust business case. The public sector is now probably the toughest area to sell market research in, but only because research companies need to show how their work will help drive real bankable savings.

At the conference this week public sector researchers showed themselves to be willing and able to push forward new and creative research techniques and insights. Those who aren’t have no place in the new world.

Neil Wholey is head of research and customer insight at Westminster City Council, a member of the Laria council, and chair of LGinsight, a thinktank for public sector researchers.