Dale Hall is Founder and Chair of ORS (Opinion Research Services)
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
I had no ambitions since I grew up with low expectations and was fostered for 10 years (8-18) with various families in Devon. Living in a small rural community without a car, I aspired to be a long-distance lorry driver, for the ‘freedom of the open road’ (there was less traffic then!). Having been under-educated in Salford and failed the 11+, I was fortunate to have a new start via an ambitious new secondary modern school in Ashburton, Devon; gradually I caught up and moved to grammar school at 16. From there I was encouraged to go to Reading University, but I had no idea where that may lead. In fact, it led to post-graduate study as a way of postponing a career decision: I was like Dustin Hoffman’s Graduate rejecting business, commerce and industry without any clear ambition.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Having taking higher degrees at the LSE, I was encouraged to take an academic post in classical Greek political thought at Swansea University. For years as a lecturer I taught first and third year students about Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - and some of them even enjoyed it!
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
As well as ancient Greek political philosophy, I became interested in the different ways we explain human conduct, through history, practice, science and philosophy. Adding empirical social research to my interest in philosophy came by ‘accident’ through the 1987 general election: I conducted local election opinion polls in Swansea, naïvely thinking I could investigate how members of the public understood ‘freedom’! (Mrs Thatcher had made the distinction between so-called positive and negative liberties a theme in her campaigns.)
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
From those early opinion polls, I realised that whereas academic philosophy was usually solitary, applied social research needed teamwork in which different skill were combined. I was also impressed that members of the public I interviewed about their politics gave authentic responses, even ‘confessing’ to voting differently to how their compatriots in South Wales thought they did. So, without giving up philosophy, in 1988 I formed ORS (Opinion Research Services) as an applied research interface between the university and the public and charity sectors. In those days, universities did not encourage applied research units, so ORS was established as a private company that worked closely with the university. The rest is history: in order to grow, ORS left the university in 2000 and now has over 50 full-time employees with a UK-wide reputation for its research in health, housing, local government and emergency services. I am now semi-retired, as chair of ORS rather than managing director, but I still love doing focus group and forums, because it is always interesting to see how people think and why. Recently, I’ve been enjoying involvement in complex, controversial consultations about replacing two-tier local government with unitary councils.
What has been your best professional moment?
In 1995 ORS succeeded in meeting the challenge set by Cardiff City Council to produce a ‘dynamic housing market model’ to assess housing requirements in the context of social needs, affordability, and population flows. ORS continues to do strategic housing market studies all over the country, constantly innovating to enhance the original modelling approach.
Above all, I am fortunate to have such excellent colleagues committed to effective teamwork.
One is always disappointed to lose important tenders, but each one mattered far less than one thought when the decision was made. Our worst time followed the 2008 financial crash when so many projects were cancelled, and ORS had some redundancies. Currently, we are continuing to employ all our staff (working from home) in the Covid-19 emergency – so we intend that this will not become another ‘worst moment’.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Socrates, for his scepticism of Athenian orthodoxy. His philosophy challenges us all to be analytical and consistent in defining our principles.
Do you have a favourite quote?
Hate the crime, not the criminal.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Research can be urgent, important and problematic, so it is not an easy way to earn a living; but the answers can be rewarding - if you like research. Be prepared to take responsibility: ask the big questions, give the best answers you have, even when they are unwelcome to clients, and think about outcomes of social policies, not just processes and outputs.