Getting the story right – the final phase of my PhD!

wordcloudJulyI’m now entering the final phase of my PhD! Now that sounds vaguely ridiculous as it only seems like yesterday that I started. But I am now at the point of finishing off my fieldwork and beginning that rather daunting bit that means I have to try and make sense of it all. For me it still feels like I don’t know much, like there is so much reading still to do and so much data to make sense of, that it’ll take years to get to that end point of the completed thesis.

This middle stage, the second year, has been fun, manic, challenging, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time. It’s involved talking to and interviewing people I have never met before, as well as many I know well. It’s involved taking up other people’s time, often at times that are most busy for them. It’s also involved a significant degree of personal learning, confidence, engagement, listening and energy. There were times when I have felt stretched beyond what I could cope with, completely out of my comfort zone, bombarded with information and exhausted from long days and late evenings full of meetings, interviews and debates. There have also been times when I’ve felt extremely grateful for how cooperative people have been, energised by what I have heard, motivated by discussion and a fair amount of empathy for the people who have shared their challenges with me.

There have also been times when I’ve wondered whether or not the questions I am asking are the right ones, whether the information I am gathering is actually what I need. In fact there have been many times when I have wondered about that and indeed still do – only time will tell.

I guess I’ve reached that stage now where all of those questions and self doubt begin to take centre stage, where a year to analyse data and write up just doesn’t seem long enough. For me I know what I need at this stage, I need to be able to see the story that I’m trying to tell, the story that takes the reader through my research. At the moment I’m not quite sure what that is, but gradually as I write up notes, transcribe interviews, go back to the theory and keep reading and thinking, little parts of that story begin to emerge. It’s almost like it’s there, but just out of reach! There’s also possibly too much, too many different routes I could take through the data, that would confuse the main messages and reduce the main characters to a minor role. So picking out the right story and the right main characters is all part of the trick going forward.

At the moment, there’s a story about influential people and how they operate overtly and covertly to influence policy agendas. There’s obviously a story about the importance of elections in providing opportunities for policy change, where policy priorities are debated and framed before, during and after the election. But more likely there’s a story about personalities, about key influencers and decision-makers, their style and approach, as well as who they talk to and take notice of. There’s also something there about solutions, looking at the same solutions that keep cropping up, year after year, to the same problems, but never quite seem to gain traction, but just maybe they will this time? Add to this the role of party politics and the media in influencing the policy prioritisation process and you can see that there’s a lot to consider.

Whilst it’s a daunting prospect, I’m actually looking forward to the writing process. I love making sense of information, bringing it together in a story that others can read and hopefully enjoy. The process is inevitably frustrating, long and painful at times, but that moment when it comes together, when clarity appears and the story is just right, well that’s totally worth waiting for!

I feel privileged to have been able to take the time out to do this research, to have the support and help of so many people, it’s a far cry from where I thought I would be right now and I’m loving it (mostly). The School for Policy Studies at Bristol University have been outstanding in their support throughout. My two supervisors (Alex Marsh and David Sweeting) are just great, providing the questions, support, encouragement and nudges I need at all the right times. Others in the school have put up with me talking about my research, provided feedback, suggested reading and most importantly of all, provided me with the encouragement that says ‘yes’ I can do this.

So now it’s time to get on with it, to make sure I reach the end of my PhD journey.

Pioneering alternative housing models

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When we talk about solving the housing crisis we tend to talk about supply and demand, about affordability and about providing homes for people. We seldom talk about people being in control of providing their own home. The whole housing system has morphed into one of dependency, be it dependence on private landlords, house builders or the State, someone will provide it for us. When housing professionals get together they talk about mainstream housing issues, about rent prices, about how difficult it is to build council housing or social housing for rent, about problems of land supply and land-banking by private developers. Rarely do they talk about self-build, custom build or housing co-operatives. It seems, on the surface at least, that we’ve lost some of the creativity and innovation in our debates about housing.

