Researching a complex issue? Stop ‘collecting’ data

Research and surveys often collect experiences, stories and data. But what do you give back to the people you surveyed? By involving participants in interpreting the results, you get a better view of what is going on.
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Apr 5, 2022

By Anne van Marwijk

“Do you have a minute for …?”

“Can you share your views on …?”

Chances are you have received an email like this in your mailbox this week. I received an invitation to participate in a survey about political preferences. And an inquiry from the municipality about my wishes as entrepreneur in the city. It’s likely that you get such emails regularly. Maybe you are someone who always fills in the survey, or maybe you hardly ever do so. But how often, after sharing your experience, do you get to hear the results?

The answer is probably: never. Sometimes, when leaving feedback, you get a “Thank you for your response” or “We are going to work on it”. But most of the time, it doesn’t go any further than that.

Missed opportunity

At Perspectivity, we often see the same tendency with our clients. When they want to research something, such as the effectiveness of a programme or the prevailing opinion on a certain subject, they send out a survey, or send an analyst around to ‘collect’ data. But rarely do they share the results of their research with the participants. Or only in a fat report. While it is of value to the people participating in the programme, for example, to know what happened in that programme and what lessons are learned.

In a society where direct interaction is becoming more and more important, in the form of customer satisfaction and also citizen participation, this really is a missed opportunity. It is a shame not to involve the information sharers once the input has been collected. Such a process is extractive and participation is fake. We miss potential opportunities for common learning.

Decisions for the future

If you also involve the participants in a study in interpreting the results, you get a valuable broader view of what is going on. Then you can also take decisions for the future together. Like in the province of Drenthe, where 24,000 residents were invited to share their experiences and opinions on solar and wind energy in the region. The participants were then invited to interpret the results together and indicate what this meant for the regional energy strategy. Or the Canadian NGO One Drop Foundation, who together with the participants of their water programme in Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Paraguay evaluated the changes created by the programme.

This blog is a plea for closing the circle of the research process. If you are going to do research, spend as much time on sharing the lessons learned as on designing the collection process. This way, you ensure a participatory process, also after sharing the experiences. In short, as a researcher, make sure that if you are going to ‘collect’ something, you are also going to ‘bring something back’.