Permission and approval

Adult Social Services staff, service users, or their families?

Gatekeeper and approval requirements for research involving adult social services vary to some extent depending:

  • on the UK country in which you plan to carry out your study;
  • on how many local authority areas your research involves. If you are working in four or more areas, you may need multi-site approval.

That said, whilst England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all have somewhat different systems, they all operate in relation to broadly similar Research Governance Frameworks – you can find links to all of these through the website of the English Department of Health. These Research Governance Frameworks set out the principles and requirements for research involving services that are the responsibility of those government departments – which includes adult social care services in all four countries.

In Scotland, the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS) has published Guidance on Research Governance and Ethical Research Practice (IRISS, 2009), and we recommend that you take the time to read this document if you are planning research involving social services in Scotland.

In England and Wales, the Social Care Research Ethics Committee has published a useful routemap for approval for social care researchers.

Beyond those over-arching frameworks, you need to get:

  1. permission from the social services department(s) that you want to include in your research;
  2. permission from ADASS (the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services) if you are planning to do research in four or more local authority areas;
  3. permission from the service providers for the service users you want to study (e.g. a residential home, or daycentre);
  4. approval from an appropriate ethics committee (which depends on who your participants will be, and on the scale and funder of the research);
  5. research governance approval within the local authority (or authorities) that you are working in;
  6. and of course... consent from your participants and where appropriate, their carers.

ADASS approval

ADASS publish very clear and concise guidelines about what you need to do in order to get permission to do research in social services departments. Their requirements depend on how many local authorities you plan to include in your research (see below), but the general principles they offer apply more generally. Their guidelines state that, before you start...

‘You need to bear in mind that adult social services departments are often large and diverse organisations, operating many services from many locations with staff drawn from many occupational groups. Generally they are under extreme pressure to achieve all that is expected of them. When you are planning your research project you should take into account

  • the time involved for adult social services staff
  • the relevance to their concerns
  • plans for publication and dissemination of your results
  • any ethical issues associated with the proposed project
  • how competent you are to carry out the intended programme of work’.

In addition, it is important to note that – whilst ADASS review for multi-site studies does consider ethics – it does not constitute ethics review for the purposes of the Research Governance Framework (or in relation to your institutional requirements), and you will need to secure ethics approval in order to carry out research in local authority adult social services departments.

Four or more local authorities?

In England , if you plan to do research involving four or more social services departments, you need permission from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS). You should NOT contact departments asking for their help with your project before you get approval for it from the ADASS Research Group.

If you do need to get ADASS permission, you should allow about four weeks following your application before you get a decision. You also have to pay a fee for your application (there is information in the guidance leaflet mentioned above). If your project is not recommended by the panel, ADASS members can give you suggestions as to how you can improve it (and if appropriate you can re-submit it when changes have been made).

It is important to remember that ADASS approval for your study does not mean you are in any way entitled to do research in local authorities – the purpose of the approval is to screen larger requests because local authority social services departments are so often asked to take part in research studies, and could not possibly do them all. So ADASS approval acts as a filter, but you still need to get permission from the individual local authorities you hope to include in your research.

ADASS have published detailed information about how to apply for approval, and we have not tried to replicate that here. Instead look at the guidelines and other information on their website. The guidelines also advise that you can contact their Research Group if you need advice or help in making an application.

Up to three local authorities?

If you are working in three or fewer local authorities, you do not need formal ADASS approval, and you should approach the local authority social services departments directly to ask if they are willing to be involved in your research. Even if you don’t need formal ADASS approval, it is worth spending some time reading their guidance about research in adult social services departments. However many local authorities you include in your research, the same considerations apply, such as time pressures on staff, and concerns about the potential vulnerability of service users. And more importantly, the gatekeepers you will have to convince, in each local authority, will look to the ADASS guidance themselves, to help them judge whether it is worthwhile to allow your research to take place in their authority.

Local authority permission

Clearly, you will need to get the permission of the social services department where you want to conduct your research. What the department requires is likely to vary from local authority to local authority. Local authorities have increasingly been developing their own research governance systems, following the implementation of the Research Governance Framework, but the nature of these systems depends on a variety of factors (such as the size of the local authority, whether there is a cross-authority research unit, and so on). So, you need to:

  • contact to local authority to check what is required for each the specific local authorities that you hope to include in your study;
  • check what ethics approval will be required for the work you plan to do;
  • check the legal requirements that apply to your work; and
  • if working in more than one area, find out if you can get research governance approval from one ‘lead’ authority that will be accepted by the other authorities.

This last point relates to a principle in the Research Governance Framework , that governance systems should be proportionate and avoid duplication. In practice, however, you may need to secure research governance permissions from more than one area, and this can be time-consuming, so you need to start finding out as early as possible in your project.

Legal requirements

Legal requirements are often a particular concern for social services departments, because of the potential vulnerability of the clients with whom they work. For a more detailed discussion of the legal requirements that apply to research conduct, click here . Particular legal considerations in adult social services are likely to include the following.

Adult social services departments have a positive duty under the Data Protection Act (1998) in relation to the confidentiality of personal data held about their clients.

In England, the Police Act (1997) defines vulnerable people as:

‘Adults with a learning or physical disability, a physical or mental illness, or a reduction in physical or mental capacity, and living in a care home or home for people with learning difficulties or receiving care in their own home, or receiving hospital or social care services.’

Equivalent legislation applies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales (e.g. The Police Act 1997 (Criminal Records) (Scotland) Regulations 2006). Under this legislation, work with vulnerable people can only be carried out by people who have current Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) clearance , and this requirement applies to researchers. If you are planning to conduct research involving clients of adult social services who meet the above definition of vulnerability, you need to ensure that any researchers who will have contact with participants have current CRB clearance. This can take time to process, and you need to build this time into your research process.

Under the act you are required to get a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check before working with vulnerable people, it is very likely that you will need a CRB check before you are allowed to do research in a social care department.

What’s more if the people you are interested in working with have an impaired capacity to consent, then (under the incapacity act) you will need

Requirements for ethics review

Under the terms of the Research Governance Framework, formal ethics approval should be required before you are allowed to carry out research involving an adult social services department. As noted above, the arrangements for ethics review vary across local authorities, with some local authorities requiring that research should go through their own ethics review system, and some accepting university ethics reviews. You need to check – as early as possible – with the local authorities that you hope to work with, what they require in terms of ethics review.

In part, the requirements they set will depend on their in-house systems, but they will also depend on what you plan to study, and in particular, whether your research falls within the remit of the Social Care Research Ethics Committee.

Ideally, ethics review systems should work so that you only need to get one ethics review for the study, but it is best to check at the outset whether:

  • the local authority where you plan to research will accept your employer or university’s ethics review; or
  • if necessary, whether your organisation and your funder will accept a review by a local authority.

Local institutional systems such as University ethics committees are usually set up to avoid duplication, and most funders operate the same principle. If you have any doubt about whether a local authority’s ethics approval system is acceptable, your organisation’s research ethics administrator/coordinator and your funder’s research manager should be able to advise you. Remember that ADASS approval does not comprise formal ethics review – this is a common misconception, but it is not the case.

If it looks likely that you will have to apply for multiple ethics approvals, then your best (and quickest) option might be to get approval from the Social Care Research Ethics Committee. The SCREC should be viewed as valid approval by local authorities in England, research organisations (such as Universities) and funders, because it is an NRES (National Research Ethics Service) committee.