When you dig beneath that surface though you will find all kinds of interesting projects, that take us back to a less dependent realm of provision, where self-help and mutual aid were the guiding principles for action. This type of approach can still be seen in self-build and custom build projects, co-operative housing schemes and community led housing developments. These are schemes that are shaped and controlled by residents, where people have taken back control.

Back in 1975, over 40 years ago, the then Director of Housing at Bristol City Council published a Green Paper on housing with the following title:

“A Decent Home!! (A paper to stimulate thought and encourage participation so that policies can be evolved to tackle effectively the Housing problems of this great city.)”

What a great idea. Perhaps it’s time to have that very debate again in Bristol and to encourage participation from neighbourhoods across our city with a discussion that includes some alternative solutions to housing provision instead of focusing on a system that clearly doesn’t work. Maybe it could be a debate that involves those seeking a decent home but who can’t afford what is on offer and who have given up on a social housing system that has been reduced to such a residual service. Maybe it’s also time to listen to those who have solutions but are marginalised, as their solutions don’t support the traditional mainstream approach to housing?

There are many small-scale examples to draw from that could be included in this debate but seldom are. Why don’t we talk about co-operative housing more frequently when we have such a great example here in Bristol that is currently on site and well on its way to developing a sustainable model for converting empty office buildings into homes. Proof if ever you needed it that, even now, ordinary people can refurbish old buildings, create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors (AEOB Group).

Why don’t we talk more about ‘kit housing’ or custom build, which is factory made, using more sustainable materials, cheaper and quicker to erect on site than traditional bricks and mortar housing? There are many companies out there providing this form of housing, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers to the arena like Apple Green Homes and the local SNUG homes developed by Ecomotive. Whilst self-build might not be an option for many, custom build and co-operative housing may just be relevant to a wider audience. Together these models of provision could provide greater opportunities to those that have been failed by our current approach to housing.

Imagine if Bristol could be one of the first in the country to develop these custom build, co-operative models further, as part of the mainstream, using public land, property and resources to support individuals and communities to make things happen? Imagine if we could just find a way to support people to develop their own plans and models of future living? There’s a challenge here for Bristol to make this happen. And there’s a challenge to all of us to support these different initiatives to help effect the change that is needed. As Colin Ward put it so well:

”… if people are given the reins, get the right help and are committed, they can come up with a really excellent viable housing scheme that people want to live in”.

(Colin Ward, 1985:120, “When we build again, let’s have housing that works”)

The text of this blogpost was first written for The Bristol Cable and appeared there in April 2016.

Tackling Homelessness – let’s not reinvent the wheel

homelessIt’s difficult to stand back and watch what is happening with housing policy in England at the moment. The transition of the Housing Bill through the legislative process has been complicated, combative and confusing, with endless amendments and changes made along the way. Indeed we are still waiting to see the final outcome, but whatever happens there will be some fundamental changes to the way we do housing in this country.

Within this debate the plight of the homeless in our cities seems to have been somewhat lost, they are an inevitable consequence of our housing and welfare policy  as well as our inability to build enough homes over many decades. However, there is little by way of concrete policy change or real action to actually make a positive difference in this area. It seems we still need to research the issue and find out why people are homeless and how to help them. To this end, in December 2015 the government launched an inquiry into the causes of homelessness as well as the approaches taken by national and local government to prevent and tackle homelessness. Quite what the inquiry will come up with is unclear at the moment as is whether or not it will make any difference.

Perhaps we should be looking elsewhere to see how homelessness has been tackled successfully? We could learn some important lessons.

There’s an approach called ‘Housing First’ adopted in the US and Canada that starts from the premise that housing is a basic human right. This approach was first used in the early 1980s to provide housing for homeless people with multiple and complex needs. It starts from the basis that once you remove the chaos of homelessness then a person is better able to address and deal with the issues that led them to being homeless in the first place.

