As Local Area Research Fortnight gets underway, Michael Fountain, Research Director at Qa Research, says there has never been a greater need to know what service users think
We all know that councils face huge pressures to make savings. As budgets are reduced, the need to explore new ways of delivering services while still protecting the most vulnerable residents is more important than ever.
In this environment, research and consultation may seem like a ‘nice to have’, but the need for high quality research has never been more vital and should be at the heart of local decision making.
Increasingly we find that it is, and its role in driving and balancing change where difficult decisions have to be made can be vital to policy as local authorities respond to the changing funding landscape.
Local area research comes of age
So, councils have a greater need than ever for high quality, targeted local area research to provide genuinely insightful and informed evidence.
Over the last few years at Qa Research, we’ve seen the positive response amongst our clients and we’ve seen the importance and value of research grow significantly. And here are three reasons why this has happened.
Reason 1: Taking local people with you
At a time when local authorities must make savings on a scale unprecedented in modern times, then changes to the way local services are delivered are inevitable.
In many cases these are real, tangible and sometimes dramatic changes that will be experienced by local residents. In some instances that could mean unhappy, even angry, people and this is made worse if residents feel they are excluded from the decision making process and unable to have any real influence.
The work we’ve done to understand how residents wish to be consulted highlights that above all else, they want to be treated as adults (assuming they are!).
People want to know the facts. Successful consultation acknowledges that residents are knowledgeable and rational, able to understand the challenges facing local authorities and to form balanced opinions as to how limited resources should be used.
People are very aware that their council faces major challenges. They know difficult decisions have to be made.
They want to have their say on the decisions that affect them. But more than that, they want their views to be heard and taken into account when decisions are taken.
Reason 2. Answering tough questions
So, who’s more vulnerable a young, single mum or an elderly widow? What should a local market provide, gourmet food for the discerning ‘foodie’ or low cost goods and services for those who’ve always relied on it?
How can services be delivered for two-thirds of last year’s budget?
Questions like these and many other equally challenging ones can be informed, or even answered in full, by well deisgned, ambituous and honest research – and we increasingly see local authorities prepared to tackle exactly these types of questions.
This is a change and a welcome one and we’ve seen really inspired, honest and exploratory research used to inform the following:
- Remodeling Children’s Centre provision
- Determining how to deliver leisure services to meet the needs of a geographically dispersed population
- Minimising the impact of council tax benefit reduction on the most vulnerable residents
- Redeveloping and relocating local markets
- Involving local people in the delivery of library services.
Reason 3. To demonstrate value for money
Our own experience of working with LAs throughout the UK in the last few years has demonstrated a fundamental shift in attitudes towards consultation.
Straitened times have focused local authorities towards commissioning research and consultation that is genuinely required, highly valued by end users and provides robust evidence to support tough decisions.
The days of the tick-box exercise have largely passed and we see Research and Consultation Officers more and more empowered and invigorated to explore options that challenge the old way of doing things to get the most from their research spend.
This means more challenging projects for agencies like Qa Research and we welcome it. The fruits of all our endeavours are now often highly prized by decision makers and we all benefit from this.
Looking to the future
Residents understand that their councils are faced with making difficult decisions. They rightly expect that these decisions will be informed by sound data, the needs of their community and informed decision making.
This can’t take place without the expertise and dedication of local area researchers, whose work is essential to the future of local services and at the heart of local democracy itself.
- Michael Fountain is research director at Qa Research: firstname.lastname@example.org