Voucher launch sparks third sector debate about research impact

To mark the launch of Understanding Society’s Research Voucher Scheme, third sector representatives gathered to discuss how they can enhance research, policy and campaigning using longitudinal data.

The roundtable event, hosted in collaboration with the Alliance for Useful Evidence, was well-attended with delegates from a wide range of charities including Mind, Citizen’s Advice, Gingerbread and the Child Poverty Action Group.

To kick-start the event, Karl Wilding, Director of Public Policy and Volunteering at NCVO, offered policy and research managers advice on how the sector could raise its game in generating impact through research.

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Mr Wilding referred to policy making, not as a single event, but an evolutionary process, “It’s built upon fine layers and you need to make sure you’re contributing to those layers all the way through.” He cited the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Resolution Foundation and the Institute for Fiscal Studies as great examples of organisations that have positioned themselves well in the space to influence policy.

Mr Wilding continued, “You need to avoid ‘hugging’ research for three years and then announcing the research findings, it doesn’t work. If you’re interested in influencing policy, take part in networks and engage policy makers through the process.” Extensive use of snapshot polls and online panels, he argued, has been a retrograde step in the context of much richer survey and administrative data now publicly available.

With limited time and an overwhelming quantity of information being a real concern for policymakers, paying attention to the form of communications is critical.

“The Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement has the ‘1:3:20 rule’ which says that you should never have more than one page of recommendations, a three-page executive summary and no report should be more than 20 pages long,” he said. Mr Wilding also recommended making research more accessible by using blogs and social media.

Jonathan Breckon, Head of the Alliance for Useful Evidence continued the discussion by highlighting the merits of using longitudinal data for evidence-informed policy. “Longitudinal data is super appropriate for certain policy questions” and the UK’s “world-class longitudinal research base” should be used more widely. Mr Breckon stressed that being able to track things over time is what makes datasets such as Understanding Society important for generating robust evidence and examining the impact of policies.

Age UK deploys Understanding Society to examine wellbeing

To show how Understanding Society is already been used in third sector research, Dr Marcus Green, Research Manager from Age UK discussed the Age UK Wellbeing Index. They need to measure how older people in the UK are doing, identify groups where wellbeing is low and better understand relevant policy and practical levers.

Because the dataset is multi-purpose, Dr Green said it offered ‘99%’ of what they needed for the Index. The Index uses 28 indicators compiled from the Study. This will enable Age UK to observe how different events in one’s life impact on wellbeing. As well as tracking change over time, it will help identify why wellbeing is low amongst different groups of older people.

The project is yet to be officially launched, but initial findings reveal that those on benefits are likely to experience lower wellbeing – although there are likely to be confounding effects such as health and wider socio-economic circumstance. On the other hand offering care for less than 20 hours can have a positive effect on wellbeing.

Dr Nicole Martin, Senior Research Officer at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, discussed the unique benefits of longitudinal research, and also demonstrated the risks of sometimes drawing false conclusions from a snapshot picture of what might be happening.

By tracking people over time, researchers can look at long-term change in people’s lives and Dr Martin used mental health and work as a key example. “People in permanent employment experience lower mental health if they move into temporary work. We could say that the change in employment was the cause of this, but by using our data we can discover that people who move into temporary employment already have worse mental health than their colleagues who don’t move – so the job change can’t be the only cause of mental ill health.”

Dr Martin also showed how the test scores of those that attended grammar school and those that didn’t affected their chances of further education employment later in life. Those that attended grammar school received the equivalent of one year’s extra schooling and this significantly affected future prospects.

The roundtable discussion which followed the presentations allowed delegates to discuss new research ideas, opportunities and constraints.

Jonathan Rallings, Assistant Director for Policy at Barnardo’s said, “Barnardo’s is excited at the opportunities for the third sector offered by the new voucher scheme. Even large charities such as ourselves do not usually have the resources to obtain reliable longitudinal data and can struggle to follow service users over long periods of time, particularly when interventions are often short-lived.

“Tapping into the dataset held by Understanding Society will provide us with a unique chance to obtain new and valuable data such as the experiences and wellbeing of children and young people from a reputable source,” he continued.

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