OPINION22 September 2011

Why policy research is more important than ever


Good research is not cheap, but neither are failed policies, warns Sue Duncan, former chief government social researcher, as social surveys face up to a time of austerity.

When the Government Social Survey reached its 60th anniversary in 2001 the Office for National Statistics celebrated with a report that charted the growth of social research in government. As the 70th anniversary rolls around, it is more difficult to feel there is cause for celebration, writes Sue Duncan.

Research today is taking a bashing as part of the austerity agenda, but in times of scarce resources surely evidence to help inform decision-making is more vital than ever.

In 2011 what strikes one most forcefully is what an important role social research has played in informing the development and review of government policy.

Research is taking its share of overall cuts in public spending, but decisions need to be taken with care. Good research is not cheap, but neither are failed policies

From the early days, Cooper’s Snoopers were addressing policy questions through surveys aimed at informing the improvement of the nation’s eating habits, the development of the NHS and the raising of the school leaving age. Evidence-based policy-making was alive and well, long before the term was popularised by New Labour.

The Sixties and Seventies saw the establishment of some of the large regular and continuous surveys, such as the International Passenger Survey, the General Household Survey and the Labour Force Survey, which served a wide range of information needs. At the same time we saw the steady growth of social research units in individual policy departments, with the gradual development of a much more systematic approach to policy research and evaluation in government.

Staff in these units, which were later to become known as the Government Social Research service, were responsible for addressing the specific research needs of their departments and, crucially, for facilitating the difficult process of using research in policy development and review – a recognition that data interpretation was as important as data collection.

In the eighties and nineties the labour market, unemployment and “care in the community” were on the agenda, and the Family Resources Survey, the Survey of English Housing and the Adult Literacy Survey were launched.

Perhaps the most significant launch recently is the £33.5m birth cohort study, which was granted funding earlier this year and which could be read as recognition of the value of large-scale ‘investment’ surveys. But examples such as this seem thin on the ground.

Inevitably research is taking its share of overall cuts in public spending, but decisions need to be taken with care. Good research is not cheap, but neither are failed policies. To an outside observer the logic of the research cuts is impossible to determine. There appears to be no obvious attempt to take a strategic approach to the information needs of the government, a view apparently shared by the National Statistician Jil Matheson, who, responding to the consultation on the cancellation of the Citizenship Survey, observed that “taking decisions on specific surveys separately may mean that we make less effective decisions”.

Research can uncover unpalatable truths but it is a crucial ingredient of good decision-making. We can only hope that the government doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Sue Duncan, former chief government social researcher, is a consultant and president of the Social Policy Association