Bristol needs a new, modern committee system

I’m a fan of local government and of the different systems used to make decisions as long as they work. In my experience it is not the system that fails but rather how it is interpreted and implemented by those in power. In the build up to the Local Government Act 2000 there was plenty of discussion about how the committee system didn’t work, how it was old fashioned and out of date. At the time instead of seeking to improve the way it worked the government decided to replace it, with councils asked to chose from one of the following options:
• Leader and cabinet executive
• Mayor and cabinet executive
• Mayor and council manager executive
• Alternative arrangement

Most councils chose the Leader and cabinet model, which is still the most common form of council structure today, despite a growing number of councils now choosing to go back to a committee system. In Bristol the criticisms were about the council being too bureaucratic, too slow, lacking in vision or action, and there being no clarity over who took decisions. There was a momentum around change both locally and nationally, for a new system of governance that would enable better decision making, clearer definition of roles, less bureaucracy, more involvement, and more scrutiny. Many of the same criticisms were also levelled at this new system when the mayoral system was first proposed.

I was a councillor at the time this new model was implemented and I was part of the group that took the decision to go for a Leader and Cabinet model in Bristol. It didn’t on the surface feel like it would be that different to what was already operating in Bristol, we had our own informal cabinet already made up of committee chairs and other key Labour members. However, what this new approach did was take away the backbenchers ability to engage in policy development and public debate. It left backbenchers and opposition members in a pure scrutiny role, working on new scrutiny commissions often with unclear aims, roles and purpose. It was all new, and it took quite a lot of time to work out quite what this new approach meant and how it could operate effectively.

It also left the majority of councillors feeling disenfranchised and disillusioned. It put decision making power in the hands of a small group and made public involvement more difficult and reduced the role of most councillors to that of looking after their ward, an important role no doubt, but only part of what being a councillor is all about. Whilst the new model may have reduced the time councillors spent in meetings it certainly didn’t do anything to improve their engagement with decisions and priorities. I well remember at the time councillors of all parties bemoaning the lack of involvement, discussion and debate and how the old system had been better.

The old committee system did encourage discussion, about decisions, about policy and strategy and about operational issues. In Bristol most backbenchers on a committee would take the lead on a particular issue and more councillors of all parties were given an opportunity to be involved in different ways. The committees often had very open public debate about difficult issues, with input from all parties making a difference to the final decision. However, there were also many occasions where political voting was decided beforehand and no amount of debate at the committee would make a difference to the decision. This in my view was the main problem with the way the committee system worked in councils where one party was in overall control – they didn’t have to win the argument they just had to turn up and outnumber the others so they could win the vote! In my view what was needed was a modernisation of the committee system, to improve the way it operated rather than the introduction of a new model that introduced a whole set of new issues and problems.

Further change in recent years means the system has continued down the route of focusing power in the hands of one person and moved away from involving the majority of councillors in decision making and policy development in any meaningful way. Since 2012 and the introduction of the mayoral model in Bristol decisions can now be taken by one person without any consultation and without any reference to other elected representatives. Yes, as a a system, it provides clear and more visible leadership, and is a role elected by the whole city rather than a handful of other councillors. But, it lacks accountability within the council, it reduces the role of councillors to ward representative and scrutiny members in a system where scrutiny seems to lack teeth!

The committee system had its strengths and was a system I enjoyed working within. It provided opportunity for debate and discussion, in a public forum. It gave backbenchers an opportunity to get to know an area of the council, to specialise, to get to know the issues and the officers involved. It enabled opposition councillors to engage in discussion and to influence decisions. It wasn’t all bad! It did, however, have it critics. It was slow, cumbersome, involved too many meetings, and could be too ‘political’ with members voting along party lines. I have fond memories of the committee system, and can even now recall some of the cross party discussion and debate we had, the issues we dealt with and the engagement we had with members of the public. I also can remember the long meetings and the frustration with how long it all took to get items onto the agenda, through the various internal processes. I do think the system got a bad press as it can be made to work and is in my view more collaborative than either of the other two systems.

The leader and cabinet system introduced in 2000 was a disaster. I don’t believe councils were properly equipped to change systems. There was no real consideration about how it would really work, how officers should operate, what it meant for scrutiny members and how it really made decision making clearer. It appeared to me a compromise between what the government wanted (a mayoral system) and what councils wanted (to stick with the committee system). One of the reasons I quit the council in 2002 was because of my disillusionment with how cabinet and scrutiny operated. The role of scrutiny was poorly thought through and under-resourced. There was little training to help councillors adapt and little thought about what it would mean for the majority of councillors. We tried a range of things, from working as scrutiny and policy development, introducing select committees, providing scrutiny leads on various issues, but with limited success.

