It sounds easy, and in many ways it as simple as just asking people. We use all sorts of different methods to reach people but the general rule is to think about who you want to speak to, find out where they go, and then go and see them. In a physical sense this might involve us going to hospital wards, care homes, youth clubs, men’s sheds, knit and natter groups, churches, schools, supermarkets, workplaces, etc. We’ve even been known to interview people in the pub! We also have a big group of members who are signed up to our newsletters. We use this to publicise what we are doing and they help us to publicise further through their own networks via groups they are involved with or on social media.
Of course, people don’t all have the same views or experiences. They have different levels of knowledge about different services or health conditions, they live with different personal circumstances, live in different neighbourhoods, have different outlooks on life. We need to be able to make sense of all the different opinions and report multiple points of view. So we do our asking in a fairly structured way. We devise questions and conversation guides that will bring us comparable information from a wide range of different people and settings. We go out and get comments (comment, the base unit of data for us, is our rich data and the holy grail) and then we bring them back and mill them through our research team who do their best to make sense of what different groups of people are saying.
What we do in public engagement has a long history and a strong connection with Bolton. Our roots are in social and market research and we use tried and tested methods that stretch back to wartime England when the Mass Observation Project gathered data of this kind from hundreds of members of the public up and down the country. What government did with this information helped to shape policy making and practical action on the home front throughout the war and influenced how schemes, services, and campaigns such as school meals, rationing, and dig for victory were designed. The Mass Observation Project began before the war as a unique, locality based experiment in social research in a little known place called ‘Work Town’ a small industrial town to the North West of Manchester.