Policy and opinion

By using qualitative market research of public opinion, government departments can identify social issues and shape policy to fit the needs and desires of a sceptical UK population

New Labour’s love affair with market research has generated a lot of bad press since it hit the news headlines about the time of the 1997 general election. So much so, that phrases such as “Government by focus group” have become part of the shorthand used by the media to lampoon the supposed triumph of spin doctoring over political conviction and integrity.

Finding out what will play well with the electorate is certainly a factor in the studies commissioned by political parties. But to view market research as a device for making political messages fit the views of the electorate disregards the sophisticated use of market research in the wider policy domain. By finding out what the public thinks about complex social issues, market research helps government to clearly communicate these issues and deliver a progressive social agenda.

Much of the research undertaken on social issues originates in government departments concerned with the implementation of policy, as well as with charities and reform lobby groups and not with politicians. In the past, the main emphasis was on commissioning polls and surveys to generate statistics. More recently, social researchers have begun to use qualitative techniques to learn more about the context in which policy is implemented. They also use these techniques to understand how outcomes are influenced by the attitudes, differing needs and values of the people affected by policy initiatives.

Sheila Keegan of market research consultants Campbell Keegan says: “In a fast-changing and fragmented world, it is not enough to know what people are doing and saying. You have to find ways of getting behind the facts in order to understand the why and the how.”

People tend to be more accepting of policy when they have had an opportunity to influence its development. This is one reason why government has become more positive about the concept of exploring public attitudes through the use of market research. Another knock-on effect of this trend is that government agencies are more aware of the benefits of adopting a segmented approach to policy, in much the same way that marketers have moved from mass to more targeted marketing. For instance, the Government’s New Deal employment initiative recognises that a 40-year-old unemployed person needs different support to find work than a recent school leaver.

Highlighting divisersity

National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) head of qualitative research Jane Lewis says: “Qualitative research highlights the diversity of people, such as the homeless or the unemployed. It also enables you to single out the factors that really make a difference to how people react to policy measures.”

Referring to the New Deal programme and the way it assigns a personal adviser to each unemployed person to help them find work, she says: “The participants place great emphasis on this personal adviser and how well they related to them as an individual.”

Making relatively small adjustments to accommodate people’s concerns can have a huge impact on how successfully government initiatives are implemented. However, it would be wrong to represent qualitative research as merely a tactical tool for fine-tuning the delivery of policy.

When applied to a reforming agenda, qualitative research can help strategists to steer policy in a more radical direction. Arnold Cragg of market research consultants Cragg Ross Dawson says: “Consulting with people isn’t just a matter of finding out what people think. The interesting factor is finding out where they might go in the future and what would lead them there.”

Most of us are capable of expressing contradictory viewpoints, especially when the proposition has many dimensions and involves a trade-off of benefits. So, far from being cast in tablets of stone, public opinion is often surprisingly receptive to departures in policy – provided that the arguments for change are presented effectively.

Focused objectives

Focus groups and other qualitative techniques, such as in-depth interviews, are better equipped to deal with complexity than polls and surveys. This is because they allow scope for grey areas to be debated and worked through. Even so, when the subject matter is particularly complex, it may be necessary to adapt the format of conventional group discussions or interviews to allow people time to reflect on new ideas and to focus their thinking.

Alan Hedges, an independent research consultant and spokesperson for the Association for Qualitative Research (AQR) says: “The key consideration for policymakers who want to use market research as part of the policy development process, is to move beyond knee-jerk responses. We can all express a viewpoint on issues that we haven’t really thought through, but it is unlikely that we would be pleased with the outcome of policies that were worked out on the basis of our off-the-cuff opinions.”

Recently, social researchers have begun to experiment with a range of approaches – known collectively as deliberative techniques – to assess how public attitudes are affected by the provision of high-quality information and the opportunity to engage in informed debate over a longer period. A good example of this is a “consultative panel” that the NCSR conducted recently, with funding from the Wellcome Trust, to explore public attitudes to gene therapy. As part of the study all the participants were given access to a video on gene therapy, invited to take part in moderated group discussions and sent a copy of a magazine exploring the scientific, ethical, social and legal aspects of the technology.

