Who influences what and how? A study of agenda setting and policy prioritisation during the Bristol Mayoral Election.

wordcloudJuly

I thought it was about time I wrote another blog, and this time it’s a quick summary of what my PhD research is all about. I’ve written blogs before about my PhD Journey, but have shied away from too much detail on what my research actually covers. So time to give it a go, in a few hundred words, explaining the theoretical framework and the questions I am attempting to address!

My PhD research is about housing policy, agenda setting and how policy priorities are defined at election time. The impetus for this study comes from an interest in why some issues are rarely discussed and why some issues grab policy makers attention whilst others do not. It stems from a desire to develop a better understanding of the role local elections and new models of local governance have on framing policy agendas. It also comes from an interest in agenda setting theory, particularly Kingdon’s multiple streams framework (MSF), and how that can be applied at a local level in the UK.

Kingdon’s MSF has traditionally been used to explore agenda setting at a national level, initially in the US, and more recently across a range of countries. Most of the research has been qualitative, using interviewing and documentary evidence as the main form of data collection. Very little research has been carried out at a local level in the UK and none of that has specifically looked at agenda setting as it happens during an election period or within the new model of local governance where there is a directly elected mayor.

Using Kingdon’s MSF as a starting point enables my research to consider the relevance of the framework to agenda setting activity during a local election for a directly elected mayor in Bristol. My research is based on a live study of that activity as it took place, pre and post election. It explores the relevance of the idea of ‘windows of opportunity’ and the role of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ throughout this process, highlighting where the MSF provides a useful framework for understanding as well as where the gaps might be. It is not, however, a study that seeks to test a theory or hypothesis. Rather, it seeks to use the Framework to help understand what is happening and to construct a story of events as it is seen by the people at the centre of the action. The approach adopted seeks to use the idea of constructing and interpreting actors own constructions of what they are up to through an analysis of their beliefs and everyday practices. It focuses on a local case study of Bristol using a live ‘ethnographic’ approach to examine how, if and why housing policy is prioritised and in whose interest. It does this through a detailed exploration of the approach, beliefs, reactions and perceptions of local political decision makers and the individuals, groups and networks trying to influence them.

My research seeks to understand the way in which different actors perceive and make sense of the world and aims to understand how individual actors influence a specific policy agenda during an election. The intention is not to generalise about the findings in empirical terms but to use the case study to provide input to the theoretical development of policy agenda setting and policy prioritisation during elections.

My research aims to provide an insight into the world of policy prioritisation during the Bristol Mayoral election in May 2016. It uses Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework (MSF) as a starting point for discussion on agenda setting before, during and immediately after the election to identify who influences what and how. The story that emerges details the influencers, their tactics, what works and what doesn’t, and at the end of it all, after the election, what makes it onto the policy agenda of the new mayor. The story is about a local policy prioritisation process, at a moment in time, where action and change is prompted by the Mayoral election.

The story of how things get onto the agenda and into political manifestos at election time is not a simple story. It is built around a myriad of different influences that are formal and informal, covert and overt, direct and indirect. It is difficult to piece these together in a timeline or coherent and logical manner, as the process is anything but logical. It seems to be an ad hoc process involving different people and organisations at different times and one that in the end appears to come down to personalities and individual preferences and beliefs, as much as it does evidence, identified need and viability.

The justification for the research is constructed around three basic premises. Firstly, that there is currently a national housing crisis, an issue accepted and acknowledged by many, with constant, ad hoc policy change occurring at national, sub national and local level. Nationally the talk is frequently focused on the supply of housing, with different political parties competing to set the highest target for new build. The wider approach to housing policy varies from supporting people to buy their own home and reducing the unnecessary restrictions of the planning system, to encouraging landowners and property developers to release more land for housing and supporting buy-to-let landlords. The ability to approach the problem comprehensively seems to get lost in a myriad of politics, ‘big ideas’ and short-term thinking. In Bristol the crisis is played out in terms of both the overall supply and affordability of housing. Outside of London and the South East, Bristol and the West of England is one of the most expensive places to live in the UK.

The second basic premise is that Bristol provides an interesting case study for research. It was the only city to vote yes to having a directly elected mayor, with an Independent Mayor (George Ferguson) elected in November 2012. The local circumstances that led to this vote were commonly quoted as being about poor and unstable leadership, constant changes of leadership and lack of visibility in terms of leadership. There has also been considerable recent debate about devolution and the role of city regions, with Bristol featuring as one of the areas that has been given increased powers and resources from central government in exchange for adopting a combined authority and metro-mayor. My research focuses on the Mayoral Election in 2016, where the first re-election of a directly elected mayor will take place alongside a full council election (for the first time in nearly 20 years). This was therefore quite a significant local election, coming just a year after the general election, and potentially a period of significant change for the city.

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 carried out 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 looks at local policy prioritisation as it happened, at a moment in time and seeks to understand why it is happening, who or what is influencing the process and how those under influence respond and react. It focuses on an election period where there is likely to be a concentration of political activity, over a short period of time, when influence, engagement and responsiveness are likely to be greater than at most other times.

The two main questions this research seeks to address are as follows:

  1. How do issues get onto the policy agenda during an election campaign?
  • Who is responsible for putting issues on the policy and political agenda during an election?
  • What keeps those issues there or raises them up/down that agenda?
  1. How do the political candidates respond and react to different influences before, during and after an election campaign?
  • Who is trying to influence the candidates during the election process?
  • What tactics do different local actors use to get attention?
  • Who do the candidates listen to and why?

I’ll return to write another post soon about some of the findings, that begin to put some detailed responses to the questions outlined above.

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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!

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.