To assess the accommodation and health and social care needs of Gypsies and Travellers in Cambridgeshire.
When you’re working with a community that has experienced a huge amount of discrimination and oppression – you can’t just walk in and expect they’ll tell you everything you want to know. We had to earn their trust – by demonstrating that we were working in partnership and that all parts of that partnership were working well. And it worked. The local community were able to trust us because we were vouched for by the people involved. Having those people on the spot meant that they could put the word out – that this survey was taking place and that we were people who could be trusted.
We wanted to have equal engagement of English Gypsies and Irish Travellers because we knew we needed to interview both those groups and there wasn’t a huge amount of communication between the two. So we spoke to a nationally-based group that had credibility and respect in this area. They had already been successful in bringing those two groups together. We asked some of their members if they’d be willing to join the project steering group – because it was very important to have that buy-in from people who could speak to the different communities. By bringing in national figures, we then got buy-in from the local community. It avoided suspicion amongst the local Gypsies and Travellers who didn’t know us or our work. We recruited local people to be peer-interviewers largely through word-of-mouth. The people we had recruited nationally were able to tell us if they knew people in the area who had good potential for this type of role and were ‘sound’ (trustworthy and discreet). Via the local council, we also contacted the local Traveller Education Service. They were able to identify several Gypsy/Traveller women who were working as educational assistants. We invited these women to a meeting about the project and got some excellent interviewers that way.
Members of the Gypsy and Traveller communities were involved in the steering group overseeing all parts of the project. They also developed and helped to run focus groups with younger and older people. Local Gypsies and Travellers were recruited as peer interviewers. After training, the peer interviewers carried out face-to-face interviews with their local community. They were also involved in the analysis and write-up of the results and the launch of the final report. This model of involvement has been recognised internationally as a model of best practice. It has since been used to carry out similar assessments of Gypsy/Traveller needs in other parts of the UK and Europe.
With the people on the steering group, we agreed to have some closed sessions in the group meetings, just for the Gypsy and Traveller members. So they were able to do some work without us, to review our questionnaire and to discuss whether or not they trusted us and what we were doing. For the interviewers, it proved crucial that we provided lots of training and support. Most importantly we provided the training that the peer interviewers said they wanted. We knew we had to include training on issues such as confidentiality and child protection for ethical reasons – but there were other things they asked for that I wouldn’t have thought of, such as dealing with awkward people and how to probe for more information.We also had to do masses of work to build up trust and to show that the interview data would be anonymised and all be kept confidentially and that our interviewers would be highly professional. Some of the local community members were concerned that the peer interviewers might gossip about them. So we had to make sure people felt they could trust the interviewers, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken part. We also had to address the concerns about the quality of the interviews that came from other stakeholders initially. Some were suspicious that peer interviewers would not be objective or would deliver poor quality data. So we built in ongoing monitoring of the peer interviewers. Academic members of the team went out with each peer interviewer at different points to watch their technique and give feedback. In fact the completed questionnaires were generally of as high quality as those administered by PhD students or ‘professional’ interviewers. We found that the peer interviewers needed vast amounts of support especially at the beginning of the project – this did decrease over time. I gave them my mobile phone number so they could get hold of me anytime there was a problem. I had their mobile numbers and home numbers, so it was only fair that it worked the other way round. It created respect and trust. Not a single person abused it. People only phoned in when they were concerned. And they knew we would come out to help them.
The steering group helped us to devise publicity material for the study. They helped us sell the project. They made sure we explained that we would be asking quite personal questions at times – and the reasons for it and importantly that all the data would be held confidentially. They helped us get that right and that was very, very important. They also made significant changes to the questionnaire. They included new questions on areas that we hadn’t thought of – like health and safety factors on Gypsy/Traveller sites, which gave us some really dramatic results – for example we found out about the lack of fire hoses and other safety issues on some publically owned sites – which we wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. With other questions the steering group members were able to say – don’t be silly if you ask that, you won’t get any answers and people will walk away. If those questions had to be included to fulfil our contract, then we had to say we can’t completely remove that question, so how do you suggest we rephrase it to get it answered?
Involving Gypsies and Travellers as researchers meant we could get out and talk to people who had never been interviewed before. So we learnt much more about the depths of exclusion experienced by some community members. For example, we found out about some disabled people who were living in trailers that weren’t adapted in any way and who simply didn’t know about relevant services or their rights to access services.
At the final launch we jointly presented the findings from the project and the Gypsy/Traveller members received their certificates of training as a community interviewer or steering group member – like a graduation ceremony. This meant that the people we involved felt incredibly valued and it went down amazingly well. It also meant that the staff from health authorities and social services as well as local councillors, who had never met Gypsies/Travellers before, had a chance to set aside their prejudices, communicate and listen for the first time. That was incredibly valuable.
I think in the end everyone was happy with the results – the council felt that they got an accurate picture of what was going on in the community and the community members felt that they had been involved, so they were happy with the outcome. So then at the start of any subsequent political or legal process, we were going to be in a win-win situation. It’s not that the council put down some figures and the community said this is completely wrong – you haven’t consulted us. There’s more cohesion from the beginning, because everyone has been in dialogue. We’re not immediately at loggerheads.
As had been planned from the beginning, the project helped to establish local Gypsy/Traveller forums. These have continued to provide a means of communication between the council and the local community long after the research project finished.
Trust made the involvement work well. I can’t say that often enough – trust, trust, trust and trust. We were very open. Because of the history of Gypsies/Travellers being exploited, there were concerns that we would come in, write up a report, get paid vast amounts of money, go away and there would be no change. So we were open – we talked to the people involved throughout the project saying we cannot guarantee what will be delivered at the end of this, but we will do the absolute best we can. We work in partnership. We are with you every step of the way. We were also open about the budget. We said this is how it divides up – this is what’s spent on administration or petrol costs – so people could see precisely what was going on. We paid people to attend steering group meetings. And we paid the interviewers. We were clear they were paid exactly the same as a postgraduate student – given the same training, same rate of pay, and that the same degree of professionalism was expected.
I would advise other social care researchers to use this type of approach. It is morally and ethically sound. It does deliver results. It is the right way to work as far as I’m concerned and I’m unshakeable on that. It’s not the cheapest way – it would be easier to bring in experienced researchers who don’t know the community. But it’s better to work with local knowledge – with someone who speaks to the community, who knows the people. And it’s very time consuming. You need to have a huge commitment in terms of training and working with community members, very regular meetings and lots of phone calls with people.
Dr Margaret GreenfieldsSenior Lecturer in Social PolicyBuckinghamshire New UniversityFaculty of Society and HealthQueen Alexandra RoadHigh WycombeBuckinghamshire HP11 2JZ
Tel: 01494 522141 x5770Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This case study first appeared in Blackburn H., Hanley B. and Staley K. (2010) Turning the pyramid upside down: examples of public involvement in social care research, INVOLVE, Eastleigh.