By Victoria Parr, Managing Director, Latitude Insights Sydney office
At the last AMSRS conference I presented a paper on the research to develop the design of plain packaging for tobacco products (yes, that colour…… Pantone 448C). During the questions that followed, an audience member highlighted that even though the emphasis of the conference had been on new methodologies and digital data collection, most of the papers dealing with significant social or community impact had used very traditional methods, including mine. He was questioning the tension between the ‘new’ methodologies and the need for delivery of robust and evidence based research that is required for government research.
This is an issue that I believe many in the audience of that last conference were grappling with, especially those of us that work within the social and government sphere. Our government clients are similar to commercial clients in that they too need to do everything cheaper and faster. They are also aware of that ‘new fangled’ thing called the internet, and they know that people now have 100′s of friends and followers whose profile pictures they see on a daily basis, and who they converse with in 140 characters or less.
How our government clients differ is that the research they do is funded by all Australian taxpayers, so all of us in the community who are relevant to the problem need to be represented in the research. It is a critical part of the democratic model of government that all have chance to express their views and opinions on matters that affect them, and that means the research we do must be representative of the population in question.
And here lies the crux of the issue.
As I said at the conference, government needs to be accountable and need to ensure reliability of rigorous and robust research methods to achieve this. But at the same time, the world is changing and we all know that the way people are communicating is now different. We type to communicate almost as much, if not more, than we verbalise our thoughts. As AMSRS committee member Victoria Gamble gamely said when called out to take the roving microphone at the conference ‘I don’t like to speak in front of so many people, that’s why I use twitter’.
So my question is, if we don’t start to talk to people using the same way they communicate with each other, are we in fact losing some of the rigour of the research? Not only do we miss representation of the people who will not elect to do face-to-face qual, are we also not missing a vital part of capturing their views and opinions by not communicating with them in the way they are accustomed to?
Fishkin wrote about deliberative democracy and public consultation under the title ‘When the People Speak’. My question is about recognizing that how people are speaking is now, in fact, different and we in the social and government side of research need to explore this issue more, both clients and suppliers alike. All methodologies, both the tried and tested and the ‘new’ have their faults. What we really need to consider as we look at each new project or problem is what method is going to really give a voice to those whose views and opinions we are trying to represent?
 James S Fishkin, Center for Deliberative Democracy, Stanford University