Someone's knocking at the door

Most of the UK’s high-quality random probability social surveys use face-to-face interviewing. The Covid-19 lockdown meant an immediate pause to this work. When can, and should, interviewers return into the field to conduct social surveys and under what conditions? In this guest blog post, Guy Goodwin (Chief Executive, National Centre for Social Research) addresses some of the key questions for both survey commissioners and research organisations. 

When should we restart face-to-face interviewing?

Social research organisations represent only a small segment of those conducting face-to-face interviewing. Behind the United States, the UK has the second biggest market research industry in the world, worth over £5bn per annum. Understandably, there is a desire in the commercial sector to get back into the field as soon as possible, as restarting face-to-face interviewing is paramount to people’s jobs and livelihoods, mirroring similar issues in the non-essential business sectors affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While social research organisations should not necessarily be driven by what others are doing, it is relevant context. At one level, there is a stronger argument for putting the key national social surveys back into the field than, say, for resuming mystery shopping. However, the national surveys present additional challenges as they are typically complex, especially those on the public’s health, and less readily adaptable to completion on the door-step rather than in the home.  

Are we ready to restart face-to-face interviewing now?

During the lockdown we have been rapidly and readily implementing alternative ways of collecting data on many of our national surveys, such as web and telephone methods. Not unexpectedly though, these continue to have their limitations and there’s a clear demand from commissioners for face-to-face interviewing to return on our national surveys as quickly as it is safe to do so. The timing will be informed by government guidelines and public opinion and it’s clear it won’t be next week, when the lockdown is partially eased in England. Ensuring safety for our interviewers and the public is a key part of our planning.

Restarting in-home face-to-face interviewing requires the Government, commissioners, survey organisations, interviewers and the public to all be ready. In practice, the first four of these groups will take their signals from the public because social surveys are voluntary and depend on respondents’ willingness to contribute their knowledge, experiences and views. 

It seems reasonable, then, to work from an assumption that a return to face-to-face interviewing requires two conditions to hold: (1) the health risk to the public and our interviewers to be sufficiently low and (2) the public generally to have low levels of Covid-19 related concern or anxiety around the face-to-face interaction. 

On the first of these conditions, the data and messages from the Government and the NHS are crucial. The gradual easing of lockdown restrictions and the recent cutting of the national alert level to Level 3 suggest that, while we’re not out of the woods with Covid-19, a return to face-to-face interviewing need not be that far away. 

On the second, it is likely the case that people will be more comfortable with some in-home data collection currently because we think it’s very important - for example, the national Covid-19 Infection Study involves people allowing a nurse into their houses to ask questions and do Covid-19 swab and antibody tests.        

Are the public ready for face-to-face interviewing?

But how should we judge when the public has become less concerned and anxious about Covid-19 generally and we can resume a more normal service for our survey commissioners, including Government? The answer must lie with people themselves. At NatCen, we’ll be asking the public from July onwards for their views and how they’re feeling about taking part in our surveys currently, including seeking views through the NatCen Panel. That will help inform us as to how soon the public are ready to re-engage and on what basis. 

At the same time, we are busy exploring innovative methods such as using socially distanced face-to-face sample recruitment with the interviews themselves carried out by video and web. The likelihood is that, even once in-home face-to-face interviewing restarts, there will be groups of the population, such as older people, for whom socially distanced interviewing may continue to be important - so we are preparing to offer these methods alongside the traditional face-to-face approach.

Will we be able to restart face-to-face interviewing for the next survey year (from January or April 2021)?
It has been just over three months since most data collection organisations paused face-to-face interviewing and many people began working at home. Because of the intensity of much that has happened since, it feels at times a lot longer. Since late March, we have seen daily briefings from Government, the increase in the numbers of infections and deaths due to Covid-19, the flattening of the curve and the gradual decline in numbers. 
Over the next three months, we are likely to see a “new normal” evolve - offices and non-essential shops are re-opening, we’ll be queuing at the hairdressers from early July, meeting our remote families again, going back to the pub and taking staycations over the summer. Some of us are even prepared to fly again to the continent and, in September, our children will return to school. 
Unless there is a second wave of the virus, there will be a much greater sense of “normality” already by September and it would seem highly unlikely on that basis that face-to-face interviewing won’t restart on or before 1 January 2021, which is still over six months away. Plans for this restart will need to be flexible, with official guidance varying for different parts of the UK, and a need to respond to local outbreaks as and when these occur.
Certainly, the advice we’re now giving to our customers is to plan on the basis that the new survey years for the key annual national surveys will be conducted face-to-face, probably with certain adjustments in line with social distancing measures, depending on public feedback and government guidelines.   
Unless we have a setback in our national recovery plan, we would certainly expect to be interviewing in-home again from no later than the start of 2021. 

Options for restarting face-to-face interviewing on the national surveys

Based on the above, the options for commissioners appear to fall into two categories:

  • Plan to restart face-to-face fieldwork from the new survey year (generally this will be 1 January or 1 April 2021). Given most interviewers across the various social research organisations are on “furlough”, this leaves interviewers and their organisations potentially financially vulnerable during the period from when the Government’s job retention scheme ends and fieldwork begins;
  • Consider restarting some or all face-to-face fieldwork earlier, for example from September or October 2020. Indeed, the period to the end of this calendar year potentially provides commissioners with a good range of options that they would not usually have - for example, including to run parallel exercises with split sample designs to test mode effects. Those discussions are already happening with some commissioners.    

As usual, we are expecting a mixture of approaches, including some commissioners wanting to return to face-to-face in some form as early as September, or for the October to December quarter, restrictions permitting. Others will feel it’s best to wait until January. 

Our recommendation would be for commissioners of the continuous national surveys to consider the start date on a quarter by quarter basis from now, but to also plan that face-to-face interviewing will resume for the 2021 survey year. 

Of course, we’ll be ready to restart as soon as it’s safe to do so and the public are ready. Providing those in power with a picture of people’s lives, and the public’s views on the key issues of the day, is as important now as it has always been. 
AUTHOR BIO: Guy joined NatCen as Chief Executive in 2016. He is a social scientist and statistician with more than 20 years’ experience working in leadership roles in the Government and non-profit sectors. Guy came to NatCen from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) where he was responsible for publications on a range of policy areas from population and migration to crime and health and wellbeing. He was Head of Profession for Statistics at the ONS and UK Director of Social Statistics at the European Union. Guy studied statistics at the London School of Economics and is both a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.