The demand for more effective methods of public consultation stems, in part, from a widespread concern over the public’s ambivalence towards life-changing scientific advances. However, public acceptance of technology isn’t simply a matter of education – even if government succeeds in explaining the technology behind gene therapy, this does not answer people’s concern over ethical issues. As NCSR research director Alison Park says: “There is increasing recognition that the public have views and experiences of relevance to decision-making, that go beyond science.”

In a world where technology is making some of our fundamental assumptions about what it is to be obsolete, there is genuinely a sense in public policy that the issues are too big to be left to the so-called experts. This does not in any way detract from the responsibility of government to initiate strategies that are innovative and forward-looking. However, policy has to reconcile people’s values if it is work in practice.

The poor turnout at the last election illustrates how democracy suffers when the political agenda fails to interest voters. Social researchers are already using qualitative analysis to better understand the factors behind the political disaffection among groups such as young adults and ethnic minority communities. In addition to digesting the results of ad hoc studies, policymakers need to experiment with alternative market research formats. These include consultative panels, reconvened groups and other deliberative approaches that favour the development of a sustained dialogue and are capable of evolving.

Qualitative research offers politicians a way to reclaim voters who choose not to vote at elections, or who opt to make their views known through direct action. But the challenge for government does not stop there. For democracy to flourish it is necessary to look beyond the electoral process and find ways of encouraging people to participate in local public life.

Local authorities and many government agencies are increasingly using qualitative research to gain insight into the public’s expectations of public services. More radically, some bodies are using the discipline to allow popular views and values to play a part in the allocation of scarce resources.

Sustained dialogue

A prime example of this approach is the award-winning programme undertaken by Somerset Health Authority, which involved residents in the development of a local strategy for health improvement. As part of this process the authority runs regular health panels, recruited from a broad cross-section of the public. The panels give feedback on the authority’s health-improvement plan on matters such as the apportionment of the local health care budget and making controversial treatments, such as Viagra and alternative therapies, available on the National Health Service.

The emphasis in government is more on building a partnership with the public through sustained dialogue. This is creating opportunities for the market research industry to acquire clients in the public sector. In some respects, the trends in the public sector mirror the efforts of brand marketers to broaden the remit of customer relationship marketing by entering into a so-called dialogue with consumers. However, the public sector poses particular challenges for market researchers.

By its very nature, public policy is often concerned with complex matters that involve conflicts of interest. Policymakers are also obliged to look beyond market appeal and take account of the long-term consequences of policy interventions for society. The implication of this is that market researchers must adapt their techniques to enable participants to grapple with difficult issues.

Effective social research can improve debate on many issues, from whether we should increase tax for better levels of public service, to the acceptable use of genetic engineering techniques. The argument that there is no need for such discussion as the results will be obvious – that no one wants to pay higher taxes and people are worried about cloning – misses the point. When applied well, qualitative research extends the boundaries of public consultation, giving government bodies a clearer idea of our attitudes, while we gain insight into reasons behind public policy as well as a means to influence it.

The Research Show

The research industry’s largest annual client-focused event at London’s Olympia runs October 2 to October 4. About 100 exhibitors and 27 seminar sessions offer insights into the latest market research developments.

The Research Show offers opportunities to meet potential buyers, launch products and services and liaise with existing clients. Now in its sixth year, the show continues to attract a greater number of marketers with about 3,000 visitors last year.

Following the success of The Cyber Hub, the Internet feature introduced at the 1999 show, it has been extended to include an additional focus area. Here you can meet organisations offering specific online expertise and discuss the benefits of website monitoring.

This year’s seminar programme covers a variety of topics and industry sectors, presented by leading industry and client speakers. Subjects include discussions on how:

Boots predicts consumer trends

Research helped Halifax increase customer satisfaction

Poor research contributed to the dot-com crash.

Taylor Nelson Sofres Interactive is carrying out an online post-show survey for the event. Every visitor who has provided an e-mail address will be contacted and asked to take part in the survey and provided with a link to the Web questionnaire. This is the first time this methodology has been used and will provide a comprehensive evaluation of the Research Show 2001.

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