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.

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!

Does politics matter?

ed3The question, does politics matter, is perhaps particularly pertinent at the moment. After attending various hustings meetings, watching the leaders debates and question time on the TV and listening to some local radio debates on the general election, there’s no better time to ask whether or not all this ‘politics’ really matters or makes a difference? It’s a question that academics have been trying to answer for decades, with a wealth of literature in the political sciences and policy studies arenas addressing questions about why some issues receive attention, whilst others fade into obscurity? Who influences the agenda and how? Who controls what issues are dealt with? This debate becomes all the more focused during election periods, where issue competition is perhaps at its greatest.

I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into the agenda setting literature, looking at agendas and issues during elections, in party manifestos and policy programmes, to see what others have written about these issues. It’s clearly a good time to be doing this, as the process is playing out before our very eyes in the run up to the general election. So, what does influence what parties and politicians talk about in the run up to the election? What influences the content of their manifestos? To a point, you’d expect the main political parties to favour their own ideological agenda and hold true to their traditional policies and priorities. But you’d also expect them to respond to a range of other influences. According to the academic literature, party manifestos and policy programmes at election time are a function of at least four main influences:

  • party ideology and tradition
  • the immediate concerns of the public/voters and the media
  • the long term priorities of government, and
  • the current government programme

Because there are so many issues competing for attention at the same time, politicians and parties need to decide what to take notice of and what to disregard. They are influenced by different things at different times, and to a greater or lesser extent. The concerns of the public are, to an extent, reflected in the media, and attention is drawn to specific issues. But interestingly, there is also evidence to suggest that the current government programme and the last electoral platform of the successful party have a degree of influence over which issues receive attention in the new election period. As do the long term priorities of government, providing an element of stability around the core issues that feature each election period.

Competition for issues ownership may also occur, where different parties compete to illustrate they have the best solutions to the key issues that matter to the public. Take the example of housing policy at the moment. The housing crisis has clearly made it onto the political agenda and all the main political parties are talking about it and providing what they deem to be the most ‘appropriate’ solutions. You could perhaps argue that some of these ‘solutions’ are not workable, will make little difference and don’t address the root cause of the problem. Indeed, they could be seen as policies aimed at appealing to certain groups of voters, or symbolic policies maybe, that make it look like a party is taking the issue seriously. Or maybe they are just marginal changes that play around the edges of the issue, because actually the problem is just too difficult to cope with (or maybe the real solutions would just be too unpopular). Either way, politicians are taking notice of the issue, even if we are less than convinced by the policies proposed.

Other issues might get onto the political agenda because parties seek to emphasise the issues where their opponents are weak and they are stronger. This selective approach will draw on public concerns but will in addition focus on specific issues that reflect party strengths. This in turn often sees a shift in policy focus from the other parties who seek to respond to the platforms of their rivals. A good example from this election campaign can be seen in relation to the debate about austerity and the need to balance the budget – with Labour and the Conservatives both attempting to convince voters that their plan is best, with perhaps too little to choose between the two!

It’s also well known that public attention (and political attention for that matter) rarely stays focused on one issue for long. Issues, whether they are solved or not, tend to drop off from the public agenda when something more fashionable or interesting comes along. Politicians and parties need to respond to this ever changing cycle and be ready to react and refocus where needed. It’s also true that election campaigns typically focus on a small set of issues. This time, most of the debates I have watched and listened too, have been focused on immigration, welfare cuts and austerity measures, with housing, the NHS and taxation in there somewhere as well. There has been little debate about business or crime, as there was five years ago. The agenda has shifted, slightly.

Within this debate, there is also a discussion about who controls and influences the agenda. Is it the media? Is it the voters? Is it policy elites and powerful individuals/groups? What role do think tanks and experts play? And perhaps more importantly, what notice do the politicians take anyway? Once elected, do they actually deliver on all those promises and policy announcements they made in order to get elected? You won’t be surprised to hear that it’s never quite that simple. All sorts of other things influence what can and can’t be done. The process becomes one of balance between delivery on the party mandate and responding to short-term changes in public concerns, as well as dealing with the emergence of new problems. Alongside that, of course, is the need to be more realistic about what is possible, within time and budget constraints. So the question remains, does politics matter? I’ll leave you to decide!

Policy theory – too “hard to handle”?

2015-04-07 11.03.32I read an article recently, by Kenneth Meier, that went by the title “Policy theory, policy theory everywhere: ravings of a deranged policy scholar” and that’s exactly how I’m feeling at the moment. After spending the last few weeks trying to get to grips with the beginnings of a literature review I feel totally swamped by the number, range and complexity of some of these theories. My initial trawl through the literature came up with about 20 theories of the policy process, and further exploration surfaced a good few more. Which left me feeling not just confused and overwhelmed but also having to ask the question – why do we need so many? Are they all really that different and what do they add to our understanding of how policy is made? Which of course meant I had to understand them or at least have a good go at reading up on the main ones and getting to grips with what they have to offer my research.

