Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Recommendations

06/01/2002

The protocol described in this paper for obtaining high response rates in in-person surveys of low-income and welfare populations (summarized in Box 3-1) includes, but goes beyond, the factors identified by Gordon et al. as being important in follow-up surveys of low-income populations: initial contact information; updating of contact information; sophisticated tracking methods; mixed-mode interviewing; and respondent payments (Gordon et al., 1992). To those factors, the NORC approach adds effective field staffing; training with appropriate emphasis placed on the gaining cooperation tasks; and strong field support. Without identifying and deploying the resources to collect the data in the most supportive manner, even the best sample information will not result in a completed interview. The people involved in the actual data collection tasks are key, from the field interviewers to the field supervisors to the support staff in the home office. Groves and Coupers (1998) concepts of tailoring and maintaining interaction support our recommendations. In terms of the staffing approach, the most effective field staff are expert at tailoring their approach to respondents; staffing as many experienced field interviewers as possible and/or supplementing a staff of less experienced interviewers with experienced travelers is important. On the training front, it is important to cover issues related to training the respondent and gaining cooperation, along with examples and opportunities for practice, throughout the course of training. On the field support front, having a site office where interviewers and field managers can interact in person and brainstorm and allow early intervention if a problem is developing further supports the opportunities for interviewers to learn how important tailoring and maintaining interaction can be.

Finally, because of cost constraints, we recognize that face-to-face interviewing is not going to be affordable in many cases. Therefore, we strongly recommend that more focus be given to planned mixed-mode studies, acknowledging that high response rates by mail or telephone are very difficult and potentially miss key parts of this population, such as the homeless and other respondents who move frequently or those who lack phones. Part of a successful mixed-mode model would include approaches such as collaborative locating efforts with agency staff to help cut locating costs; adaptation of a Release of Information form for use with locating contacts (Sullivan et al., 1996:267); use of respondent incentives; and perhaps even piggybacking of some data collection that could offer a more cost-effective way to obtain additional data.

Box 3-1:

Key Elements in Obtaining High Response Rates in In-Person Studies.

Locating and Contacting the Sample

  • Quality of the list sample:  Prior to fielding the sample, make any effort possible to update the list. Collaboration with the client often can be very beneficial.
  • Use of advance letter:  Interviewers report that an advance letter sent to the respondent helps to emphasize the legitimacy and importance of the survey, thus becoming a tool in their gaining cooperation kit.
  • Community authority contacts:  Interviewers feel supported and safer when a project alerts community authorities of the study and their presence in the community.
  • Locating:  Resources devoted to locating efforts, both centralized and in the field, are essential for obtaining high completion rates with low-income populations. Putting together a cost-effective locating protocol is key because it is easy to spend a great deal on these efforts.

Staffing and Training Interviewers

  • Data collection plan:  It is important that the researchers and data collection staff consult about the feasibility of any proposed data collection strategies.
  • Recruiting field interviewers:  Careful screening and selection criteria applied by experienced field recruiters are critical. Not all interviewers, even those who are experienced, are effective working with low-income populations.
  • Training:  Training for interviewers should cover basic interviewing techniques, project-specific topics, and sensitivity training. It should be ongoing throughout data collection and focus on the needs that emerge, such as dealing with refusals.
  • Use of experienced, traveling interviewers:  Although this may seem counterintuitive on a survey with limited data collection funds, NORCs experience has shown that such a strategy can be cost effective if planned from the outset and managed carefully.

Optimizing Field Support and Communication

  • Field supervision:  Use experienced field supervisors who have experience working successfully with low-income populations. Make sure the budget allows for close supervision, not just taking reports.
  • Site office:  When the sample is clustered, setting up a site office can be very effective for motivating interviewers to stay on task. Even when the site is set up only temporarily, such as at the beginning and end of data collection, it can be a positive impact on production.
  • Communications:  Be available to interviewers beyond regular business hours. Depending on the schedule and sample, consider use of beepers, cell phones, and other communications methods.
  • Teamwork:  Interviewers are more likely to be successful if they feel they are part of a team and have contact with that team during the data collection period, even if just via conference calls.

Controlling Budget and Quality

  • Budget:  Review the budget on a regular basis.
  • Contingency plans:  Have contingency plans ready for implementation in case original budget assumptions dont hold.
  • Quality control:  Dont skimp on quality control; be sure to validate a percentage of each interviewers cases, both completes and noninterviews.

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