Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to examine the impact that research governance processes in the National Health Service (NHS) are having on the conduct of research that involves a national survey and to point to ways that existing processes may develop to facilitate such research. Design/methodology/ approach - The paper describes the experiences of a research team of seeking approval in 357 NHS organisations to carry out a national postal survey to investigate specialist services and specialist staffing for older people in England in the wake of recent policy developments. Through reflection on this experience, the team propose approaches for the development of existing research governance processes. The national survey was the first stage of the study, which was followed by a detailed investigation of the development of specialist service provision for older people in six case study sites across England. The national survey aimed to map specialist service provision for older people by identifying the range of service models, agency and professional involvements, and nature of the case load in statutory services (health and social care), independent and voluntary sector organisations. Findings - Of the 357 NHS organisations approached for approval to carry out the survey within the organisation, this was achieved only in 247 organisations over 12 months. Many organisations were facilitative of the process; however, protracted and extensive approval processes in others led to long delays and redesigning of the research that was commissioned by the Department of Health. Originality/value - The paper is of value in that it highlights processes and practices that hinder research and builds on those that work well.