“Housing First is a consumer-driven approach that provides immediate access to permanent housing, in addition to flexible, community-based services for people who have experienced homelessness” (Canadian Housing First Toolkit)

It seems to me that this concept and approach is well worth revisiting. Instead of demonising and criminalising homeless people maybe we should be thinking about providing them with secure, permanent accommodation and the support they need to enable recovery and improve wellbeing, so they can re-integrate into society. Rather than making ‘housing readiness’ a condition for the provision on housing, it provides the housing first, alongside the support services, so recovery can take place in a secure environment.

The solution to homelessness has been clear for at least a decade: giving homeless people homes. According to a 2014 paper from the Canadian Homelessness Research Network, it could  actually be cheaper in the long term to provide permanent accommodation for homeless people than continue to support them whilst sleeping rough. The paper suggests that levels of homelessness in Canada come with an annual bill of $7 billion in emergency shelters, social services, health care, and law enforcement and judicial costs. Whilst a comprehensive housing strategy would cost taxpayers far less: $3.75 billion in 2015-16 and $44 billion over a decade.

“Studies have consistently shown that – in practice, and not just in theory – providing people experiencing chronic homelessness with permanent supportive housing saves taxpayers money” (National Alliance to End Homelessness)

Another study in Florida (2014) found that Florida residents pay $31,065 per chronically homeless person every year they live on the streets. However, it would cost taxpayers just $10,051 per homeless person to give them a permanent place to live and services like job training and health care. In Utah (2015), another recent programme was established to end homelessness using the Housing First approach. Here, the cost of providing an apartment and social work for clients in the Housing First program is $11,000 annually, while the average price of hospital visits and jail for street denizens is nearly $17,000 a year. Once more illustrating that taking a more holistic view can save money as well as provide the homes that homeless people need.

The key to these approaches is thinking long term about the issue and across different services, something that doesn’t always happen. Maybe we need to remind ourselves why housing is important? Its a basic human right that sets the tone for our lives – everyone should have the right to a decent home that is affordable, but sadly many don’t.

It is easy to sit back and be critical of the inability of local and national political leaders to take strategic long term decisions. We criticise them for having to be sensitive to electoral cycles and for not tackling the difficult issues. Housing is one of those issues that needs a short, medium and long term plan, where the difficult issues need to be faced head on and where linkages need to be made across service areas.

If we believe that everyone has the right to a decent home, then by restricting housing growth and refusing development we are denying people that right. In a prosperous city such as Bristol it is ridiculous that we have so may people on the housing waiting list; too many people in overcrowded and poor accommodation; and others with nowhere to live at all. So what more can we do to deliver the housing that Bristol desperately needs at a price people can afford and how do we tackle the homelessness issue? Perhaps taking a more creative and innovative approach we could adopt the ‘housing first’ principle that starts from the premise that everyone deserves a decent home. This means a new and different approach that puts people first.

Halfway point in an amazing journey

Word Cloud1Well that’s me, I have just reached halfway in my PhD journey. I’ve been doing this for 18 months now, which sometimes seems like forever and at other times seems like I only just got started. But that is it, I am halfway through my 3 year learning adventure, and what an adventure it is turning out to be. I’m sure most people will look at this and think really, at 50 you’re doing a PhD and seeing it as an adventure? But that is how I’ve seen it from the start, a learning adventure where I can develop my own thinking, find out more about an area of interest and just maybe by the end of it all, provide something that might be of use to others. It’s also something I’ve always wanted to do, but if you’d asked me 3 or 4 years ago what I would be doing now, it wouldn’t even have featured. That’s life for you, it has a strange way of providing us with the opportunities to do the things we want, we just have to recognise those opportunities and take those first steps to achieving what we want when we can. For me it’s also been about finding a positive out of a very negative situation, where that positive has now successfully eclipsed any negativity that existed.

I’m now at that stage in my PhD where I’m immersed in fieldwork. Where life has been taken over by a constant round of interviewing, observation, and meetings followed by transcribing, writing up field notes and setting up the next round of interviews. It’s relentless and I seem to have fallen a little behind with the transcribing – it is undoubtedly my least favourite activity at the moment, therefore gets put off all too often when other more interesting things spring to mind (even cleaning the house is preferable).

