Important

A general election has been called for 4 July 2024. You must follow this pre-election guidance.

Breaking pre-election rules could be a serious disciplinary or dismissible offence. If in any doubt, get approval from your senior responsible officer (SRO) or delay your research.

In the weeks before an election, called the pre-election sensitivity period, most user research activity can continue. However, there are some exceptions and additional considerations.

This is the case for general election, local elections, assembly elections, mayoral elections, and any other UK elections or referendums.

You and your team must decide whether your research is appropriate to conduct during a pre-election period and, if not, you must delay the research until after the election.

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Pre-election period timings

Before an election, Cabinet Office will announce the date when the pre-election period starts. This is typically (but not always) four to six weeks before an election. It will be formally announced on GOV.UK, and we will republish this in the #user_research Slack channel (opens in a new tab).

During a general election, the pre-election period ends when a new government is formed. During local and other elections, it ends at the close of polls.

When the date of an election is known well in advance (e.g. local, mayoral, devolved administration elections) you should plan appropriate research activity for the period.

For general elections, when the date is not set in advance, make sure your team is aware of the risk if an election is called, so your DM can add it to your team's risk log.

Deciding whether to continue your research

Do not make this decision on your own.

Read this guidance and advise your team whether your planned research should continue. If you are not sure, first speak to your lead user researcher or the head of user research.

You should then get an approval to continue from your programme's Senior Responsible Officer (SRO). Your delivery manager will help you do this.

Principles

There are three principles that you must consider when planning whether to conduct research during this period:

  • Could the research activity be seen to call into question your political impartiality or give rise to criticism that public resources are being used for party political purposes?
  • Could it be seen to compete with the election campaign for public attention?
  • Could it be seen as using government resources for party political purposes?

Most user research is not contentious when related to a service or policy goal that has already been announced; for example during the discovery or design of a new service, or when making improvements to a service that is already being used (in public beta or live).

This is because user research is intended to understand user need and user behaviour, rather than gathering opinions, so it does not call into question political impartiality. Additionally, not conducting user research could delay or compromise the design of a service, wasting government resources

However, there are exceptions to this, and some specific activities that you should avoid.

Competing with the election campaign for public attention

You must not conduct any research activities which could be interpreted as competing with the election campaign for public attention. For example:

  • Conducting research or recruiting members of the public in public places, for example pop-up research in a library or public areas of a college
  • Using official departmental social media or external newsletters for research or participant recruitment activity
  • Posting about your research on official or personal social media and blogs
  • Giving presentations about your work at conferences or meet-ups

Examples of activities that can normally continue include:

  • Research on private premises, or in a private room in a public building (for example in a school or Family Hub)
  • Recruiting participants via email, using lists of people who have already opted in to being contacted for research
  • Using third-party participant recruitment suppliers
  • Using internal staff networks or newsletters to recruit DfE users
  • Talking about your work within DfE, in internal channels and events

Political impartiality

You should be careful not to do any activity that could call into question your or the department's political impartiality, even unintentionally.

This could include research that is:

  • related to an unannounced service or a new policy
  • specifically intended to gather feedback and opinion, rather than user need and behaviour
  • related to a specific service or underlying policy area that is likely to be controversial or high profile during an election campaign.

Remember that high profile election topics may change throughout a campaign, so even if you continue with your research, you may decide to pause it later on in the pre-election period.

Giving incentives to research participants

If you have planned to pay financial or in-kind incentives to research participants, you can continue to do so, following the guidance on paying incentives.

However, be particularly mindful about paying higher than normal incentive amounts, and whether this could be seen as mis-using government resources.

Research with civil servants and other public officials

All internal user research conducted with DfE staff can continue.

User research with other civil servants and public officials in local authorities and devolved administrations can also continue. However, you should first confirm with the participants that they are able to take part, because they may have restrictions imposed by their own pre-election guidance.

Discussion guides and session management

As a user researcher in DfE, you must always act within the civil service code, and be midful about what you say and discuss with participants.

During a pre-election period you should take extra care, because things you say that would normally be accepted as objective could be interpreted differently.

At the start of a research session, you should tell the participant that, due to the election, there may be topics that the participant raises that you can't discuss.

If the participant does raise election topics during the session, politely explain to them that you can't comment. If you are uncomfortable that the discussion is becoming political or putting you in a difficult situation, you should consider ending the session.

Further reading

A note on the word 'Purdah'

The term 'purdah' was historically used in the UK to describe pre-election periods.

Although you may still hear this word used unofficially across the Civil Service, some people find it offensive, because of 'purdah's' historical usage and etymology. This is why we now use 'pre-election sensitivity period' instead, and avoid using the word 'purdah'.