Using qualitative data for effect: a missed opportunity?

From my own experience conducting research with local authorities and charities over the past few years, I’ve come to recognise a rather common picture relating to how these organisations use data in their work. Unsurprisingly, in this era of impact evaluation and cost-effectiveness assessments, numbers – of service users, of outcomes, and of pounds spent – rule supreme. Quantitative data, for example from surveys and routine data sources, are the go-to for many public, voluntary and third sector organisations to assess, understand and justify the services they provide. Some organisations, such as local authorities, dedicate speficic resources  to support the work of analysts, whose job it is to ‘crunch’ these numbers.

However, while conducting qualitative research with some of these organisations, it surprised me to hear how strongly people felt about the potential value of qualitative data – people’s voices, opinions, experiences. I was extremely pleased to hear that they recognised an important role for qualitative data for understanding the broader context of their work, the experiences of their clients and service users, and how processes of change (positive and negative) really occur.

Yet, despite this enthusiasm for qualitative data, many people I’ve met through my work have expressed concern about the amount of time, resources and skills needed to collect and / or analyse qualitative data. Many have also been concerned about how much ‘weight’ insights from qualitative data would carry with decision makers, in contrast with traditional statistics, and how to communicate the robustness of these insights.

And it’s not just my experiences that indicate this gap between how public, voluntary and third sector organisations want to use qualitative data and the extent to which they feel they’re able. In a study conducted in partnership with Clinks, New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) explored charities’ views on qualitative research and data. The results showed that while “conducting qualitative research about your impact on service users” was considered the area most important to charities, it was also the area in which they felt “least effective”.

NPC have since produced a resource outlining the need for more support for charities to build processes to engage with qualitative data in “robust” and “systematic” ways. Their Listen and Learn report highlights a “missed opportunity” in that charities regularly collect qualitative data as part of their day-to-day operations, but rarely use it effectively to bring about change. The report summarises ways in which charities can approach qualitative data, concluding that more should be done to support this work, which, when done well:

“provides valuable insight to help drive service design, delivery and improvement, and keeps user voice central to a charity’s work”.

So what can be done about this “missed opportunity”? Here at Capacity Q we think there are three key lines of action that need to be taken so organisations can make the most of qualitative data, and make the voices of their service users and clients really count.

  1. Assessing the current situation: examining what qualitative data is already collected, the existing resources for managing and analysing it, and identifying the potential role for qualitative data in achieving the organisation’s goals.
  2. Upskilling and capacity building: identifying and implementing the right blend of training, resources and support for an organisation’s workforce, to enable effective and sustained engagement with qualitative data.
  3. Communicating and sharing learning: identifying ways to communicate qualitative insights effectively to different audiences, and supporting ways to share learning and skills around the use and interpretation of qualitative evidence.

To find out more about how Capacity Q can help your organisation with maximising opportunities to make the most of qualitative data – and make voices really count – please get in touch.


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