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The Citizenship Survey: time for a more strategic approach to research commissioning in Government

Posted on 24 March 2011 .
Tags: Citizenship Survey, research commissioning, social inclusion

Most of you will remember that the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) cancelled the Citizenship Survey back in January, following a brief consultation. Last week it published the individual submissions to the consultation and its reasons for cancelling.  
I worry that we're beginning to see signs that individual decisions that make perfect sense to individual departments risk combining to have a damaging effect on the knowledge and evidence base as a whole. I'm arguing today for a more strategic and co-ordinated approach across government to decisions about major research projects.   The National Statistician made a similar point in her submission to the consultation (see p65).
I believe that it's perfectly possible (and right) to save taxpayers' money on research without creating fundamental damage to the overall value of the research - however painful to organisations like ourselves - but only if decisions about individual surveys are co-ordinated properly.
To be fair to CLG, it was upfront about the fact that the vast majority of submissions to the consultation were against cancellation. It acknowledged that other government departments had concerns.    The National Statistician's contribution was particularly to the point: arguing that the survey could prove invaluable for flagship government initiatives such as the Big Society and the Wellbeing project.     (We restricted our comments to ideas on saving costs - given our not entirely neutral position as a past provider of the survey).
But ultimately, CLG took the view that the cost could not be justified in the fiscal climate, and that it expected other providers to "take steps to provide it themselves in the academic or external market".    In other words, if other people value the data, fine, but let them pick up the tab.
And that's the real problem.   Research for Westminster government departments is remarkably decentralised. The vast majority of government social researchers are located within their departments. There are many business benefits to this: it means that researchers are much better connected to policy makers.   But in an era of profound cuts, surely government needs a strong central research vision and strategy complementing decision making in individual departments?     The idea that a series of individual decisions about individual surveys will add up to a coherent strategy is, at best, hopeful.
This was also clearly bothering the National Statistician.     She argued that "taking decisions on specific surveys separately may mean that we make less effective decisions, despite efforts to consult users of each survey."    
Maybe it's too soon to get worked up about a single decision by one department on a single survey.    And maybe the National Statistician's points are being acted upon behind closed doors. But there is no doubt that Government - and the public - will get the best value from its spend on social research if it has a coherent commissioning strategy. A key element of this must be to (a) identify cross-government needs (b) consider where research evidence has wider value to users and the public and should be funded by government and (c) work out how to deliver these needs in a streamlined fashion using an efficient number of surveys or other data sources.   A piecemeal approach to changes to the country's major social surveys will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the knowledge and evidence base. 
Let's hope that the National Statistician, Heads of Government Social Research and Chief Scientific Adviser and Treasury can pull this off.
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