By getting rid of committees we left a lot of councillors wondering what their role was and by bringing in an elected mayor that role was once more reduced to that of local representative with little power or ability to effect change, define priorities or develop policy. What we could have, if we didn’t have a Mayor, is a return to discussion and debate, all councillors properly involved and engaged in developing and delivering on the priorities of the council as well as representing the interests of their voters in a way that may actually support change. However, this could only happen if the political parties were willing to give up some of the control over members on committees and allow them the freedom to vote without constraint.

If change is needed then needs to be relevant to Bristol, to reflect the ambitions of the city and to deliver a system that works for the city and its people. It’s a change of approach as much as it is a change of system, let’s think about how to make the system work as much as we think about what to system to have. What’s needed is a collaborative approach, a willingness to be open and debate issues in public and the ability to listen to and learn from different views. Strong leadership comes in many forms, sometimes it is powerful enough to listen, reflect and amend your views, as it is to stick to your views and plough on regardless. If I had a vote, I would vote to return to a committee system, but I would look to introduce a new, modernised committee system, that delivers leadership, openness, discussion, collaboration and debate. I believe it can if the will is there to make it happen, but as ever it depends on the people involved and how they seek to implement the sytem.

The End of a Journey

Well, that’s it, I’ve finished my PhD and it has now been approved. It’s taken me longer to get to this point than anticipated (but I imagine many PhD students say the same). The important thing is I got here and I enjoyed a lot of the journey along the way.

My last post on here was about submitting my thesis, last November 2019. After submitting my thesis I took a little break away from it before I started preparing for my viva. I wanted time to reflect, to think about other things, to recover from the intensity of writing such a long and complicated document. I discussed with my supervisors who we would like to have as examiners and thankfully they both said yes (thank you Paul Cairney and Noemi Lendvai)! My viva was then set for the end of January, so I began preparing at the start of the month. I was nervous about the idea of discussing my thesis with two experts, I was worried about what they would think of it, I was concerned about the idea of them ‘marking’ it. But I worked through that. I persuaded myself that whilst they would undoubtedly know more about some of the theory than me and might be able to make different connections, I knew my research better than anyone, therefore I was at least an expert in that!

Preparation for the viva mostly meant re-reading my thesis, thinking about the types of questions that I might be asked and then thinking through some points I could make in response. I tried not to overthink things or over prepare.

On the day of the viva I started out a little nervous but then began to look at the process as an opportunity to talk about my research with two people (a captive audience), who both knew a lot about the theory and issues and who would be able to help improve my research, to make a better end product. That was how I tried to approach the discussion, as an opportunity, and a learning exercise, as well as a test, to demonstrate my understanding, my thoughts and my ideas.

I really enjoyed my viva. I was immediately put at ease by both examiners. It was a positive, challenging, interesting and thoughtful discussion. I was tested on key areas, encouraged to discuss, question and challenge, and provided with a supportive atmosphere in which to debate my findings. The areas I was asked to think about made sense to me, by making changes I could improve what I had done. So whilst I’m sure it would have been great to come away with no corrections, I understood why some corrections were necessary and helpful and in the end would be beneficial.

After the viva I took a few weeks off, including a lovely holiday abroad. I then waited to get the official feedback. Whilst waiting the UK went into lockdown, so my world and everyone else’s changed. I found it quite hard initially to get back into thinking about my thesis and the changes I needed to make. It took a while to regain my focus. But I got there, the corrections were approved and I passed my PhD, at last! People keep asking me what next? I have no idea yet, really. An article or two maybe?

A final word of thanks to everyone who has helped and supported me along the way, to all those who put up with me asking them questions and being nosey. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to do this, even though it’s been pretty tough at times, I have lots of positive memories of doing research, meeting different people, and being part of the School for Policy Studies at Bristol University, a wonderful place to study and do research.

The Challenge of Embarking on a PhD at Fifty

wc5Embarking on a PhD in your 50s is a challenging process, not just because re-entering academia after several decades away from it is scary but also because life is very different in your 50s compared to your 20s. For me, at the beginning, the challenge was mostly about confidence, could I really do this now, at my age? Would I have the staying power, the ability to understand all that theory and the motivation to stick with it over several years? When I set out on this journey back in 2015, I couldn’t have anticipated just how challenging it would be, for such different reasons than I initially thought.

