Findings on the engagement of society with data and evidence

Trust and trustworthiness

A recurrent theme relating to engagement, identified across all groups, was public mistrust of government, and therefore of government statistics, particularly described relating to under-represented groups. Past experiences were described as contributing to this.

“People can be quite suspicious of local government and local authority… willingness to share data is just a sort of embodiment of that.” (Non-metropolitan local authority participant)

“Trust is a huge one. We, at one point, tried to do some ethnographic research with the Gypsy, Roma, Traveller community and I think that it really didn’t land very well, because we represented government to those groups and we may be moved too fast… guess people sometimes might not have had very good experiences with government, or with services, and so then just to expect people to be happy to share information, or data, isn’t always going to land very well.” (Central government participant)

Participants suggested reasons for the UK’s lack of success in gaining public trust, including referring to previous government policies that were perceived as discriminatory against certain groups, which may have resulted in hesitance to share personal data.

“There are things happening in this country which perhaps are serving to reduce trust or create a lot of sensitivities in some of the research we’re doing, particularly among migrant groups who are confronting what has been formerly described as a ‘hostile policy environment’, and some of them have no recourse to public funds and so on.” (Academic participant)

“There is a mistrust of government traditionally, which encourages people not to engage and not to give out personal information.” (Northern Ireland Executive participant)

Trust in government was linked to perceptions around how data is used and shared by the organisations responsible for collecting data, with views that transparency of these practices could be improved. Participants discussed how certain communities feel their data have been used to discriminate against them, and that government is not interested in helping and supporting them. It was highlighted by a research funding organisation participant that certain under-represented groups have been hesitant to engage in data collection exercises historically due to negative consequences for themselves, or just a general sense that these things don’t make a difference. Additionally, it was mentioned that government is thought to not prioritise using existing data for certain under-represented groups, which was said to result in individuals questioning government’s data use.

“If the government has the data, why aren’t they reporting on it and why are they leaving it to external bodies to basically point out that things aren’t as rosy as they might seem on a surface read of a government statistical release?” (Central government participant)

Academic participants also suggested that a lack of community ownership of data and large amounts of data being held by a few organisations or individuals has contributed to concerns among some groups about the influence these data may have had over their community.


Public views about data sharing throughout government were highlighted by academic participants as a specific challenge to engagement. The census was provided as an example of how the purpose of data collection may be interpreted differently by different population groups.

“[There is] scope for misinformation to fly around that actually if you’re filling in the census form, you’re telling the tax office where you are.” (Academic participant)

It was advised that further efforts on the part of data producers towards transparency, including publicising exactly how data would (and equally would not) be shared and used were necessary for these organisations to improve their trustworthiness. Academic participants suggested that Scandinavian countries have tackled similar issues by making data and linkage widely accessible, including the public availability of everyone’s salaries.

Effective engagement

Other issues raised around engagement related to under-representation, risk of invisibility of certain groups, and important issues affecting certain communities remaining unknown and therefore not being addressed in local authorities’ policy decision-making.

“We don’t know what we don’t know about these issues, and we then aren’t able to ask the right questions… from the very outset.” (London borough participant)

Effective engagement with under-represented communities was said to require substantial consideration and resourcing.

“How do you find people in the first place when they’re not appearing in a national sampling frame, and, or you don’t have access to their personal details to contact them because of the legislation around it?” (Academic participant)

However, attempts to improve engagement with under-represented populations were said to be met with a lack of funding to undertake the necessary measures. An academic participant stated that we know what to do, it’s just there’s not enough money in it… to really scale things up. Academic participants also called for government to think of new and innovative ideas for engaging with people to inform policy decision-making.

“There are people out there who do not want to take part in surveys, they’re not minded to and consequently, you need to be thinking about other ways of collecting information about them if it’s necessary for policy or understanding.” (Academic participant)

Training researchers from under-represented communities to undertake research was suggested by academic participants as a strategy to improve community ownership and representativeness. However, it was highlighted that past attempts to engage and consult with under-represented groups could result in over-consultation. This meant that researchers continue reaching out to the same groups that have already been accessed and continue to neglect the less well represented groups. This was said to be particularly problematic when community engagement in consultation does not result in tangible action.

