Five challenges in conducting social research for local government

There are many reasons for conducting social research for local government.  Local councils may wish to test a concept or idea amongst its rate payers, there could be a program or initiative they have been running for a while with little evidence about how it is performing, or perhaps councils may need to assess the needs of a particular group within the community.  Whatever the reason, it is not uncommon for the social research consultant they have commissioned to come across some challenges in the process.   Most challenges can be overcome with experience, creative thinking, flexibility, and an open relationship between consultant and Council.

Challenge #1: Reaching unengaged communities

Some members of the community are highly or moderately engaged with Council and community activities, but it is likely that the majority of people are not.  To reach  unengaged members of communities it may be necessary to conduct telephone surveys with a randomly-selected community sample.  Alternatively, it can be useful to intercept members of the public at local events or even in the street or the library, and either ask them some key questions at that moment, or recruit them for research at another time.  If the research brief calls for understanding the views of the broad local community, not just those with a particular interest in the topic, it is important to try to reach unengaged communities.

Challenge #2: Encouraging participation

Once communities have been reached, how do you encourage people to participate in research?  From our experience, we know it is easier to encourage people to participate in research about local issues than it is about a topic they have less connection with, such as consumer goods.  But people are busy and can have other priorities.  Offering a small cash incentive to participate in research can be an effective means of encouraging participation. It is also a way for respondents to feel that council values their time and appreciates their effort.  Another technique can be to enter all participants into a draw for a chance to win one of a few prizes.  But above all, in our experience at NSF, we have found that it is usually not hard to encourage people to give their views about local government issues.  Techniques to encourage participation are often as much about an agreement to work within the rules the researcher sets, including respondents not taking the opportunity of consultation to vent about other unrelated council issues.

Challenge #3:  Consulting with culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) groups

Local government organisations such as Blacktown and Parramatta Councils in Sydney’s western suburbs cover a large geographical area comprising diverse cultural and language groups.  It can be challenging to reach and consult with these groups due to language and cultural barriers.  It can be helpful to work with local multi-cultural organisations and groups to reach their members by, perhaps visiting the group when they have a meeting or social event planned and requesting some consultation time following their activity when they are already together.  It may be necessary to have a translator at this meeting.  Another option may be to have an English online survey translated into some of key local languages and have the survey sent out to members via local cultural groups or organisations.

Challenge #4: Utilising Council data bases

To conduct research amongst local communities who are already using a Council program, initiative or service, it is important to be able to contact them directly.  Ideally, Council would keep a current database of active participants in programs and activities.  If this is the case, the social research consultant has an easy job of simply calling people for interview from council’s current list.  Typically, people will be called randomly to avoid any bias in sampling.  However, a challenge arises when the brief is to evaluate an existing Council program, yet Council doesn’t have current or accurate records of its participants.  A solution may be for the consultant to attend the event or activity in question and talk with participants there and then, although it relies on participants turning up on the day, and the people there being a representative sample of the users or attendees.

Challenge #5:  Receiving buy-in from the whole of Council

Social research at a local government level is commissioned by a particularly department within Council, such as Business Services, Environmental Services or Community Services.  With all the commitment, dedication and cooperation of the council client and their project team within that department,  if there is little support from the whole of council, the research process can be challenging.  For example, the Environmental Services team may wish to conduct an online survey of its rate payers or local community about community attitudes towards the environment.   Yet the Environmental Services team may not have permission to post this survey on Council’s home page of the website.  Instead, it may be posted on a page about Council’s environmental services which means that the potential respondents of the survey are those who have searched for information about Council’s environmental services and are therefore already engaged with the issue.  This can create an unintended bias in the results.

All social research projects present a series of challenges.  The particular challenges for social research consultants working at local government level can be anticipated and addressed with experience, open communication and a realistic time frame for the project.  At NSF Consulting we love a challenge, and our experience working at a local government level means we can often anticipate and address a number of these challenges and in many cases, prevent them becoming problems.

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