News and Comment

The voluntary and community sector play a crucial but underappreciated role in research

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Of all the good work carried out by the voluntary and community sector, the support that charities, especially user-led organisations, provide helping to recruit research participants must rank among the least well-known. However the research we carry out at OPM would be impossible without the strong relationships we have forged with these organisations.

One area in particular where our partnership with these organisations has proved invaluable, is in the recruitment of so-called ‘harder-to-reach’ research participants. ‘Harder-to-reach’ is a broad and contested term which is sometimes used by Central Government and others to describe those groups of people who agencies find it harder to access and engage with.

Those who fall into this category are typically more vulnerable than members of other communities. Whenever economic stagnation and austerity bites, such as now, its effects can compound the challenges ‘harder-to-reach’ groups already face, leading to disproportionately adverse impacts.

Both OPM and our clients think it is important to find out what effect economic circumstances and policy changes are having on these groups of people, in order to determine whether – for example – inequalities are being exacerbated or disadvantages further entrenched, and consider how we these might be mitigated against.

To do this we rely on our relationship with well-connected voluntary and community organisations that act as a conduit to their communities and put us into contact with potential research participants.

The Government Equalities Office for instance, commissioned OPM to conduct the first qualitative study into the extent and nature of participation in public and political life among LGBT individuals. Whilst LGBT research participants are relatively easy to recruit in big cities such as London, finding a sample which reflects the diversity of the country as a whole is an altogether more difficult task. The Gender Identity Research and Education Society (GIRES), which is gender identity focused charity based in Surrey, helped OPM to identify and recruit a suitable range of participants.

Similarly, we were commissioned by the Department for Health to explore the healthcare needs and experiences of people with the nine protected characteristics outlined under the 2010 Equalities Act. This again relied on the networks of many user-led and other voluntary organisations such as Wai Yin, to recruit participants from ‘harder-to-reach’ groups including: transgender men and women; older Pakistani men; older Chinese women; and expectant mothers from particular BME backgrounds.

At OPM we believe the key role voluntary and community groups play in recruiting research participants should be held in higher regard. After all, policy and service decisions made without taking into account all views, are much less likely to meet everybody’s needs. Using their well-established and extensive networks, these organisations ensure that the opportunity to respond to research is extended far beyond the better-known spokespeople and individuals, to grassroots communities.

Of course, within the ‘harder-to-reach’ category itself there are also those ‘hidden-communities’, the very hardest-to-reach individuals, who are not engaged with user-led or other voluntary organisations and thus unable to benefit form the support services they offer. Though these organisations continue to work tirelessly to find and help these groups, the impact of budget cuts and diminished funding has left much of the sector stretched.

Recognising these pressures, and the resonance between the work of these organisations and OPM’s commitment to improving social outcomes, OPM makes payments to the user-led and other voluntary organisations we work with as a matter of course. OPM’s close work with voluntary and community groups is also beneficial in helping these organisations to better understand their constituents, by passing on the specialised knowledge and techniques used during the research process.

Of late, we have been doing a lot of work to develop our relationships with voluntary and community organisations in this area, and we’re looking forward to making an exciting announcement regarding how we plan to strengthen our connections with these groups in due course!