How the connections in our world are changing

By Rachel Lopata

I have worked in market research for just over 30 years now, for much of that time working for Government and public sector clients. Things have changed a great deal, but without doubt the most rapid changes have happened since I started Community Research 10 years ago. In fact probably the fastest change has been in the last 5 years, when there has been a fundamental shift in the relationships between the main players.

In the world of research there are three main players:

  • The Decision Makers (commissioner or clients) - they make decisions that will affect people’s lives.

  • The Community (citizens or customers) – their lives are affected by those decisions;

  • The researchers - we are the Go-Betweens, so to speak, bridging the gap between the other two parties. Our job has always been to make the direct connections, getting up close and personal with the Community, gathering information and feedback.

When I first started in research the set up between these three parties was very simple to understand…and it was always the same:

  1. The Decision Maker came with a problem, policy or communications challenge that they wanted to solve. They had a need to understand the Community’s behaviours, attitudes or perceptions to help them make their decisions.

  2. So…they asked the Go Betweens (the researchers) to go and ask the Community the right questions.

  3. The Go-Betweens worked out how best to do this and went out to the Community and asked.

  4. The Community members gave their answers back to the Go Betweens.

  5. The Go Betweens developed their report and went back to the Decision Makers to tell them what the Community had said, they might also suggest what the implications might be.

  6. Finally, The Decision Maker could choose whether or not to listen and take on board what they heard as they made their decisions.

  7. The Community may or may not have been made aware of the decision….that was not necessarily part of the process.

Just as relationships across the rest of society have shifted and been ruptured in the last 10 years, primarily by rapid developments in technology and internet use, our world is absolutely no different. Everything has been turned on its head. What we used to do when I started – the process just described - still happens, some of the time….but more and more frequently the relationships are very different.

Trust is a buzz-word at the moment. There’s a perception out there that it has been lost…but no, it hasn’t,  it has just been turned on its head, particularly in the last 10 years…just like the  relationship between the Decision Makers, the Go Betweens and the Community. If you are familiar with the work of Rachel Botsman on Trust you will be aware that she talks about trust having evolved in three significant chapters in our society. The latest seismic shift being to a model of distributed trust, as opposed to institutional trust. We don’t trust less, we trust differently - we will stay in the homes of complete strangers (Airbnb) and ride in their cars (Uber) because there is a network of others who have rated how far we can trust those strangers.

It is not coincidental that the relationships in the world I have inhabited for the last 30 years, have been undergoing a similar seismic shift. This has meant research and engagement is often being done very differently from the straight up, straight down process described above. Now we have models such as:

  • Citizens Advisory Panels and collaborative workshops - where there is direct dialogue between the Decision Makers and the Community, designed, planned and facilitated by the Go-Betweens. This engenders trust on all sides and allows the Community to input much more transparently into complex issues and ongoing debates within an organisation; OR

  • Peer to peer research - where Community members are asking each other the questions and the Go-Betweens and Decisions Makers are just sitting back and listening in, observing, maybe moderating a little. Recently we used an online platform to provide participants with a framework of questions and a digital space for capturing peer to peer discussions related to certain aspects of exiting the EU. These were paired interviews – two friends, two partners to two family members talking to one another following a set of questions we set for them. We did traditional focus groups for this project as well and it was striking how differently people will talk with a friend or partner about Brexit-related issues, compared to how they talk within a group setting; OR

  • Ethnographic and self-filming approaches where we really hand the reins over to the Community and ask them to record their own lives, their thoughts, their experiences. The ubiquity of smartphones mean Community members can very easily record their own in-the-moment feelings and experiences. So, the Go Betweens set the task, provide the platform for uploading smartphone feedback and then wait and see what comes in, analysing it as it arrives. We have just been doing this, for example, to capture live experiences of university open days. This allows universities to hear directly from potential applicants about their experience on the day.

There is much to be excited about for the future. The world of citizen and community engagement seems set to continue evolving in exciting ways. The direction of travel is to a more shared process with fewer boundaries between the various players. At least in part this rethinking has been enabled by new technologies and uses of the internet. But it has also arisen from differing expectations and the fact that people trust differently. They expect to have more transparent two way dialogue and not to have decisions made on their behalf by big institutions that they no longer trust.

Rachel Lopata