So far I’ve been pretty lucky with the willingness of people to participate in my research, to give up their time to answer my questions, to invite me into meetings and discussions and to provide me with information. Hopefully this will continue as it all helps to provide a true picture of what is happening and why.

Alongside all this actual data collection, there are of course other activities that need to be maintained. Like keeping up to date with what is being published on relevant areas of theory, that is certainly keeping me busy as various useful articles and books keep appearing. There’s also quite a lot happening in terms of government policy on housing, so I need to keep abreast of those changes too, and the commentary that goes with it. Add to that learning how to use Nvivo (software package for qualitative data analysis), setting up thematic codes and a coding framework, loading information into Nvivo and beginning the long process of coding each and every interview and set of notes, and you’ll see that I’ve been a bit busy lately.

The advantage of getting some training on Nvivo was that not only did it teach me to use the software, but it also meant I had to think through what my data was telling me. I had to really delve into the process of taking on board the themes and issues emerging from my data, relating them to the theoretical framework I had established and drawing both inductive and deductive themes and codes from theory and data to try and make sense of it all. This is a challenging process that I am only really just beginning, but it’s like doing a giant puzzle, where you know many of the pieces are there but you don’t have the picture that they’re suppose to make to work from. So you have to work intuitively, making links and finding relationships that work and help to form a picture that makes sense. But you also have to remember all that knowledge you gained from the theory and the methods you spent the previous 18 months learning about and use that to develop the picture, or the story you are trying to tell. It’s a fascinating process and at the moment I’m not quite sure where my story is leading me or what the final picture will look like. That’s all part of the adventure.

I realise at this point that I have succeeded in writing a post all about my research without actually saying what my research is about. So in brief, I’m looking at how policy gets prioritised, who and what influences the process and what different it makes in terms of what actually gets done. I’m looking specifically at housing policy in Bristol before, during and after the Mayoral election that takes place this May. There’s so much to say about this agenda, about how things change, how decisions are made, where the influence comes from and who holds the power. It’s certainly a fascinating time to be doing research on housing policy and how national changes impact locally and by fascinating I really mean challenging. The situation changes so rapidly as does the response from housing organisations, lobby groups, councils and delivery bodies as they find themselves having to adapt to the latest proposal or policy change from government.

This is currently my world, a whirl of data collection and analysis, an ever changing policy framework, new announcements nationally and locally and extensive media coverage of housing issues. I’m enjoying every moment of it during the here and now, whilst also looking forward and trying to anticipate the final picture and story that I’ll be able to tell.

Doing a PhD – Year 2

Last year I was part of the Bristol Doctoral College, Year in the life of PhD blog, which involved providing one blog per term on what it is like to do a PhD. Whilst I’m not involved again this year, I thought I would carry on the practice of blogging about the PhD process and my progress. So here I am, just beginning the second year of my PhD and it seemed like a good time to reflect on my first year and look ahead to what this year will involve.

My first year started with taught courses and assignment writing, continuing my learning on research methods. These pretty much occupied me full time for 4 months and wasn’t quite how I’d wanted to begin my PhD! However, on reflection, I can certainly see the benefit of having to do them as I have used much of the knowledge gained during that time to help me develop my research further.

After completing (and passing) all the assignments it was onto some theory, well quite a lot of theory actually. In my usual logical, methodical manner I decided to start at the beginning and read my way through a logical sequence. Which basically meant starting with theories of the policy process (of which there are many), moving onto agenda setting theories (lots of those too) and eventually focusing in on Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework. This then took me on to theories about multiple levels of governance, models of governance, power theory, community power and local leadership. Which is quite a lot of theory to get to grips with, but kind of covers most of the issues I think I need to know about or at the very least it provides a good starting point.

