Social research: Getting the best from your research agency

I recently published an article with advice for agencies wanting to grow their public sector research base. My focus here is a little different; it’s aimed at helping client-side researchers get the best from their agencies. I’ve written this from a ‘client-side’ perspective, but many of my learnings have come from experience in the private sector.

Design time = quality

Two key points:

Firstly, good social research (especially complex social research) can take a time to get right. It’s best to allow this time at the design stage of the project. If issues occur with analysis or reporting, they can be fixed up. If a project wasn’t scoped or designed properly at the outset, little can be done.

Secondly, every government agency experiences pressures to spend their budget before the end of the financial year (end of June). For this reason, the period from March through July is ‘peak season’ for social research, and your agencies are really under the pump. They’ll want the work, because at the end of the day they can’t exist without bringing in revenue and making profit, but as previous colleague once commented: “If you want high quality research delivered by the end of June, don’t commission it in April! This couldn’t be truer.

Listen and be teachable

If you’re the client, you call the shots. However, if you’re working with a senior person in a social research agency, you’re likely dealing with someone who has worked across a diverse range of government agencies for a long time, with exposure to a variety of research approaches and methods, and knows what kinds of research produces the best outcomes. In short, there’s a good chance they have more or wider experience than you and you can gain a lot if you’re willing to listen and be teachable.

If you’re dogmatic and think you know it all, your end product will likely be inferior (and you won’t even know!).

Be clear about standards and outputs

If you want a particular type of reporting style or have particular preferences for research outputs, communicate these ahead of time and do so clearly. Don’t assume your agency can read your mind, and don’t assume there’s ‘one right way’ to report research findings. From my experience agency side, there are as many types of reporting styles as there are government clients.  If you’re clear, your agency will be able to deliver outputs that are much closer to what you need, first time.

Again, be teachable. Your agency will have experience delivering research to a wide range of audiences. They should have a good idea about the kinds of outputs that work best for Government ministers, leadership teams, service level managers, or researchers. These audiences have different needs.

Lastly, if you need outputs like raw data, transcripts, and data tables you need to state this in advance to avoid additional costs later on. Before agencies provide these, they need to be produced and quality checked; this takes time and has an associated cost.

Contract terms have nothing to do with your on-going relationship

Go ahead and negotiate contract terms to ensure you’re getting a good product, for a fair price, in the time you need it – but don’t play the ‘relationship card’. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had potential clients ask me to reduce the price ‘given the importance of our on-going relationship’.

When my clients gave me more work, they typically did so because I could be trusted to deliver quality research with usable outcomes – not because of our on-going relationship! When you’re negotiating, you’re setting out the terms under which a commercial relationship exists. By all means, negotiate on less expensive outputs and faster timeframes. If you truly value the relationship though, you’d place value on your research agency’s time and you wouldn’t be asking them to devalue it.

Meet your contractual obligations

When you sign a contract, everyone is agreeing to terms. This includes what you need to provide the research agency and by when.  Don’t assume it is okay to be late as long as you’re flexible about the project completion date. This isn’t fair to your agency, who may be trying to meet obligations for ten other clients as well as you. One day late can mean a whole team of people need to re-schedule their work plan, it puts your agency’s other clients at risk, and it may mean delaying things on your project longer than a single day. Both you and your agency could end up frustrated.

Finally, realise that while research can be costly, it also has fairly low profit margins. For example, if you commission a telephone survey, a large proportion of that time is paying interviewers an hourly rate to call, screen and interview respondents, and this cost needs to be carefully managed. Changing the goal posts in the middle of a project can easily convert a profitable project to an unprofitable one. If you change expectations part way through, you should expect to renegotiate costs.

Learn about sampling

This is a personal bugbear. I’ve designed and run projects from high-spec national door-to-door probability surveys to non-random online panel surveys. Please try to learn the difference.

If you’re paying for a high spec random door-to-door or telephone survey, you should expect close monitoring of response rates, detailed contact data, and post-stratification weights to adjust for the probability of selection. If you’re paying for a survey using an existing online research panel or quota sampling approach, you need to appreciate this is non-random – meaning probability theory doesn’t apply. Your agency should put in controls to ensure your final sample represents the target population as closely as possible, and includes hard-to-reach groups, but you shouldn’t be expecting them state results are within ‘X margin of error’. The science doesn’t work that way.

Be fair and reasonable

Most that I’ve said here can be summed up as: be reasonable, set clear expectations, be good to work with.

If you don’t do these things, it’s highly likely your research agency will still go out of its way to make sure you’re happy. But there are commercial realities at play. If your approach has cost an agency a lot of unanticipated time, it’s a 100% certainty they’ll factor this in next time they come to work with you. This is done by setting out more specific expectations and standards in the contract (fine print) and by anticipating the additional time (cost) required to keep you happy. It benefits taxpayers when we are  fair and reasonable.

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