Growing your public sector research portfolio

Having spent over a decade in the private sector pitching for social research (and winning!), and now a year as a client, I’ve discovered a few things it might be helpful to know if you plan to grow your public sector client base.

I’ve written the points below from a client perspective, but many of these learnings come from my time agency side. I’d be keen to know if you agree, and for others to share their views.

Talk to me well before you submit your proposal

In just one year as a client I’ve read a number of proposals where I’ve asked myself ‘Why didn’t they check that with us beforehand?’

When you’re sent a brief, I suggest reading it the same day. Then go back to other work while you mull over it in the back of your mind for a while. Once you’re done mulling, get in touch to have a chat about the project. I will never be one of those clients who refuse to answer questions out of a misguided belief this results in a fairer and better outcome, and I’ll fight tooth and nail against any procurement processes that prevents me doing so.

A wee hint: listen carefully if a potential client sounds anxious over some element of a project, and ask them more. These are the things they’ll focus on when making a decision.

Apply critical thinking

Any client worth their salt will be up for a challenge. It doesn’t matter what question we’ve said we’re trying to answer or what method and data sources we have in mind. Challenge us. When you do, clearly articulate your thinking, and how your approach will provide a better outcome.

Copying information from a brief into your proposal is bad idea. This doesn’t show your thinking, or that you understand our business and its challenges.

Show us you understand our business, but don’t stop there!

This is more important than anything else. You can often pitch and win work from commercial clients by showing them you understand their business and their challenges, and convincing them your approach will lead to outcomes like growth or retention. These factors are equally important in the public sector – although outcomes more often relate to behaviour change, efficiency, or greater trust and confidence.

The thing is though; this is really only a starting point. Showing you can do these things is fulfilling a ‘hygiene need.’

If you want to do serious social research you need to understand that public sector clients are constantly assessing risk. Unlike in the private sector, almost any public sector research output can be publically released under the Official Information Act. In addition, expenditure on consultants or research gets reported to the Finance Expenditure Committee, which holds the Government to account for how it spends taxpayer money.

What this means is public sector clients will ask questions that many private sector clients simply wouldn’t bother with. Questions about things like sample size and reliability aren’t being asked because your client is ‘too academic’ or ‘not focused on business outcomes’, they’re being asked because any project, no matter how large or small, can come under public, media, academic or Ministerial scrutiny.

Understand that your client will bear the responsibility if a project fails.

My personal reputation is at stake

If I’ve issued a research brief, chances are I’ve already spent time with senior stakeholders nailing down the project purpose and desired business outcomes, I’ve articulated where a project fits within the organisation’s strategy, and I’ve created internal buy-in for the work.

I’m the one that will need to front up to the Governance Group or the Senior Leadership Team, so I’m the one who will look bad if the research has no business outcome, or if the outputs are unreliable or appear unprofessional.

When I’m selecting a research provider, I will have a strong bias toward an individual researcher who I trust will deliver.

Be easy to work with

If I’m commissioning a research provider, odds are I don’t have capacity to do the work myself. Try to make things as easy as possible for me. I’ll devote as much time as you need to helping you understand the objectives and to engage with internal clients with you or on your behalf. But once you’ve nailed down the scope and purpose of the work, I want you to lead it and I need deliverables to be high quality. Keep me in the loop with how things are going, so I can respond to my stakeholders at a moment’s notice.

No more doorstops!

I can’t speak for every government agency, but there’s a general move away from large written reports (ie, every question charted and described in text), to reports that will engage senior stakeholders, tell the customers’ story, and clearly articulate what we should do next.

Very few senior people will read beyond the summary and recommendations, so make that section count. A visual summary helps to make the key findings engaging and accessible. Use of video or visually mapping the customer journey is even better!

So there we have it. I’d be glad for any other agency or client-side researchers to add their thoughts.

I’m also writing an article from the flip side, with tips to help fellow clients produce the most effective research.

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