Having buried myself in theory for a few months, I then needed to do more work on my research approach and the methods I wanted to use. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do but needed to build this into a coherent approach based on some recognisable ontology and epistemology. This took some serious thinking, as my practice based brain struggled to work through some of the more detailed philosophical arguments about methodology and approach. But I got there in the end, mostly thanks to the grounding in research methodology provided in my MSc course and the additional 3 units I took at the beginning of the year. This together with the work of Rod Rhodes, on interpretive political ethnography, was enough to convince me that I knew where my research would fit and how I should go about it.

My MSc Graduation

My MSc Graduation

Then came the point when I was finally ready to put together my progression review/upgrade documentation. This is a key point for any PhD student, where they are formally assessed to see if what they have done so far and plan to do is good enough to allow them to carry on with a PhD. For me this meant providing a total of 15,000 words on my research approach and on some key elements of theory, together with completing the progression review form. I could easily have written 30-40,000 words at this point, so my main challenge was narrowing it down and deciding what to submit for consideration. The next step was the Panel Review Meeting. I approached this as a great opportunity to discuss my research with some senior academics, who could help advise me on how I might improve what I was proposing and who could challenge and question elements of my research. Whilst potentially daunting, it was a really positive discussion, with two extremely helpful and supportive academics. I learnt a lot about my own understanding of some of the issues and about some of the assumptions I hadn’t realised I was making. I also learnt a little more about positioning my research, defending positively what I was proposing and discussing points of interest.

I came away from my review meeting with a lot of issues and ideas whirling round in my head and even more theory to consider (social practice theory in particular). But I did come  away feeling pretty positive, I’d had a good discussion, received some positive feedback and once I’d submitted a bit of additional information, was told I could continue with my PhD. Good news indeed!

During the year I also submitted my application for ethical approval of my research, another key point in any research project. My research will involve interviewing elite actors, potentially ‘shadowing’ them and using participant observation. It’s a form of interpretive political ethnography, that combines methods to try and understand things from the point of view of the participants of the study. It’s also based on a small case study in Bristol, where I was previously a local councillor and have been involved in various aspects of city life for many years. Thankfully, the response from the ethics committee was extremely quick and efficient, and only asked for a small amount of additional information which I was able to provide without too much extra work. I then receive the approval I needed, which was another key milestone for my PhD. Basically, that now means I am pretty much ready to go out and do my fieldwork.

This next year will mostly be about data collection, interviewing, observation, and document analysis. It’s going to be a busy year and the idea of starting my fieldwork is exciting but also daunting and a little scary. I’ve got a bit of work to do on developing my data collection and analysis strategy, making sure I am fully prepared (or as much as I can be) for my fieldwork, but I’m almost ready to go. This next stage involves not only collecting data but also thinking about how it works with the theory, about identifying the right people to speak to, the right events to attend and the right time to be involved. It means reading more theory, working out themes and issues, coding transcripts and analysing data as I go along. A pretty daunting set of tasks, but something I’m really looking forward to.

So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next 10-12 months, burying myself in the Bristol Mayoral election process!

What’s popular on the blog?

DSCN0141As I haven’t written much recently on my blog I thought I’d take a look and see what’s been popular over the last few months. I thought it might help me to decide what to write about next and see what people are interested in. So here goes, a bit of a mixture of topics, some older some newer seem to have attracted attention.

The most popular is actually one I wrote up after I gave a talk to some of my fellow PhD students in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. The talk was about using social media as a researcher and was aimed at trying to interest phd researchers in the notion of engaging with a wider audience, connecting outside of academia and entering the world of social media to promote themselves and their research. It was a tough audience as many academics are somewhat sceptical about social media. Not sure how my talk went down, but the blogpost seems to have been well received and remains popular!

The other posts that have hit popularity over the last few months include one I wrote back in May on devolution, a topic that is of course hitting the news again at the moment, and one I wrote in July about constraints on growth, another topic that seems to remain popular. More recent posts have been on the Bristol mayoral election and one on neighbourhood planning, both receiving quite a bit of attention. The full top five list is as follows:

It’s probably about time I wrote another one about housing, but it kind of feels like everything has already been said. It’s such a depressing time to talk about housing policy at the moment, as we slowly but surely watch it all unravel, being systematically destroyed by a government interested only in home ownership, whilst ignoring the very real housing need that exists in many of our cities and towns, which will never be adequately provided for by the private sector.