Life, family and health interventions have made mine a longer journey than anticipated as my initial plan was to finish last year. I’ve now had over 12 months of interruption across the last couple of years, with 2 major surgeries and associated illness and recovery times (I’d never even been in hospital before this).

During my fieldwork, which was time limited as I was studying activity during an election period, I was actually quite ill but had to carry on regardless. I tried hard to organise interviews, attend meetings, discussions with individuals and other observations so they were spread out and gave me time to recover, but this was not always possible, I naturally had to fit in with the timetable of others. As we got closer to the election this was particularly the case, as meetings, discussions, hustings, campaign launches, and follow up interviews all had to be attended and arranged. There were days when having done one interview I was also due to attend another meeting but just couldn’t manage it, so had to cancel. I missed out on observing and attending some discussions because it just wasn’t possible. Having said that, I am still more than pleased with the amount of access I did get to individuals, meetings and discussions and the number of interviews I was able to carry out. If I’d been well enough though I would have done more (but maybe every researcher thinks there’s more that could be done).

After the fieldwork and just as I began the analysis and initial writing up stages I underwent major surgery and had a total of 7 months off from my studies because of illness beforehand and recovery afterwards. This was a major interruption at just the wrong time, just as I was closest to all the information and my own research, I had to take a break. In the end it was worth it, as my health was much improved afterwards and I was able to concentrate on my research once more. I got back into the analysis, additional reading, and writing first drafts of the main analysis and discussion sections. I even got to the point of revisions to some of the earlier chapters and had finished writing most of the remaining chapters before I had to take another break for another operation.

I am currently resting up after knee surgery and hoping to get back to full time writing over the next few weeks. Each time I’ve had to take time out I’ve found it really hard to get back into the subject matter and to immerse myself in the detail again. Whilst it does provide an opportunity to step back, I find it difficult to re-establish my engagement with my research, particularly at the stage I am at now, which is the final writing stage. An enforced absence of a couple of months has been both liberating and frustrating. Liberating because it does provide that space you sometimes need when you are too close to what you are writing and need to step back from it all to see a clearer picture. Frustrating because I was so close to finishing when the NHS provided a quicker date for my surgery than originally anticipated (which I am grateful for), so I had to stop before I wanted to, before I’d got to the end.

But now it’s time to get back to it, to get on with the writing. I’m at the stage now where I’m mostly revising chapters rather than writing from scratch, and hopefully I am now only a few months off completion. I’m re-reading what I have written with a fresh look, checking on the latest articles in my field and tightening up some of my arguments. My challenge now is to ensure the ‘golden thread’ goes right through my writing, from beginning to end, so the story is clear and my engagement with both the theory and my original research is inextricably linked throughout.

How the English Devolution Deals were done – policy making ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage

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Successfully managing the transition between ‘back stage’ negotiations and ‘front stage’ decision making is essential for the future success of English devolution. That is the conclusion of the Political Studies Association’s Research Commission I was involved in to examine the role of ‘informal governance’ on devolution to England’s cities. It is also the focus of an article I co-authored on ‘front and back stage decision making’ just published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.

The case of English Devolution in recent years provides us with an interesting example of the complex interrelationship between ‘front’ and ‘back’ stage policy-making. Front stage, public officials are observable and accountable as office holders in elected bodies and are constrained by established bureaucratic rules, codes of conduct and public scrutiny. Back stage describes the world of complex decision making where public officials are hidden from public scrutiny and can engage in negotiations less constrained by formal rules

Research findings reveal that the devolution deal process is purposefully low on guidance and has involved a small number of key actors from central and local government negotiating the deals largely behind closed doors. This process has been criticised by some as being secretive and lacking transparency and legitimacy. From this perspective, high levels of informal working can be viewed as the latest chapter in the power-hoarding instincts of the British political tradition. By using informal means to shape local aspirations behind closed doors, the ‘shadow of hierarchy’ is operationalised in more subtle ways.

Nonetheless, the findings in our article are more nuanced than this account describes. Evidence also indicated a genuine desire on the part of critical actors involved in the process to drive forward devolution. One local government respondents said ‘it created momentum and progress in a policy area that had limped along for years’. Informality had created an innovative space to explore policy options and to generate trust between central and local actors. Back stage negotiations were seen as a route to achieving the transfer of power to the local level. While there were differences of opinion on the details of the negotiations, the majority of respondents from central and local government viewed the process positively. On the whole it was seen as far less adversarial than in the past.

