3. Who is doing the research?

How you approach your research depends a great deal on who will be doing the work.  Will it be people from your community or organisation?  Or will you commission external organisations or individuals to do some or all of the work?  Once you have made these decisions it will be easier to work through this toolkit to plan how you will carry out your research.

In this section we will be looking at:

Insider and outsider researchers

When you are planning your research and thinking about who will undertake the specific roles, it is helpful to think about insiders and outsiders.

Insiders are local residents in the area being surveyed, or people involved with an organisation or those who use its services.  These are people with existing knowledge of an issue and they bring their own experiences to the research process.  This can often result in designing research that is more in depth than an outsider could achieve.  It could be that insiders are known and trusted by the people you will be researching.  It could also be the case that insiders are unwilling to listen to people who don’t have the same views as theirs or that people don’t want to share their views with people they know because they are concerned about confidentiality.

Example: Insiders might already know that there is a problem of a small group of young people’s anti-social behaviour in the area.  Rather than trying to find out what other residents are concerned about, the researchers can focus on what kind of experiences the residents have had, how often, what was the official response.

Outsiders are people with proven research skills and maybe with knowledge of the research subject.  They should be able to design good questions that will help you find out what you want to know and will be efficient in analysing the findings.  They can be objective and unbiased.  They may also miss issues that are well-known to local people and people may not be as willing to be open and honest with someone they don’t know

Example: An outsider researcher facilitating a focus group where there are opposing views is unlikely to get drawn into an argument between two factions and can use the opportunity to help people identify common ground.

Deciding whether your research is led by insiders or outsiders (or a combination of the two) may be governed by how much money you have, how much time is available to you and the scale of your research.

This toolkit is designed primarily to help insider researchers to develop skills and techniques to do the work yourselves, but we also explore when and how to work with outsiders.

Read more about insider and outsider research


Involvement and empowerment

Participation of insiders in the research process may be viewed as a process for ensuring that you have better evidence of what people need because you have asked them.  However there is also a belief that involving people in the research process empowers them by improving people’s skills and knowledge and by questioning and challenging the way decisions are made and services are delivered.  This is known as emancipatory research and is something that can be an explicit aim of the research process.

There is a spectrum of participation and it is helpful to think about where your research can be placed on the spectrum.


To tell people what you are doing or planning to do


To ask people what they think about what you are doing or planning to do
The community is the subject of the research


To engage with people and to ask for feedback


To work in partnership with the community throughout the process and respond to feedback


The community is leading the process from identifying the research questions to making the final decisions based on findings

Fig 1.

Who is going to be involved?

  • Will everyone in the organisation get involved, or will a few people do the work?
  • Will it be a mixture of management committee members, paid staff and volunteers or will it be a group of local people who carry out the research?
  • Will they get involved in the design of the research, as well as routine tasks such as delivering questionnaires, or more skilled tasks such as interviewing?
  • Who will be responsible for making sure that everyone is doing their assigned jobs and that the project is on schedule?

How you answer these questions will help you define your position on the continuum of participation.  There is no right or wrong position – it depends on what you are trying to do.  However, especially if you are working with partner organisations it is helpful to be clear in everyone’s minds what is the role of the community in the research process? 

It is also important to recognise the ethical position of putting individual people and communities at the heart of the process of collecting information about what they might want or need.  People’s lived experience should influence the decisions that affect them – whether the decisions are being taken by your organisation or by third parties, whose decisions you want to inform.  This can develop onto an approach called co-production in which those described as experts by experience are recognised and values as equals with those who have professional expertise in helping design and deliver solutions to delivering services.

Example: In the field of mental health, long-term service users are recognised as experts by experience and are co-producing with clinical practitioners (nurses, doctors and therapists) the design and delivery of training programmes through the Recovery College model. 

If you are planning to do your research with insiders and want your outcomes to include empowering people, then this may influence the methods you choose to use and you might consider using participatory methods rather than traditional surveys

Confidentiality issues are discussed elsewhere but you might need to think about how people might be unwilling to talk to people they know, or live near, if they are being asked to discuss sensitive issues.  These could include, financial issues, health problems, issues relating to sex or personal relationships.  See also section 6 on the interviewer effect


What skills are needed?

The whole research process will require a range of skills and lots of people can take part.  These might vary according to the methods you choose to use.

You will need to decide who could take on the following roles:

  • Organising and planning.
  • Steering group member.
  • Administration and contact point.
  • Group facilitator.
  • Trainer – research methods.
  • Envelope stuffing (for postal questionnaires).
  • Field worker.
  • Interviewer.
  • Analysis of data.
  • Pulling the themes together.
  • Writing a report.
  • Taking action.