Social media for PhD researchers

Screen Shot 2015-07-20 at 11.28.55Last week I gave a presentation to a group of PhD students about how and why I use social media and what benefit it has to me as a phd researcher. I’m certainly no expert but I was able to talk through some of the reasons I use various mainstream social media and what benefit I think I get in relation to my research. I have uploaded the slides to slideshare so anyone can view them – Social media for PhD researchers – but I will go through some of the key points below as the slides on their own don’t really tell the whole story. I wasn’t the most enthusiastic student of social media when I first started out, it was a necessity of my job at the time, and I reluctantly engaged! But I soon became a convert when I realised the potential and the opportunities social media provides for engaging with a much wider audience than is possible face to face in one locality. In the last couple of years I have set up my own blog, developed my twitter account and signed up to ResearchGate, all of which I find really useful for keeping up to date with what is going on, engaging with others and for sharing information.

But where do you start? There is a world of social media out there that is ever changing and highly confusing if entering it for the first time. So first of all you need to think about why you want to use it and what social media can do for you. I engage with aspects of social media for four main reasons, all potentially important for new academics:

  • visibility – to get noticed, build reputation, and to network;
  • share information – it can be a great broadcasting platform, for research and ideas;
  • engagement – to join in and start conversations, participate in debate with others;
  • information gathering – it’s a personal newsfeed, a great way of focusing news information on what I need to know.

On Twitter you can connect with people with similar interests and with organisations and institutions who produce information relevant to your research. For me that’s think tanks, housing groups and organisations, research institutions, academics from across the globe, government departments and politicians. It’s a great way of collecting information and engaging with others who talk about the same stuff I do! It’s also a great way to raise your own profile in particular areas of interest and expertise, and to get yourself noticed.

Alongside Twitter I set up my own blog site, using WordPress. It was easier than I ever imagined it could be and whilst my site isn’t perfect I have gradually improved it as I have become more confident making changes and adding ‘widgets’. My blog is a space to talk about issues that I’m interested in, to  raise issues and ideas, to share my own reflections on reports and events and it’s a place to talk about my research. It is a great way of engaging with others and getting feedback on ideas or issues and it’s pretty effective sometimes at raising profile and making me (my thoughts, research and ideas) more visible. As a result of writing blogs and promoting them through Twitter I have had the opportunity to appear on TV and radio shows/debates, to write articles for local news sites/magazines and written comment pieces for the professional press.

It does of course take time and commitment. There seems to be little point in signing up to different elements of social media if you’re not going to use them, and if you’re not going to commit to spending some time engaging. This is a common concern amongst those who consider using social media and then don’t, because it will take up too much time! Well yes it can, but you have to think about what you are getting back from that time. For me it is definitely worth it, to have engaged with other PhD students, academics, think tanks and politicians, received feedback and comments, to share thoughts with others I might not meet, is all worth the time spent doing it. It also a very effective way for me to collect information and keep up to date. But I can see why people might be concerned. The simple answer is it takes up as much time as you let it, you’re in control of how much or how little time you spend engaging with social media, no one else!!

There are some things I wish I had thought about a little more before I started out using social media, that might have helped to focus me and to identify what would work best. For instance, thinking more about why I wanted to use social media and the audience I was trying to engage with, would have helped me to better identify the best tools. Instead my approach was a bit ad hoc, I carried on using the same ones I had used at work, only to find they might not be the best for what I am now doing. I joined new platforms, like ResearchGate, to engage with an academic audience and I changed the content I used and the platforms I used it on. I am still learning through trial and error what content works best on what platforms. I have spent some time thinking about what I want my public profile to look like and I change it occasionally, keeping some consistency across different platforms. I’ve also thought a bit about what success looks like and how I might ‘evaluate’ if social media is working for me.

I’d encourage PhD students to give it a go, but think about what, why and how first, then just get started and see how it works for you!