Organising research interviews with professionals Mike Williams gives advice to evaluators on planning interviews with professionals

Man and woman interviewingProfessionals are busy people so organising interviews with them requires good planning and perseverance. It often takes longer to arrange the appointment than it does to conduct the interview.

Evaluators sometimes make it difficult for themselves by assuming that it won’t take long to organise interviews. Sometimes project plans don’t factor in any time for this task. But the truth is organising just one interview can take hours.

If you don’t project plan the organising of interviews you can find that you need to push your reporting deadline back, or that you end up with little data to report back on.

In this post, I use one example of a project where I interviewed social workers, to give tips for organising evaluation interviews with professionals.

Identifying potential interviewees

Before organising appointments, you need to identify potential interviewees.

A few years ago I arranged interviews with a group of local authority social workers who had received  NSPCC support in assessing neglect cases.

My first step was to liaise with NSPCC team managers to get the names of the social workers and their contact details. This was not a straightforward task for the managers. They had to search through their case database and the details weren't necessarily stored where you'd expect them to be.

Due to the administrative legwork required, managers were sometimes reluctant to get the details for me. It can be difficult to prioritise an administrative task when you have a busy workload, and have to make important decisions about children and families on a day to day basis. 

However I was persistent with managers and kept calling until they got me the details. I could tell that some managers experienced my calls as draining. Each time I talked to them I could feel the tone of their voice slowly shifting from welcoming to frosty!

The point is it took a long time to get hold of the interviewees’ contact details, much longer than I had anticipated.

Team managers did however get the professionals’ contact details for me. However, once the social workers had been identified, I needed to wait for a senior manager at the NSPCC to gain permission for interviews from a director in the local authority.

Again this was something that I hadn’t realised would be an issue and could take anywhere between a week and a month to resolve.

Putting a date in the diary with professionals

Once the social workers had been identified, and once permission to contact them had been granted, the next challenge was trying to get through to the social workers.

Usually, I’d ring the council’s switchboard. This could take anything up to 20 minutes to get through to. On some occasions it was simply not available.

When I did get through, I’d be referred to the reception for Children’s Services. Here I could be waiting for another 5 or 10 minutes to talk to someone on reception, only to be told that the social worker was out of the office.

I should add that at any point during this process that the phone-line could go dead!

When the social worker wasn’t in the office it was usually possible to leave a message on their answering machine.

However I sometimes decided not to: once you’ve left a voicemail it’s hard to know if they will hear the message and respond to it. Plus you’ve effectively barred yourself from contacting the professional for another week.

On some occasions I was given the email address of the social worker, but was also warned that social workers don’t often have time to read all their emails, or at least not the ones about arranging interviews!

The fact of the matter is that whether I tried one route or another, whilst I had initially thought it would take just a few minutes to arrange an interview with a professional, once I had their number, in practice it could take hours of work, and sometimes up to a month before I was able to get in touch with them!

Successfully starting the interviews

When you’ve eventually arranged a time to talk to a professional, the nature of their work means they might not always be there when you ring.

In the project I worked on sometimes the receptionist reported that the social worker had gone out on an urgent visit. On other occasions the social worker - sounding a bit embarrassed – told me that they’d forgotten about the interview, were just about to leave to see a family and would have to rearrange.

So it can take a long time to arrange an interview with professionals, and even when you’re finally able to start the interview, you need to be aware that you don’t always get what you want.

In the project that I worked on some social workers were a dream to interview. They were insightful about what worked and what didn’t, and honest and open about the limitations of the work.

Others however seemed to be reluctant to go too much into the detail of what they did, did not reflect much on why they did things in the way they did and gave one word answers.

Social workers often felt reluctant to talk about the pressures and politics of working in a local authority. These issues are taboo. Some professionals are able to overcome this. In the project I worked on some social workers talked around the houses a bit, paused… sighed, and then started telling me what it’s really like to do the work.

My tips for organising interviews with professionals

Here are a few tips that can help when you need to conduct interviews with social workers.

  • When project planning, build in time to arrange appointments for your interviews.
  • Think about the gatekeepers that you need to get permission from, and who will be supplying you with the contact details of the professionals.
  • Think about how long it takes to get through to the switchboard or department that the professional works for. Do a dress rehearsal and time it.
  • Generally speaking, put aside a couple of hours to organise and plan each interview.
  • Factor this into your project planning and your costs, make it clear to the evaluation commissioner.
  • It's good to be glass half full, rather than glass half empty; don't get too disheartened if social workers don't want to engage.

What I've learned

Successfully arranging interviews with professionals needs a good deal of forward planning and persistence.

Good forward planning involves factoring in the time needed to get the contact details of professionals and gain permission to talk to them, getting through to the switchboard and department that the professional works for and the probability that some of your potential interviewees will not be in when you try and call them.

It’s therefore useful to be realistic with yourself and the commissioners over the time needed to arrange interviews.

Once the interview is in progress, be aware that professionals may initially feel reluctant talking about the political and organisational barriers to effective practice, as these subjects are often taboo.

Giving permission to professionals to talk about these things and reminding them that their data will be reported on in a way that maximises their anonymity, can help bring to the surface important issues that directors and managers need to consider, to empower their workers to improve the safety and well-being of children.

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