The End of a Journey (almost)

Finally, after nearly 5 years I have submitted my thesis. It was never meant to take this long and it has been quite a challenge. But I’m on the final stage of the journey now, waiting and preparing for my viva (Feb next year), whilst also taking some time out to do other things. There’s a lot about doing a PhD that is fun and interesting, I enjoyed most of it. I love writing and making sense of information, talking to people, finding out what is happening and why, and then crafting that information into something that is understandable and readable. It was a challenge for me because I’m more of a practitioner than an academic, I came into this after 25 years of doing policy and strategy for different charities and business organisations. I spent a lot of that time writing, but for non academic audiences, so moving into the academic world was a whole different discipline with a different language to understand. I met some great people along the way, who gave up their time for me during my research, to be part of it and to help me with it. I was lucky that so many people were willing to participate and support me for so long.

When I first started my PhD people used to ask what my research was about, now the question I get asked is – what did you find out, what does your research say? That’s always the trickiest question to answer. I found out so much throughout the process – about myself, about other people, about doing research, about what others have written, about different theories – and only some of it found its way into the thesis. it would be impossible to cover everything!

My research questions were as follows:

How do issues get onto the policy agenda during an election campaign?

  • How are political manifestos developed and how are priorities decided?
  • How do candidates prioritise their engagement with different actors?
  • Who do they listen to and why?

Who is trying to influence the agenda and how?

  • Who are the main actors trying to influence the election agenda?
  • What tactics and strategies do those actors use to get attention?
  • What keeps issues on the candidate’s agenda or raises them up/down that agenda?

My research used Kingdon’s multiple streams framework (MSF) to explore the issues and develop my findings. I used housing policy as the basis for discussion and developed the MSF to provide an understanding of how mayoral candidates set their priorities pre- and post-election. The impetus for the study came from an interest in why some issues grab policy makers’ attention whilst others do not and how priorities are set during an election process. It stemmed from a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections play in framing policy agendas, the role and impact of different influencers, as well as how politicians make decisions about priorities when time is limited.

The research rests on three basic premises. Firstly, using housing policy as the focus for attention was justified as it was widely acknowledged thatthere was a housing crisis in the UK generally and at a local level in Bristol more specifically. It was also a time of constant, ad hoc policy change at national, sub national and local level.

The second basic premise of the research was that Bristol provides an interesting case study for research. It was the only core city to vote yes to having a directly elected mayor in the city referendums held across England in 2012. Bristol it seemed had a particular set of local circumstances that led to this vote, including perceptions of unstable local leadership with constant changes in political control and leaders, and a lack of visibility, with the council frequently criticised for being inward looking.

Thirdly, an understanding of how issues get onto, and move up and down, the policy agenda during a period of political change at a local level is an area of research that has not received particularly extensive attention over the years. The focus of much agenda setting research is either at a national level or is historically focused, looking back at how a decision was taken or a policy change generated over a longer time period. My research looked at local agenda setting as it happened, at a moment in time, and sought to understand why it was happening, who or what was influencing the process and how those under influence responded and reacted. It focused on an election period where there was a concentration of political activity, over a short period of time, when influence, engagement and responsiveness were likely to be greater than at most other times.

The research considered how, in Kingdon’s terms, a predictable window opened in the politics stream as the election began, and how the streams came together as party agendas were produced and diverged again once the election was over, as a new, smaller window opened before the new mayoral decision agenda was set. The research identified how mayoral candidates operated across the streams, seeking ideas and solutions, from within and outside of the party system. It also highlighted the strategies and tactics used by policy entrepreneurs to bring their issues to the attention of the candidates. It identified key stages in the process where the opportunities for influence were greatest and where agendas were set.

I came up with my own diagram to highlight the process, it’s a combination of the MSF and the stages model of the policy process. I may do a more detailed blog on what this all means:

Final Drawing Discussion Final.jpg

My research drew conclusions on who and what influences the agenda before, during and after an election and demonstrated the role local political parties and policy entrepreneurs play in party and decision agendas. It illustrated how coalitions and networks bring opportunities for greater influence to the individuals and groups involved in them. The research also demonstrated the benefit of bringing solutions alongside problems, as local actors displayed a willingness to work with the council to achieve more desirable outcomes in the delivery of affordable housing in Bristol.

I identified the types of strategies and tactics people and organisations used to try and influence the candidates, using the work of Cairney (2018) and Aviram et al (2019) as a framework:

  • Positive engagement: get to know the candidates and decision makers, use existing connections, professional credibility and reputation, demonstrate willingness to work in partnership;
  • Framing a problem: understand how best to position an issue, use emotional connections and stories from real people to demonstrate impacts;
  • Indicators and evidence: provide clear, accurate data to demonstrate the extent of a problem. Use simple visuals to highlight a problem. Simplify research information into short briefings. Suggest targets for candidates to include. Engage with others to present the extent of a problem.
  • Providing solutions: understand the cause of a problem and provide a range of solutions, and offer to be part of the solution;
  • Networking: join with others, coalitions of interest, policy communities, network of interests inside and outside of government;
  • Triggering events: use crises and events to focus attention. The election itself provided that opportunity;
  • Media attention: tap into the public mood, maximize size of audience, use media to promote policy and attract attention to an issue. Use of publicity stunts, visuals and stories attract media and public attention;
  • Salami Tactics: divide policy into stages, provide less risky steps towards policy change, simply the problem and the solution to make it more accessible and acceptable.

I plan to write a more detailed briefing note to send out to all those involved in my research, highlighting the more practical elements of my findings.

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!