By Nigel Bradley
“Knowledge is Power” is a quotation that dates back to 1597 and is attributed to Sir Francis Bacon. And there lies the reason to conduct market and social research. Surveys, focus groups and observation allow us to build gaps in our knowledge, to identify demand and thereby supply what is needed (or wanted). Research information minimises risks in decision making, it saves money, increases productivity and is generally valuable.
The Labour government recognised the importance of information and directed thousands of pounds of money into research projects. Tax payers’ money was used and so this research was made largely available to the public in the name of transparency. The Office of National Statistics and the research institute IPSOS MORI both have numerous examples of such studies. We have some indications of the amounts spent on research – the Central Office of Information alone spent more than £27m in 2009/2010. The numerous satisfaction surveys for the NHS, the Police, in transport and other areas give food for thought.
The next government came along in 2010 and immediately implemented spending cuts. The BBC summarised these as follows:
– £81bn cut from public spending over four years
– 19% average departmental cuts
– £7bn extra welfare cuts
– 7% cut for local councils from April next year
Research was also cut heavily, we see the impact in government departments – the COI shed a third of its staff, posts in research agencies serving the sector were lost.
Tony Blair’s government was criticised for over using research. Sometimes it seemed that decision makers would refuse to make decisions without results from focus groups or surveys. Decisions would be postponed until research was made available. Sometimes there was “information overload” and a sort of decision paralysis.
In 2004 Oxford City Council commissioned a market research agency to find out how residents thought it should spend its budget in the next year. A method was proposed which led to interviews with 28 people and involved a day of “community discussion”. The fee was £15,000. The agency described it as a “powerful day”, but angry taxpayers, who funded the project, called it a waste of money. One councillor said: “We could all have written this report in 30 seconds, and for free.”
Under the new government the tables seem to have been turned. Decision makers have been given back their skills of using instinct, intuition and persuasiveness. Some would say their integrity and raison d’être have been restored, others would say they have been stripped of up to date information.
The recent Student Fees issue is a good example. In an ideal situation the policy would have been tested with different people: 16 year olds, parents, academics, undergraduates, postgraduates, school teachers, union representatives. Individual depth interviews and questionnaire analyses would have identified the good and bad points.
Focus groups would have sensed the frenzy that we have seen on our streets that results from person triggering another person into action. Careful consultation would have identified the best ways to communicate unpalatable ideas; indeed this would have guided the package. All of this was missing and so we saw an attack on Prince Charles, the hospitalisation of demonstrators and police alike. We saw dignity and common sense stripped away. Penny pinchers will have seen an unnecessary expenditure on policing, medics and repairs. This is an amount of money that surely exceeds efficient pre-testing research.
Perhaps that research took place? If so, something went terribly wrong. We can only wait to see similar mistakes.
Meanwhile the new government have decided to pump research money into a continuous study which will monitor “well-being” of the British public (we are told not to call this happiness). Cameron said: “It’s time we admitted that there’s more to life than money, and it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB – general wellbeing.” Measure for Measure not a good start methinks.
Nigel Bradley is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Westminster in London and a Fellow of the Market Research Society. This year Oxford University Press published the second edition of Nigel’s textbook: Marketing Research – Tools and Techniques. He has previously written this post for OUPblog.