This will be one of the biggest LARIA conferences for a number of years, at least a third up on attendance from last year. In putting together the conference programme we have recognised that it has been an eventful year for both LARIA and its members. There has been real progress in developing the LARIA offer to members and also an increasing confidence in the activities members themselves are undertaking.
I think the regional network has been one of the key successes of the last year. With no budget a band of pioneers have volunteered their time and have arranged a number of activities. I have seen regional newsletters, free networking events and thoughtful activity on our online Knowledge Hub forum. Volunteers are at the heart of LARIA and I would encourage all LARIA members to be one. I want the regional network to be the heart of LARIA and it will increasingly be the place where innovation in research and intelligence occurs in this country. This can only be the case if we have active members supporting each other.
LARIA keeps our subscriptions incredibly low for a membership organisation. £80 will buy everyone in an organisation membership. The conference is fantastic value. We shifted our membership renewals and all transactions online and we are now one of the most technologically advanced subscriptions-based organisations in the country. If you are not a member click here and subscribe now. We have kept our free level of membership to keep in touch with the latest LARIA news but our challenge over the next year will be to further develop our improved offer to our paid members. We recognise that we cannot take paid membership for granted and would welcome ideas on how we can improve our offer.
You can support others by volunteering within your region or at a national level. We need volunteers in particular in the East Midlands and North East. We have merged with BURISA earlier in the year and we will be establishing a BURISA activity group looking in depth at the use and management of information and the development of information systems. If you are interested in big data, segmentation and the census then you are interested in BURISA and please help to take this forward. Please email me via firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to get involved.
Through our new links with BURISA we have also developed more contacts with statistics user groups. Official statistics are key to the work of LARIA members, and over the last decade we have seen a huge increase in the availability of information at the local level. I would like to mention that StatsUserNet has been created as an online forum for users and producers to engage with each other. It is supported by the Government Statistical Service (GSS), UK Statistics Authority, the Royal Statistical Society and the Statistics User Forum.
We are also expanding our network to organisations other than local authorities. We cover all local area research and you will see that at this conference. In particular we have worked this hard to bring in our health colleagues. Another network that is establishing itself is the Innovation in Collaboration initiative, being launched by the Peoplematters Network, which will help facilitate collaboration between researchers across the country. By encouraging researchers to work together online we are convinced they can collaboratively produce fantastic research with impact. Many of our members will have taken part in the Peoplematters Network survey that we have been supporting. This is the third year of the survey and there is still time to take part. Interim findings show the top priorities for members. The top three are that we need to raise the profile of the research and intelligence profession (69%), help develop research skills (60%) and provide free networking events with other researchers (58%).
I’ve therefore been working backwards through the priorities. The local regions and our online networks will hopefully provide the free networking events people want. In terms of raising skills we give you the National Occupational Standards, or NOS, developed with Skills for Justice. The NOS sets out for the first time the skills we think a local authority researcher needs, and by default this applies to researchers in other local area sectors. We see research as a profession and I would ask you to use the NOS to challenge yourself and your team to think beyond your methodological confines. I often describe myself as a pollster in my work at Westminster City Council, looking at residents’ surveys and the like, but in future I should work out what I need to be a researcher in the fullest sense of the word. This is particularly vital as I’m convinced the best in research is when we look across disciplines – combining techniques and maximising effectiveness. I will be looking for future LARIA events and activities to work using the NOS as a framework so we can support your professional development.
But as mentioned the highest priority from members is to raise the profile of the research and intelligence profession. We have in the last few years tried to do this by moving LARIA from being simply a best practice network of researchers to LARIA building on this by advocating the role of research and intelligence in the decision-making process.
As part of this I was kindly invited to speak at the SOLACE Summit in October to talk in a session led by the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Both organisations have been highly supportive of LARIA over the last year. At the summit we discussed the findings of a SOLACE member survey which I can share here today. Four in five (81%) SOLACE members think it is very important for local authorities to have robust evidence in making decision. But, only half (52%) of SOLACE members are satisfied with the way their decisions are informed by research and intelligence. Furthermore only half (48%) think they make evidence based decisions most of the time, including only 4% who think they do it all of the time. We need to help them. The demand is there but for some reason, as we will discuss in a moment, the cut-through of what we are doing is in part lacking.
The LARIA research impact awards are one of our efforts to help raise the profile of the research and intelligence profession and address this gap. The award winning case studies we will publish afterwards will show how research has made a difference to the people we serve.
I would encourage all members to think about the impact of the work they do and drop us a line about it. You don’t have to wait until next year’s awards. We are happy to help you by putting up blog posts on our website, supporting events you may wish to organise, commission research you think needs to be done or get you in contact with the people you need to bend the ear of in government or elsewhere. LARIA is what you make it – so challenge us on the Council and in the regional network to do more. In return we will provide you with the support you need to develop your ideas.
This text is adapted from the opening address to the LARIA Conference 2013 on 13th May 2013 in Manchester.
Photo credit: Neil Wholey, Chair of LARIA at LARIA Conference 2013 in Manchester taken by G1-di (Global1-Digital Images)