But, momentum and progress was made at the cost of inclusivity and buy in from a broader stakeholders and the public. Deals were offered to areas on a take it or leave it basis and some areas chose to leave it as deals have collapsed in parts of England. Our research shows that the trust generated back stage between core insiders did not always percolate to the formal front stage. The challenge for policy makers moving forward is to strike the right balance between the flexibility afforded by back stage informality and demands for greater front stage democratic accountability.

For example, a lack of public awareness and opportunities for consultation have undermined an effective transition between back and front stage decision making. Public information and consultation at critical stages in the process might alleviate this risk. Second, the move towards more transactional and negotiated deal making clearly advantaged some areas over others. Those with a history of partnership working and established high trust relationships with central government were best able to champion local interests. Third, while some areas of the negotiation might best remain back stage, the blanket ‘shut down’ in local dialogue undermined the potential for sharing best practice and policy innovation. Allowing some elements of the bids to be discussed more openly would permit a ‘softer’ transition between back and front stage.

In the context of Brexit and a public mood of mistrust and apathy towards politics and politicians it is even more important than ever before to get the balance right. A policy agenda that is supposed to be about empowering local areas needs to be seen to be conducted in a democratic way.

This blog post was written with Sarah Ayres (University of Bristol) and Mark Sandford (House of Commons Library) from our recently published article. A version of this blog post has also appeared on the PSA Blog.

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

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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.

Will Self on the end of champagne socialism

The Policy and Politics Annual Lecture this year was delivered by Will Self. The theme of the lecture was ‘the end of champagne socialism’ and was presented as a mixture of personal reflections, concerns and challenges, all seeking to highlight the mess that Will believes politics has seemingly descended into right now.

The lecture was at times depressing, confusing and uncomfortable, whilst at the same time managing to be amusing, engaging and thought provoking. Will has a style of delivery that captures the imagination whilst challenging the mind, often leaving the audience unsure and uncertain about their own thoughts, but also in no doubt about the central message he is trying to convey. That message was about how things have changed, about how there’s been a shift in the way people view politics and politicians, and about how we are now seeing change for change’s sake without any real concept of the consequences.

Will described 2016 as a momentous year in Britain and the world, where a significant proportion of the electorate woke up to the fact that no one knows what is going on, even our leaders don’t know what is going on, and for once enough people woke up to this fact and voted for change. The common theme of 2016 seemed to be that people just wanted things to change. They didn’t know what would happen as a result of that change, but they wanted change, a dangerous attitude to take to political events according to Will. In his words, what we are now seeing is ‘the rise of the idiots and the government of the stupid’.

He then went on to explain this desire for change as a break from the usual left-right dichotomy, exemplified by Brexit where the usual left versus right arguments couldn’t be applied. There were pro leave and remain campaigners on both sides of the political divide, the politics-as-usual approach no longer applied to the debate as the dualism deeply ingrained in British politics since the 1970s seemed to be unraveling.

On Corbyn, Will was conflicted. Whilst sharing many of the same beliefs as Corbyn he described how for some reason he was unable to feel pleased about his election as leader of the Labour Party. He went on to explain this using a series of examples about how Corbyn had failed to stick to his principles and wasn’t saying many of the things he should have on becoming leader. He appeared to feel let down by the failure of the new leadership to display honesty about what being a socialist party really means, about what a redistributive party would actually do, what they would change and what the impact of this would be. The disillusionment he clearly feels was apparent to all as he described the endless dilemma for politicians needing to ‘square the circle’ to retain votes meaning they generally lack any real ability to be honest about what they are trying to achieve.

He launched a scathing attack on the Labour Party and the British Left, who for over 40 years have sat back and done little whilst income disparities have grown consistently across the UK. He described them as sitting in their own bubble failing to acknowledge the changes that are needed. He was pretty damning about Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, about their role in changing the very foundations of the Labour Party during what he calls the Blair Witch Project, the New Labour movement, that moved Labour away from its traditional support whilst at the same time re-creating a new breed of champagne socialists. This he describes as unsustainable, and a nonsense that will never work based as it is on the wealthy middle class socialists’ idea that everyone should be raised to the same level and that redistribution will mean personal betterment and improvement, rather than a reduction in their own personal wealth. He pointed out that there was little evidence of the kind of large-scale voluntarism that would be needed to bring about a socialist society. For example, who among the audience would be willing to curtail their annual spending to live within median average income levels, redistributing any surplus to others earning less than us?

