OPINION6 June 2011

Public sector research: ‘If you can't demonstrate the value, don't do it’

Neil Wholey, chair of public sector research think tank LGinsight, reports from a day focusing on research expertise at the conference of parent organisation LGcommunications.

Public sector communication teams have had to fight hard in recent times to justify the work they do. In the last year the government has halved the head count at its own in-house communications unit, the Central Office of Information, frozen its advertising spending and described local authorities’ newsletters as “town hall Pravdas”.

It was in this climate that LGcommunications, an association of local authority comms teams from across the UK, held its conference this year.

David Holdstock, chair of LGcommunications, told the audience: “If we can’t demonstrate the value of something, we shouldn’t do it.” With this in mind, an entire day of the event was devoted to research and evaluation of communications, under the banner of sister organisation LGinsight.

“Comms professionals know they have to up their game in this climate, but many are forced to look for cheap techniques that they can do in-house”

Never has an audience been brought up to speed on the wonders of research so quickly. After all, according to Keith Butterick’s study from the Huddersfield Centre for Communications Research, half of public sector communication teams have no formal evaluation methods. Of those who do, many simply collect press clippings and record how many press releases they send out. If public opinion is brought into the equation then robust research projects, usually surveys, are a rarity. Where they do happen, they often look at broad priorities and overall satisfaction with the organisation, rather than focusing on communications issues.

This has served communication teams fine in the past. The golden rule is that the more informed people are, the more satisfied they will be, and this insight has helped underpin the rise in public sector communications over the last fifteen years. The empires of directors of communications (who ten years ago would have struggled to find a job in the public sector outside the press office) are built on this idea, which has enabled comms teams to operate without evaluation of their own work.

At this year’s event we saw this point of view challenged. Discussions were held about causality – are better informed people more satisfied or are more satisfied people inclined to seek out information? In some quarters this is heresy, but it has to be addressed if public sector communicators are to fully embrace research.

Professor Oliver James, from the University of Exeter, worked with participants to develop their own scientific field trials of communications. Ian Mills from SMSR encouraged attendees to consider managing expectations rather than chasing satisfaction. “I can be satisfied with something but not think it is particularly good,” he reminded them. Research into engagement with the public through social media and the internet, together with more focused customer segmentation added further insights to the debate.

Engagement is important in an era of budget cuts. Virtually every public service in the country is having to cut the amount it spends more rapidly and deeply than they have ever had to before. Some services will be stopped altogether. As Rick Nye from Populus said: “People are paying attention to perceived waste in the system. The public expect local services to be maintained, they think it’s possible.”

Communications professionals know that they have to up their game in this climate, but many are instead forced to look for cheap techniques that they can do in-house. Fears about cost often arise from undervaluing what can be achieved as a result.

Speakers from research agencies BMG, SMSR and ICM gave the audience the arguments for research, explaining why it’s important to talk to providers about the outcomes that need to be achieved, rather than rushing straight into procuring a particular survey or technique. Research, they said, can give us early warnings, help us manage customer expectations and prioritise service needs.

Still, opinion remains divided on the value of research in public sector comms. Some of the comms professionals present opened their eyes to the range of ideas on offer, but others found it hard to accept they needed to develop these skills.

Research is difficult. It is fuzzy around the edges, and once you answer the initial question you usually raise many more. This day tried to offer a gentle introduction to embedding it more effectively in the way public sector communications operate.

Neil Wholey is chair of LGinsight and head of research at Westminster City Council

1 Comment

11 years ago

Great stuff Neil, great stuff.

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