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Professional pride and a licence to operate

24 Oct 2019  |  Jan Gooding 
Professional pride and a licence to operate

The current self-regulation of the market research sector is evidence of its health, writes Jan Gooding - so let's stick to our ethical principles to keep it that way

I recently found myself wondering if I was alone in asking myself ‘why can’t companies just do the right thing without needing to be regulated?’ And then I remembered. Regulation comes into play because of market failure.

Typically, organisations which enjoy a monopoly often fail to properly protect society and their customers from the impact of their activity. The reason they fail to do the right thing is because they can. A lack of competition enables them to hold a dominant and usually very profitable position.

There is no incentive for them to change their behaviour, so governments have to intervene, with laws and regulatory oversight accompanied by the consequence of financial and reputational penalties replacing the loss of market share or margin.

Regulation can be bureaucratic and expensive to administer

The irony is that regulation brings with it compliance costs and bureaucratic processes that are more readily afforded by big business than small firms. There is also a genuine risk that big business is better at influencing the nature of regulation, so it successfully acts as a barrier to entry to new players and challengers. Regulation needs to be paid for either through taxation or a levy placed on the industry players.

This has been on my mind for a number of reasons.

As President of the Market Research Society (MRS) I have a particular interest in the value of the research industry’s self-regulation and code of conduct. As stated on their website ‘MRS members must adhere to the MRS Code of Conduct, Regulations and the associated disciplinary procedures. The Code, drawn up by researchers for researchers, helps to protect providers, buyers and respondents. It safeguards standards, promotes confidence and champions professionalism.’

Self-regulation is evidence of a healthy sector

The privilege of pursuing a route of self-regulation comes from an industry which thrives on competition, and where members are able to hold each other to account by signing up to common standards. To be a member of MRS is to obtain a licence to operate as a professional in research.

It also provides the opportunity for smaller players to gain access to training and development in a cost-effective way. The education and certification offered by MRS elevates its members from research ‘practitioners’ to ‘professionals’.

Changes to the MRS Code of Conduct

Many of you will not have noticed, but this month MRS has updated their Code of Conduct. At a time when expertise and professionalism can seemingly be greatly underrated, it is a welcome reminder that the research industry does have very explicit guidelines relating to professional conduct.

According to managing director Debrah Harding, being regulated by the MRS code is repeatedly cited as the number one benefit of being an MRS member. The Code provides a framework which enables research professionals to navigate the ethics that govern how research is commissioned by protecting participants and treating them fairly. In fact, she reported that a delegate attending a recent GDPR event remarked that ‘essentially compliance just meant adhering to the best practice already captured in the code.’

Recent scandals have prompted new rules

Intriguingly, this new code offers new rules prohibiting ‘plugging’ and ‘media mugging’ in addition to ‘sugging’ and ‘frugging’, which refers to the dubious practice of conducting activities such as selling, fundraising or political lobbying under the guise of research. The recent scandal involving Cambridge Analytica has made it necessary to use explicit examples for the avoidance of doubt.

It is no coincidence that none of the people involved in the Cambridge Analytica scandal were members of MRS. If they had been they would have been well schooled on the ethical understanding captured by the code and which is part of the DNA of the profession.

Statutory regulation could be introduced if we fail to do it ourselves

The kind of self-regulation enjoyed by the research sector is a privilege no longer enjoyed by the legal or fundraising professions. They have both endured such high-profile scandals that the government has brought in statutory regulation in the form of Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Fundraising Regulator (FR).

The benefit of self-regulation for those who work in the research sector is the agility and responsiveness with which the standards of the industry can be adapted to the fast-changing landscape of the 4th industrial revolution. The ethical framework that sits at the code ensures high professional standards.

MRS members know their red lines

Recently a tweet by Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos Mori, caught my eye. It said, ‘Calls from hedge funds about doing an exit poll for them to play the markets with. Said no – only Exit Poll Ipsos Mori will do will be the public one for BBS/Sky/ITV with John Curtice.’

It struck me as such a clear statement about the power and importance of researchers, and the need for uncompromising standards. There is nothing that tests our principles more that turning down work, and income, because it compromises our ethical standards. Ben is a role model on that front, and good for him for turning it into an advertisement for Ipsos Mori’s integrity.

People are relying on our ethical standards

The professionalism of MRS members is not something we should just be proud of; it is something that people are relying on. As people go about their daily lives they have no idea how complex the data exchange landscape is. They are slowly waking up to it. And as we know there is immense concern about privacy and the way in which personal data is being exploited without the explicit knowledge and consent of the people it relates to.

GDPR has started to rectify the balance of the explicit value exchange of knowledge and opinions being given in exchange for either monetary of influencing benefits. It is right that it should be shifted more in favour of those who participate in research, as just now it is arguably too much in favour of the receiver of the data.

New tools and techniques but long-standing principles

The MRS tell me that the use of their ‘Codeline’ advisory service has steadily increased over the last decade. Researchers are able to quickly check that they are compliant as they are faced with the rapidly evolving tools and techniques that are now available.

Jane Frost, CEO of MRS, has often spoken about the importance of ‘intelligence capital’ as the underpinning of evidence-based decision making in organisations in the public and private sector. But how we gather that intelligence matters. The public expect us, as professionals, to protect them from unethical and unscrupulous behaviour. Rightly so.

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