How to Research an Issue

Sometimes you'll start a campaign in your own specialist area. You've based your life's work on this particular issue, and you know pretty much everything there is to know about it. More often, however, you'll be sitting around the kitchen table with a few other like-minded people and decide that something must be done about a particular issue.

You need to get on top of the issue quickly, and you need to be able to keep up with the various developments. This includes the background, the major players, the relevant legislation, government policy, and similar campaigns or precedents for your action.

You'll often be up against people who are significantly better resourced than you and will probably have better access to the nodes of power than you do. They'ill have an endless stream of statistics at the ready, with flash presentations and a well-honed line to sell.

You've got to be prepared to come back at them with your own research. Here are a few pointers on how to research an issue.

Internet

The internet is possibly the best resource available. There's just so much information out there on the web that most, if not all, issues can be researched in detail using the web.

The internet is ideal for getting a basic grasp of an issue - establishing who the key authors or theorists are, what's happened with these sorts of campaigns before, and so on. It's great for making contacts with people in similar situations and for providing you with some decent leads to research further.

On the other hand, the fact that anyone can have a web page means that the quality of information on offer is highly variable. Buyer beware - use your better judgement to decide whether a particular source can be trusted.

Email lists/Newsletters

While you're on the internet you'll probably find organisations that deal with issues similar to yours. A lot of these groups will have an email list which you can sign up to. These lists are a great way to be kept up to date with new information as it becomes available and will often open you up to a much wider range of opinions on an issue.

Library

Where else would you go to research something but the library? Most public libraries are pretty good, and library staff are usually quite helpful in assisting you with your research.

If you can, get prepared before you go and take to the library a list of authors or books that you know are significant for your issue. Take note of the authors your initial sources refer to so you can expand your research.

It also never hurts to punch some keywords into the library's database and see what comes up. Often this can be done from home via the internet, allowing you to check ahead to see whether the library is carrying the books you want. Most libraries are hooked up to a central database, so if one library doesn't have the book you want it may be able to get it from one of the other libraries in the area.

In capital cities state libraries have remarkable collections.

And don't forget that you can walk into most university libraries - you can't borrow, but you can photocopy relevant chapters, and their collections will generally be considerably bigger than those available at your local library.

Journals

State libraries and university libraries will carry academic journals. These deserve a special mention, for several reasons. Firstly, when someone is writing an academic book they'll usually write a few journal articles to go with it, and this can be a good way of getting the main arguments in a book by only reading 10 or 20 pages. In addition they will be heavily referenced, so you will be able to establish key authors in your field.

Most importantly, however, journal articles are highly specialised and are peer-reviewed. The information in these articles has been tested against the relevant academic standards, and the research methods used are sound. For this reason, refereeed journal articles carry extra weight in any argument.

Hansard

Hansard is the verbatim record of all parliamentary proceedings. This can sometimes be a fantastic research tool. Hansards from the modern era have a detailed search facility, and all the documents are readily accessible on the web.

An electronic version of Commonwealth Parliamentary Hansard from 1981 onwards is available at http://www.aph.gov.au/hansard/.

State Hansards are available on the several State Parliament websites.

Freedom of Information (FoI)

Government departments, local councils, public hospitals, statutory authorities and boards are required to make most government documents publicly available.

However it's not uncommon for public reports, for example, to be hidden away or not publicly announced, particularly when the findings are considered unfavourable. It's obviously a strong argument to be able to show that the authorities' own research into an issue supports your position, and in these cases a FoI request can really bolster your campaign. Used in conjunction with Hansard, FOI enables you to track down material that can be very helpful for your cause.

To access this information it's necessary to lodge a freedom of information request with the relevant body. These bodies vary from state to state and federally. Not all information will be released: the FOI Acts allow for a number of exemptions, including Cabinet confidentiality and commercial confidentiality.

FOI requests can be expensive, and are notoriously slow and a good deal of patience is often required. If you start down this road, be prepared to be vigilant and keep pushing to ensure you finally get the information you need.

You should also note that the government doesn't have to give you information if it hasn't collected it, doesn't hold it, or has already shredded it.

Similar examples

Seeking out other examples of similar campaigns is often a very important way to improve your campaigning.

Usually people who have been in a similar situation are more than happy to share their knowledge and insights and to give you a few pointers on how they ran their campaign, what worked, and what didn't. Nothing is more valuable than first-hand knowledge of this kind.

Public Meetings

A public meeting - a forum that is open to the public to discuss an issue - is a great way to gauge public opinion and to listen to voices from the community that you might otherwise not have the opportunity to hear.

For more information please see our help sheet on Holding a Public Forum

Surveys

Sometimes the the information you want simply isn't available. In these circumstances you will need to establish your own facts and figures. One key way of doing this is by running a survey. These can establish what the current situation is, how many people will be affected, and what public opinion on the topic is. Be careful to ask the right questions, and make sure you adhere to the relevant statistical standards with regards to your sample size and the questions you ask.

Surveys are even easier now with the various free online facilities available, including Survey Monkey (http://www.surveymonkey.com).

Census information and statistics

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is also an excellent source of information. The ABS has a huge body of statistical analysis is able to cross-reference a significant amount of data as well. This is a great way to determine your demographic, as well as to determine how many people will be affected and to what extent.

Local governments are also often a great source of statistical data.

Scientific studies and surveys

It seems like science has an answer for everything these days, but it's important to acknowledge that there are still large gaps in our knowledge. If you're concerned about pollution levels in a river, for example, you may need to undertake your own scientific study to get some figures. Even where some data exists, it may come from the government or a person you're advocating against. If you want to dispute their figures for any reason you may wish to undertake your own independent scientific study.

These studies vary in time, cost and difficulty. Some studies will be expensive to undertake, as highly specialised equipment or expensive expertise might be needed. Don't be afraid to contact a local university campus and see if there are any students or staff working in that speciality who may be willing to undertake the study for you.

The Media

Keep a close eye on the media - the forum which provides the widest range of opinion, in an easily digested form. It can be problematic to overlook a key development, so encourage people in your inner circle to share things like newspaper articles (made a lot easier now with the internet and email) to ensure that nothing is overlooked. It can also be helpful to look back through old newspapers, magazines, journals, etc.

Framing

It is important to give consideration to the way you frame your arguments. 'Speaking truth to power' is very important - that's why we undertake research. That said, if you're to reach the broader public and help to shape debate it's important to frame your arguments in a way that will help to shape public opinion.

For more information on this dilemma see George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant.

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