The Value of Qualitative Research in Public Consultation

By Diane Armstrong, Business Development Manager, QSR International

For personnel working in local public sector organisations such as the NHS and local authorities, the need to consult with staff, service users and the public to implement service changes is more important than ever. We all acknowledge that the cuts in funding imposed by central government are putting significant pressure on consultation and research teams to do more with fewer resources and less funding. Whilst in the background, bubbling away, there is the ongoing menace of judicial review, striking fear into the hearts and minds of consultation teams across the country!

Whether we like it or not, the reality is that public consultation has never been more important and is certainly here to stay. Conducting a successful consultation depends on managing the process as effectively as possible and choosing the most appropriate approach and dialogue methods, which often means using a blended approach of both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Yet organisations often lean towards a quantitative approach when reporting consultations. Statistical data clearly illustrates whether a person is in favour, or not, of a particular proposal. Quantitative information will therefore always form the backbone of any public consultation, as it can easily be managed in large volumes and is relatively straightforward to reference when reporting findings.

However, the downside is that a quantitative approach doesn’t necessarily reflect the true opinions and views of the service user, as it doesn’t give them the opportunity to respond to the consultation questions in their own words. NVivo was developed to help provide a way of structuring qualitative data. Such information provides organisations with a valuable opportunity to really dig deep into their data, exploring issues, identifying emerging themes and making sense of unstructured information.

By being overwhelmed with qualitative data, or avoiding collecting it in the first place, important information can be lost. Exploring a rich data source enables public sector organisations to facilitate genuine (rather than tokenistic) discussion with their service users and with the wider public. It provides the ‘meat on the bones’ in terms of giving a fuller picture of what local people and communities are actually saying about services and gives organisations, like local councils, the opportunity to respond and act accordingly and to help build meaningful dialogue.

Ultimately, consultation data needs to be fit for purpose, stand up to scrutiny and support decision-making processes. Engagement and consultation teams must therefore evolve practices to report on both qualitative and quantitative findings. Only by drawing on the strengths of both approaches can Chief Officers and Elected Members make truly informed decisions relating to the provision of services to citizens and communities.

http://www.qsrinternational.com/solutions_government.aspx

Email: d.armstrong@qsrinternational.com

 

Photo Credit: Paul Krueger

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