How did you get there? Cllr Rezina Chowdhury

Great to hear from Rezina Chowdhury who is currently Deputy Leader at the London Borough of Lambeth and Cabinet member for a Sustainable Lambeth and Clean Air. Rezina is an experienced social researcher, who freelances nowadays, and uses her role in local government to embed good practices in resident engagement exercises and consultations. She is a Local Government Association Peer Advisor, Chair of Western Riverside Waste Authority, Governor of the Walcot Foundation and a Certified Member of the Market Research Society.

My route to social research was not very traditional at all. The journey started with a poster on the wall of a student union office during my post grad year (after which I hoped to secure employment as a systems analyst!). It was a call for people who could speak Bangla fluently to help with interviewing Bangladeshi respondents for a large government survey.

Just to rewind a bit, I was born in Sylhet Bangladesh and came to England when I was a toddler. I only learned English properly when I started nursery school. And even then, my parents insisted we spoke Bangla at home so that I wouldn’t lose my linguistic identity. It was an inhospitable environment, both in terms of temperature and culture. But my parents were determined to make their lives here, Mitcham, specifically. We lived in the flat above my dad’s restaurant until I was eight, when we moved to a house opposite Mitcham Common where I spent most of my summer days with my friend Lisa and our Raleigh Choppers.

So fast forward to my poor student days, I was suddenly very thankful to my parents for their dogged determination to insist on speaking Bangla at home. I signed up with the MORI fieldwork team and within a week I received interviewer training, learned all about Kish grids, Lickert scales as well as getting to grips with doorstep skills (which comes in handy nowadays). I was let loose on the Ocean estate in Tower Hamlets and was very quickly interviewing residents for 2 hours at a time about their housing needs using a pen and paper questionnaire.

Shortly afterwards I was asked to moderate focus groups in mother tongue and received training in qualitative research, which was another revelation. I didn’t realise you could have so much fun while working. For context, I was working at Simpsons of Piccadilly at the time on their graduate management scheme, which was not really what I wanted to do but the bottom had fallen out of the systems analyst graduate entry roles due to a small recession. Then, when I was offered a trainee research exec role at MORI I jumped at the opportunity and was more than happy to swap men’s suiting for questionnaire design, edit specs and computer tables. As well as longitudinal surveys I was also working on “quickies” or quick turnaround surveys and I soon discovered that I really loved the high octane world of designing a questionnaire by Wednesday lunchtime and getting results on Friday night, in time for a piece in the Sunday Times. It was very stressful but incredibly satisfying!

To do more of this, I moved to NOP where I was lucky enough to manage the monthly message polls for the Labour Party in the two years leading up to the General Election of 1997. It’s hard to believe now that a fairly junior researcher, let alone a female from a Black and Ethnic minority background could have landed such an amazing opportunity. And for that I am eternally grateful to Nick Moon.

It was unusual to be a mixed methods researcher in those days as organisations

were still structured so that researchers were either quant or qual. I didn’t want to choose so I persuaded my bosses to let me do both. This allowed me wider exposure to mixed method social research briefs from public sector clients – covering most government departments– whether it was comms testing, policy development, evaluation of a policy or gathering deeper insights from seldom heard or socially excluded communities.

It’s probably fair to say that my social research career to date has not exactly been linear! It’s included traditional market research agencies (MORI, NOP, TNS, GfK) and then a move to the civil service where I spent six years in the Marketing Directorate at Public Health England – commissioning and managing research. I learned all about the dynamic purchasing system, working closely with procurement colleagues and Crown Commercial Services. And despite the frustration with some of the processes it was hugely rewarding when we secured a great research supplier. It was so good to be working with exceptionally talented researchers across our industry, tackling some of the knottier issues in the briefs we issued.

I loved working at PHE (even though I was often observing focus groups rather than moderating them) because I learned the importance of telling a good story with data to ensure impactful messages. Turning a 70 slide deck from a research agency to 5 bullets for my deputy director was an excellent lesson in how to pack a punch with data.

A group of people posing for a photo

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Then the lure of international development research took me to the advertising agency world of M&C Saatchi World Services where I led on a UKAid funded project to improve the reproductive health of women in Pakistan. As researchers we’re quite used to working with multidisciplinary teams, but I don’t think I’d ever worked this closely with creatives, strategists, academics and international NGOs. It made me realise that the day to day skills we take for granted are so valued by those outside the industry, even more so than those within. 

I returned to traditional social research when I joined the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) where I focused on Net Zero and sustainable transport projects.  In fact, the projects I worked on linked quite strongly with work I was doing as a ward councillor, especially around evaluating implementation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTN). Context: This was 2021 and the Covid LTNs had been put in the year before, thus immediately dividing the country!

Just to rewind a bit, I was elected as a Lambeth councillor in 2014 and had been working full time while also conducting ward councillor duties. I loved both, but juggling them was tricky at times, especially with lots of evening meetings and ward related activities. After 8 years of exhaustion of trying to do it all, I decided to pivot to local government full time in May 2022 following the local elections that year and decided to become a freelance researcher.  

As a cabinet member leading on environmental issues, I try to embed the rigours of social research practice into our consultations and resident engagement exercises – or at least try to! The photos I’ve shared below reflect the fun things my cabinet role allows me to do, including rolling out more cycle hangars across the borough, planting lots of trees or collecting awards for Lambeth’s ground breaking kerbside strategy.