At about the same time I began to recall all the research methods training I’d done and the assignment I’d written on systematic reviews. This served as a useful reminder about the need to be a little more systematic about my approach to collecting literature for the review than I normally tend to be. So, my focus drifted for a while from reading theories to thinking about how to collect more literature to confuse me. I now have a comprehensive set of key search terms. I’ve established where I’ll search for information, which databases, journals and citation indices to use. I’ve pretty much decided on my exclusion and inclusion criteria and in an attempt to be extremely organised I’ve even set up a comprehensive system for logging all the information I collect throughout the months of searching and reading. And believe me when I say that this is far more organised than I’ve ever been in the past when it comes to seeking out literature. Now all I have to do is read some of it and understand it! I wrote a blog for the Bristol Doctoral College recently on “getting to grips with your subject” which explores some of these issues.

I’ve now begun the process of getting to grips with my subject and this in turn led me to the question about why we need all this theory? How much does it really add to our understanding of a process and how can it be used to inform those involved in actually taking decisions on policy? At this point I’m merely offering questions not answers!! What I’ve tried to do as part of my review is extract the main theories (selected on the basis of longstanding theories, that seem still to be often quoted; or new up and coming theories that are making something of a mark) and see what they have to offer the types of questions I am interested in. So, I’ve focused on the following theories:

  • Multiple Streams Framework
  • Punctuated Equilibrium
  • Advocacy Coalition Framework
  • Social Construction & Design Framework
  • Diffusion of Innovations Model
  • Narrative Policy Framework
  • Policy Feedback Theory
  • Institutional Analysis & Development Theory
  • Policy Regimes Theory
  • Ecology of Games Framework
  • Robustness Framework
  • Institutional Collective Action Framework

For my research I’m interested in the agenda setting aspect of the policy process. I’m interested in understanding the tactics used by different actors to move issues up (and down) the political agenda and why some issues never quite get there. I’m interested in how actors at the centre of the action perceive and respond to influence and lobbying and how politicians decide on policy priorities. My study will focus on housing policy before, during and after the Bristol mayoral election in 2016. I’m hoping it will be of interest to scholars of the policy process, to those with an interest in political change and will also help practitioners to understand how power and influence works at a local level (bold hopes for an individual research project!).

For all those policy academics out there – have I missed anything crucial? For me the obvious ones to help with my research questions are the Multiple Streams Framework, Narrative Policy Framework, Advocacy Coalition Framework, Social Construction Framework and Policy Regimes Theory – see table below (click to enlarge). The health warning attached to this is that it’s a very initial attempt to make sense of some of these theories and not the finished product by any means, I’ve a long way to go!  theories3 What it provides me with is a starting point. A core set of theories to delve into more deeply and to assess for relevance to my research interest, to spot the gaps, the areas less well developed and/or just to get a better understanding of the questions I need to be asking. Add to that a whole range of other literature that needs exploring, on levels of governance, power and influence, new models of local governance etc. and you’ll begin to see the challenge, complexity and confusion I’m currently experiencing. How will I ever get to grips with all this, in the timescale I need to, and to the level I need to? That’s one of the challenges of doing a phd.

From methods to theory #phd

blog booksOver the last week or so I have been putting together a phd plan to identify what I need to do, and when, over the next 3 years. This is just the initial sketch and broad outline, but is a guide to setting more detailed objectives (a task I started today for year 1). The thing that struck me most is that 3 years isn’t very long. When you begin to break it down into small chunks of work to be done before you start the fieldwork, the first 12 months vanish very quickly under a myriad of literature, methods and planning. So it seems I’ve planned the next 3 years of my life in broad outline to fit my research requirements (note to self – must remember to plan in some holiday time!).

A couple of years ago, when I was out in the world of work, if you’d asked me what I would be doing next year, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, there was no long term plan to work to. However, if you ask me that now, I can tell you I will hopefully be doing fieldwork, deeply involved in research, attending meetings, talking to people and observing processes – at least that’s the plan, assuming I get that far!

One of the things I realised when drawing up my plan, is that I don’t really quite know what my research is about. Well I know the broad area I’m interested in and I know what I want to study, but I’ve a long way to go before I am fully cognisant with the existing literature in my field and before I fully appreciate the complexities of specific methods of research. I’ve started that process, but the learning process has only just begun. I’ve so much more to learn and so much more to read and understand.

Four months into this phd and I have mostly been learning about methods. I have had the ‘pleasure’ of attending more taught courses and writing more assignments – not actually something I had fully anticipated I would be doing and I have to say that reading about methods and methodology is not my favourite past-time. I do, however, understand why it is necessary, it has provided me with a good grounding in methodology to hopefully be able to make the right decisions about my own research, even if I found much of the reading entirely tedious. So it’s been a somewhat painful introduction to doing a phd and not an entirely positive 4 months really, but a necessary evil it would seem. I’m now looking forward to extending my learning beyond methods based information, into topic based reading and literature – that’s where my interest is and why I embarked on this process to begin with.

So, to the issue of what my phd is about. When asked that question, we are told we should be able to respond in a couple of sentences, after all we don’t want to bore people too much by going into too much of the detail! My phd is about agenda setting and policy initiation and change. It’s about local election processes and how people influence agendas and policy at a time of political change. It’s also about Bristol and the Mayoral election in 2016, with a particular focus on housing policy. That’s what I’ll be spending the next 3 years learning all about and I’m both excited and daunted by the prospect. A phd is an individual learning process and one where I am in the driving seat – if it all goes wrong there’s only one person who can sort it out, and that’s me! It’s challenging, which is part of what makes it worth doing, and it’s interesting as my phd brings together in one study the things that I find fascinating – housing, policy, power and influence, politics, Bristol – what more could you want?