“Some groups feel under-represented and under-engaged and that you’re not consulting with them enough, and then other groups, I think you can be in danger of over-consulting as well and it’s going over people’s heads, because they just think, ‘Oh, it’s another survey, another survey and nothing changes,’ so it’s finding that balance and actually producing results that they can see in their community as well.” (Non-metropolitan local authority participant)

Suggestions for addressing barriers to engagement

Several participants suggested the importance of making efforts to improve perceptions around data sharing. For example, a participant from the Northern Ireland Executive mentioned that a wider, governmental campaign, linked into community and voluntary grass roots organisations could help to promote the importance of collecting data from under-represented communities, alongside best practice examples of evidence-led policy.

“Having that initial conversation about why it’s important and finding ways to build trust, I think is a precursor to then people feeling they’re represented.” (Welsh Government participant)

Using television adverts to demonstrate how personal data is used to benefit local communities was suggested by a Welsh Government participant, to improve knowledge and trust levels among under-represented groups, and to win people over and make them understand the value of providing that information and that they feel safe to do so.

A need for visible, tangible benefits from sharing information, as an academic participant noted that research participants have to think that there’s some point in them giving this information.

“If people can see the actual direct result of the information they’re giving us on budgets relating to specific service changes, demonstrating that that engagement has actually done something for their community, people are far more likely to respond. So it’s also communicating that work to then further that engagement in future.” (Non-metropolitan local authority participant)

Being completely transparent about the use of public data and providing support to understand how information will be used was thought to be important. In particular, ensuring transparency around data collection practices and how personal data will be used to inform policy decisions. A central government participant proposed that, particularly when engaging with under-represented groups, doing it in a really transparent, really no punches pulled, honest way should be considered. Alongside the need for improvements in transparency, there were also calls for acknowledgement of the problematic misuse of data in the past.

“[There is a need to] actually show how they are actively moving away from that, and what all of the different mechanisms are in place for that.” (Research funding organisation participant)

Certain participants suggested utilising relationships with trusted community groups who have greater understanding of the nuances of under-represented groups to help gain access and build trust. Using community representatives was seen as a better option than using smartly dressed people turning up with clipboards and could build trust and confidence and increase engagement. Conversely, participants mentioned that government logos might deter communities from participating. A successful example was provided by a Northern Ireland Executive participant of engaging with Irish Traveller communities, which involved feet on the ground, working with relatively local, trusted groups and individuals within certain extended families. One of the combined authority participants also mentioned their previous collaboration with the charity Stonewall which enabled them to gain access and engage with a somewhat hidden population (business owners who identified as gay) and to build their trust, resulting in a successful research project. Taking a citizen science approach was proposed by academic participants, which could involve funding community groups to undertake research in their own communities to address issues of interest to them.

Utilising long-term engagement strategies with under-represented communities to facilitate dialogue and allow time to build trust and ensure their voices are heard.

“The collaborative efforts that are being done to work with communities who own their own data, and who are able to lead and influence how it’s collected, used and analysed is really important.” (Research funding organisation participant)

An example provided by academic participants was using approaches to co-produce research, engaging with communities on the subjects that matter most to them. This was described as essential for communities to be able to define themselves, rather than researchers doing this on their behalf without their input. However, a learned society participant stressed the importance of ensuring that co-production with communities is meaningful, undertaken in the correct language and timely, as well as getting groups and organisations associated in the design of the programme at the early stage.

Several participants highlighted the need for greater inclusion of under-represented groups within the research community. Participants felt this could help to gain trust when undertaking research and ensure that the research group is more diversified, which could help to break down some barriers. An academic participant suggested that this approach could result in a better understanding of, for example, a different culture, a different discipline or different ways of people thinking. Rather than using formal education to train researchers to conduct research in these communities, participants suggested upskilling individuals who are already part of an under-represented community into a research role.

“[To create] communities of action as well, that then take through the policy and the ownership of actions that come off the data collection.” (Research funding organisation participant)

Another suggestion was to involve members of key relevant population groups on the boards of academic institutes, to improve direct communications with these groups, and encourage participation in engagement activities including public lectures.

Incorporating a welcoming tone to engagement and providing financial incentives, particularly for under-represented groups, could support participation in research. Although academic participants noted that this is often rejected and deemed inappropriate by ethics committees, thank you payments were proposed as a means to ensure that research participants are renumerated for their time, as, it’s well known that the more you incentivise it, the more you get participants. However, a note of caution was also added by an academic participant that there’s a trade off because if you incentivise it too much, you change the behaviour, and potentially risk the integrity of the research findings.

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