Saturday 1 December 2012

How To Get Information From The Council

Yup, it's confirmed. I'll definitely be interviewing for my own job in the New Year. Merry F**King Christmas!
Not had much time to do writing, so here's an old piece I wrote in a slightly bad mood after dealing with one too many well-meaning students who seemed to want me to do their job for them...

How To Get Information From The Council (and other similar organisations)

DISCLAIMER: I am a research officer working for a large city council, but I am writing in a personal capacity. This is intended as a light-hearted piece of advice to social research students, of whom I was recently one, who are thinking of contacting my employer to ask us to help them find data for their research projects. It is not intended in any way to reflect my employer's official position, nor am I speaking on behalf of them!

Do You Need To Telephone Us In The First Place?

Much statistical information is available online, both on the Council’s website and on other data websites such as the Office for National Statistics, and so forth. If you use your initiative and check these first to see if the information you want to find is there, you will save us both some time.

Be Prepared: Find Out Who You Want To Speak To First

Large local authorities employ several thousand staff and provide a huge variety of services. In terms of research, they will have quite a few research and policy staff in several different services (corporate research, housing, neighbourhood services, etc). The switchboard staff will always do their best to help, but they are not able to memorise exactly who out of all the hundreds of staff does what.

Ringing the switchboard and saying you want to speak to someone about some research you’re doing will probably get you put through to whichever research officer in the corporate research team is available to take the call, who may not necessarily be the best person to help you. At the least, be prepared to be specific: “I’d like to speak to someone about crime statistics in the West End last year” is much more helpful than “I’m doing some research”. If you can have a look on the Council’s website for the names of members of staff who work in the specific area you are interested in (try the “Community Engagement” section to find details of past consultations and research), even better.

Be Polite

Yes, we are public servants, and you are a member of the public. Yes, you have a right to expect us to be polite and helpful – and, if we are not, feel free to look up the Council’s complaints procedure and complain. It is, however, much appreciated if you begin your call by asking if this is a convenient time for us to have the discussion. The answer will nearly always be yes, and we greatly appreciate not being treated like a human version of Google.

Be Patient

Be prepared for the fact that you may get transferred a couple of times and have to explain what you want to a couple of different people. This will not necessarily happen, particularly if you have checked who the best person to speak to is. However, as mentioned above, the Council is a big organisation, and it may take a bit of time to locate the exact person who has the information you’re after.

I’ve encountered a couple of people – fortunately, they are rare – who seem to assume that the Council is some sort of hive mind and that (for example) because a researcher in the neighbourhood services research team, who I’ve never met, did some work two years ago on a topic they’re doing their dissertation on, as a research officer, I must of course be intimately familiar with this work and be instantly able to provide them with the details. Alas, no.

Research Staff Are Not Batman

We don’t sit around in our research Batcave, waiting for the research Batsignal to call us into action. If you call us, we will usually be in the middle of working on our own research projects on behalf of the Council, which is our main job. This does not at all mean that we don’t want to help you, or that we mind taking your call. Helping the public is, after all, what the Council exists to do. But please be aware that research staff will be working when you call us, and it is possible that we may be working to meet a deadline. If it’s going to be a long and involved query, be prepared for the fact that we may have to arrange to call you back at another time.

It’s Not My Job To Do Your Job

We will happily do our best to help you. However, part of doing research is finding the exact information you need for yourself. By which I mean, we will quite happily help you find where the information you seek is located, and suggest other sources you might want to try if we can’t help. Once we have found you this information, however, we will not (for example) read through several pages of data to find you the exact single figure you are after. This is your job and part of your research.

Just Because It’s Urgent To You, Doesn’t Mean It’s Urgent To Me

Again, we are public servants and we are here to serve the public. We will happily help you. However, please remember the point made earlier that we have our own workloads and deadlines. Be realistic and allow enough time to get your information, bearing in mind the fact that the person you need to speak to may not be available when you call, may be available but working to a deadline and unable to help you immediately, or may be on leave.

If you leave it until the last minute, then ring up in a panic and start demanding the information you need RIGHT NOW, this is unfair on the person you are contacting (who is, after all, taking time out from their regular workload to help you) and may well result in you not getting the data you are after.

Related point: most organisations do not allow people simply to walk in off the street and start talking to people in their offices without making an appointment first. Ring us, explain the situation, and if we can’t help you over the phone, then we can look at arranging a meeting. Do not show up at reception and start asking to talk to someone in the research team right now. (Even your tutors have office hours, right?)

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