The thing I love most about social research is that you know that there is very likely to be a social good at the end of it.  We seek to understand people – their needs, values, and motivations. Good research insights lead to good policies which in turn have positive impacts on day to day lives.  

In terms of the practice and personal development, I loved the range of methods and the opportunity to experiment with approaches. I remember using non-traditional methods to recruit seldom heard communities to focus groups and opening up the world of qualitative research to 6th formers in Tower Hamlets, and conducting research in places of play, worship, and work. 

Other social researchers are great fun to work with.  I am lucky enough to have worked with some of the funniest, kindest, and brightest people in the industry, learning lots from them along the way. 

Talking of kind, here’s a picture of me with my late husband, the loveliest man ever who left this world almost ten years ago.  He was my cheerleader and champion and kept me going throughout my career research – even helping me with translating questionnaires into Bangla! 

This is best answered if I think about what I would have liked to have been told as a junior researcher.

The first thing is don’t assume that your journey must be the same as those of your cohort.  One size does not fit all in this instance.  Think about what YOU really enjoy and what YOU want to do next. What makes you tick and forget about everyone else.

I say this because if you’re anything like me then you will work out quite quickly what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy!  So, lean into what you enjoy because that will make you happy. And happy researchers make good researchers. 

There’s a tendency to stick to things we don’t particularly enjoy or worse still, make us miserable.  We instinctively look around at what everyone else is doing and assume that there is only one route to a successful career in research. WRONG!

So, at this moment, take your time to find out what really excites you and makes you want to get up in the mornings. Is it the environment, the people, the variety of projects, a specific method, a type of industry, a cause that is close to your heart or the values that align with yours?

A career in social research should be a marathon not a 100m sprint. While looking ahead to where you want to be next, look around at what you’re doing now and see what opportunities there are to enrich your future career. Each job is the springboard to the next so use that time to learn something new – whether it’s a new skill or discover something new about yourself.

Sometimes it’s about reframing what you’ve already done in a way that’s easy to understand for the employer. They get hundreds of CVs and applications and they’re looking for key requirements which usually mean a combination of practical skills, understanding of a particular issue and a demonstration of work ethic.

So, if your under/postgraduate studies or previous work experience have ever included evaluations or engagement, workshops or perhaps communicating ideas to others then use the language of research to express this experience.  

For example, as a student you may have been part of a group exploring public perceptions around sustainable development and this might have involved speaking to residents, attending public meetings, writing up the notes, interpreting and then reporting on these findings. This IS social research experience. This demonstrates practical skills, an ability to immerse yourself in an issue that is important to people, and it demonstrates that you can work as part of a team.

And if you can’t think of anything relevant right now then do consider volunteering for a few hours a week at an organisation or for a cause that you feel passionately about.  You can create the research opportunities yourself which will give you the much needed experience that you’ll be asked to demonstrate. Whether it’s homelessness, holiday hunger, safer streets, women’s health – there are many organisations out there who would welcome the extra pair of hands and grey cells.

Across local government and NGOs there are usually consultations which tend to involve resident engagement exercises in the form of surveys or workshops. These can be online or face to face and cover a multitude of issues e.g., public realm improvements, youth services, public transport, safer streets or events in parks. They are sometimes listed under communications, strategy or PR and involve many of our day to day research skills e.g., designing survey tools, gathering data, analysis, interpretation, and reporting. While not strictly research jobs, they do focus on public engagement in order to deliver a service that people need. This in itself is a great skill because social research should be about serving the public. 

During my career I have noticed a lot of changes in the sector, showing how adaptive it can be to new research methods, approaches and the ever evolving commercial environment. And I have been impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of social researchers as they dive into complex issues with some challenging clients!

Therefore, it’s critical that training and development keep up with our changing world and new modules need to take account of so much more than methods and analysis.

As researchers we are not homogenous (thankfully!). We should ideally be representative of the communities we seek to understand. And in doing so we need to get better at seeing our researchers for the lived experience they bring to their work. Among us are those of us from working class backgrounds, maybe speaking more than one language or perhaps neurodiverse or might have experienced discrimination due to a disability, sexual orientation, race or religious background.

One other key observation is that that not all researchers are innately people managers, so investment in people management skills is critical, even for the most empathetic researchers. We saw during the pandemic the different types of management styles play out, with varying levels of success at staff retention when the call was put out to get everyone back in the office again. Some of it, quite frankly, was tone deaf. Therefore, the sector could do much more in developing people’s management skills, like those provided by the Local Government Association on their leadership courses.

I have lost count of the number of experienced female researchers, often reaching director level having to make different career choices because of motherhood. Social research is the other loser here.  We have lost so many skilled people to other sectors and industries because of inflexible HR practices, workplace culture often geared towards established male dominated norms. And I hope that the industry listens in time to prevent the future exodus of women whether it be post-pregnancy or post-menopause. 

Too many to name but here they are Christine Roberts who spotted my bilingual skills and introduced me to the joys of qualitative research.  Although we first worked together at MORI, I subsequently followed her to Public Health England (PHE) via the Central Office of Information (COI).  Also, a shout out to Nick Moon for the big break in working for the Labour Party which ignited a flame that’s still burning. When I started out there weren’t many researchers of colour so a shout out to Lee Chan, Amrita Sood, Shuba Krishan and Joy Mhonda for their invaluable support over the years. Having a diverse career within and outside research has given me the opportunity to work with professionals from a wide range of backgrounds, so I am grateful to them for taking me out of my bubble to see how the research is used and implemented.