Will seemed to reflect the experience of many in the audience when he challenged us about our own feelings, when he described how those on the left are currently unhappy with things, but that we had done little to actually change anything over the last 20 years as income disparities have increased. As he put it, we knew the poor were getting poorer, we knew inclusiveness was largely cosmetic but we didn’t do much about it and now we are really upset, but still don’t do much about it.

He went on to explain the impact of this on young people and how we need to speak to young people about the state of the world today. He explained that we should think long and hard about what we say to the younger generation and made the point that we live in a time of democratic crisis, where older people have capital and younger people don’t’. He then asked the question about how this affects our politics when our homes make more money in a year than we do and how do we square that circle with young people.

Will’s final comments focused on the hollowness of political rhetoric and how collective action can no longer work as there is no socialist dawn waiting for us and no wheel to put our shoulder against. His description of a new socialism based not on collective action but on autonomy and individualism is a difficult one to grasp. It relies on individuals making changes – for example giving directly to the homeless, picking up litter in our communities – and taking action in an arena where there is more quietism, compassion and thought. In his words, we don’t need to organize to help people, we need to show more compassion and just do something.

This blogpost appeared originally on the Policy & Politics Blog

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!

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?

Back to work – blog summary!

cropped-cropped-rivers-of-gold51.jpgSo, a cheeky little post here for those of you who managed to stay off twitter and other social media over the holiday period. I wrote four blogs over christmas and the new year, which you may have missed, so here’s a summary and list to make things easy for you as you ease your way back into work!

  1. Top of the blogs 2014 – a summary of my most popular posts throughout the year. They cover politics, housing, Bristol and economic growth issues, pretty much as you’d expect really. The most read, by a long way, is the one entitled “Time for grown up politics” a plea for a focus on issues rather than personalities!
  2. From practice to academia: a personal conundrum – where I discuss the challenge of trying to think like an academic after so many years out there in practice, using theory as the foundation of thought rather than experience. Not an easy balance to get right.
  3. Top of the blogs: my favourite reads – a collection of the blogs I read regularly, an eclectic mix that covers housing, politics, policy, planning and Bristol. I’d recommend all of them as a good read, informative and interesting.
  4. A housing wish list for 2015 – mischievously subtitled “what I’d do if I was in charge” this is a post about housing, in Bristol mostly, and what I would focus on as a priority if only I had the opportunity to influence things!

So that’s it, you are now up to date with my blog and ramblings over the holiday season. Now it’s back to work, which for me means writing another assignment!

Top of the Blogs – my favourite reads

As someone who writes the odd blog myself, I also read quite a few that other people write. These cover a range of topics but are mostly focused on politics, planning and housing, as well as a few about Bristol. I tend to use blogs to keep me up to date with what is going on, to find out what others are thinking and talking about and to challenge my own thinking.

So, here’s my top ten list of the ones I read regularly, in no particular order, the best of the best!

  1. Municipal Dreams – a blog about municipal reformers and a time when we used to build public housing, with grand visions and dreams;
  2. Jones the Planner – a blog about planning, architecture, cities and design, covering many of my areas of interest and always a challenging read;
  3. Guerrilla Policy – a great collection of blogs from lots of different bloggers (including me) on many different topics, always worth a look to catch up on what’s going on and who’s writing blogs;
  4. Alex’s Archives – a blog I’ve been reading for a couple of years now, covering housing, economics and policy process amongst other things and coincidently written by my PhD supervisor;
  5. Paul Cairney  – a blog about politics and public policy, and a valuable resource for any public policy student. I used his 1000 words blogs regularly during my MSc as a quick introduction to new topics;
  6. Jules Birch – a blog mostly about housing, from someone who seems to know a lot about housing and who I find myself agreeing with regularly;
  7. Red Brick – a housing policy forum, linked to the Labour Housing Group, but challenging to both left and right;
  8. Policy & Politics – a blog linked to Policy & Politics Journal, covering a whole load of policy issues (I may have written a couple on there myself);
  9. Joseph Rowntree Foundation – for regular commentary on social issues, poverty and housing backed up with research evidence and information;
  10. Bristol blogs – a compilation of blogs about Bristol (including mine) which cover a whole load of topics about what’s going on locally. I couldn’t leave a heading about Bristol blogs without a special mention for two of my favourites – The Bristolian, because well it really is different and so anti-establishedment; and Stockwood Pete, because it’s a good local blog that I enjoy.