Co-ordination is a key function of any research process and requires clarity and understanding of the various roles and responsibilities. Everyone needs to know what they are responsible for, how it fits into the process and the time-scale. This is probably best done via a steering group that meets regularly and oversees the process.

Skills designing and carrying out a questionnaire

These are some of the skills you will need to carry out a questionnaire:

  • Being able to write clear questions.
  • Use of online software.
  • Analysis skills.
  • Use of spreadsheets and other software.
  • Being thorough and well-organised.

Interview and focus group skills and attributes

There are a number of skills needed in order to conduct successful interviews and focus groups and to encourage people to feel at ease:

  • Being fully attentive.
  • Active listening.
  • Being sensitive to feelings and nuances.
  • Being tolerant.
  • Recognising when to encourage silence or an opportunity to reflect.
  • Make positive eye contact.
  • Using a non-judgmental approach.
  • Using prompts, probes and checks appropriately.
  • Being observant.


What kind of training might be required?

In most cases people can acquire new skills to help them do research.  This can be a case of building on people’s natural aptitudes – we all know someone who is a good listener and someone who is well-organised. 

This toolkit will help equip people with new skills.  There are various training providers you might approach, some of these are identified in the resources pack see section 10, or find out what is available in your area.   If you are commissioning an outside researcher then you could specify that they support local people to learn some research skills.

Being involved in research can be an enjoyable learning activity if people are supported and given the relevant training. Support can take the form of travel and childcare costs, as well as having meetings at times and places that are convenient for people to attend. Training in interviewing methods, communication skills and using questionnaires is helpful for people and can contribute to their personal development.

You will need to budget time and money for training.

The only area that we have suggested that you need to bring in specific skills is in data analysis if you have a large survey with complex questions.  There is good software available that can be used for analysing this level of data but they are expensive and mostly only used by professional researchers and take a long time to learn.  If you don’t have access to this kind of resource then make sure you plan your research so that you are able to analyse it yourselves.  This is described in detail in section 6


Support for researchers

Whoever gets involved, you should consider the safety of your researchers and the people providing you with information.  You will need to check out insurance details and health and safety guidelines. Some issues to consider are: carrying identification, working in pairs, leaving contact details and providing mobile phones.  If the people you are researching are children, young people or vulnerable adults you should find out what specific steps you need to take in terms of your research methods and whether your researchers should be checked by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS)  

Using external researchers

As we have identified, if you choose the right methods, there is no reason why your organisation can’t do a good quality piece of research using local people and supported by this toolkit.  However, if you do have the resources and decide to commission an external researcher to help you, clarity and monitoring are essential.

These are areas to consider:

  • Have a clear selection/tendering process. Drawing up a research brief will help clarify what the research question is. Don’t be too prescriptive about the methods – your researcher should be able to suggest suitable research methods.
  • Say if you expect them to use participation methods to engage the community.
  • Be clear in your brief; spell out what you expect and by when.
  • Agree your budget. There are fees and expenses (such as booking rooms for interviews or focus groups), some consultants may charge VAT.
  • Identify which of the list of jobs and costs (see How much will it cost, section 5) you expect them to deliver within their fee.
  • Be clear about the areas of expertise you need and ask questions.
  • Interview people if necessary.
  • Set up regular milestone meetings.
  • Clarify what degree of involvement people from your organisation will have in the research process.
  • Be clear what kind of report you need or do you need more than one version?  Do you want progress reports from the researcher(s), do you want to look at the raw data?
  • Specify who will own the findings and the reports – this is called Intellectual Property and some research organisations might assume they will own it
  • Get a signed contract before any work starts.
  • If you can, get legal advice on the contract.

Working with research students or academic institutions

Sometimes, depending on the type of research you are doing, you might consider approaching a college or university to ask for some help.  Academic organisations are sources of expertise in research methods and sometimes in your subject area, such as preventing older people having falls, or rehabilitating ex-offenders.  However, universities, like all institutions, are cash-limited and you need to make sure that what they can offer you is going to add value to your research and ensure that you are getting what you want from the process.  You should consider:

  • Whether they can respond within your timescale.
  • Whether they understand the needs of community research.
  • How much they are prepared to help you learn from the experience.
  • Will you get access to the information they collect?
  • Will they be able to produce a report that is clear and accessible?

Universities are assessed on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework.  If you want to develop a partnership with a university or find out who is interested in what you are doing, a good idea is to do a bit of background work to find out what their agenda is likely to be.  Universities are assessed on a number of criteria, including the impact their research has in the wider community.  To find out how you can make this work for you, read more about working with universities.