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In the last few weeks I’ve been appointed as an associate lecturer (aka tutor) for the Open University.  I am going to be tutoring on TU811 “Thinking strategically: systems approaches for managing change” which I studied myself back in 2010.  My studying of TU811 preceded the launch of Just Practicing so I may end up blogging about the approaches as I re-discover the module materials – backfilling a gap in this blog!

Since I’ve been appointed I’ve been on induction – induction at a distance given that it is the OU.  It’s involved reading and watching short video clips about my duties and responsibilities, trying to master the ‘tech’ I will need to use, and, becoming familiar with procedures and resources.

I’ve realised that I am entering into a new (to me) ‘community of practice’ – Read more »


It’s funny how it is so easy to take a phrase – in this case ‘policy analysis’ –  for granted and assume you get what it means, but then the minute you start reading about it you doubt yourself.  I’m getting tied in knots about how to parse the phrase (a bit like second hand japanese car salesman.  Is it about second hand japanese cars? or a japanese salesman?).

Okay so this is my meandering about policy analysis and phrases that build on it. Read more »


I’ve finally got round to reading a book I have had for a while – the second edition of Beryl Ralin’s book ‘Beyond Machiavelli’.  The first 2000 edition is subtitled ‘Policy analysis comes of age’ and the second 2013 edition is subtitled ‘Policy analysis reaches midlife’.  It is entirely US based and traces the evolution of the policy analyst profession from its inception in 1960s american policy project to the present day.  There’s lots in there that I am mulling over, but I couldn’t move on without noting linkages with ‘systems analysts’ – another US profession that kicked off in the 1960s.  As Ralin says:

The imperatives of war had stimulated new analytic techniques – among them systems analysis and operational research – whose users sought to apply principles of rationality to strategic decision making (p.14) Read more »


I have just packaged up the third iteration of all the materials for research ethics – subject to final supervisor ‘tweaks’ they are done (hooray).  This means that the research proposal I first attempted last july and amended and re-drafted ever since is now ‘done’.  But I didn’t want to move on without posting some reflections on writing an action research proposal.

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When we use systems to help us understand the busy, messy world of human activity, we are in effect drawing a boundary.  We identify some things that are ‘in’ our ‘system of interest’ and that means other things are outside it i.e. not a focal part of our interest.  We do this whether we realise it or not – the problem is, if we are not being explicit about our choice of boundaries then we blur them for ourselves and other people.  Then we get confused and conflicted.

Take for example, the NHS planning guidance published in December 2015.  The word system is used in it a lot – it is all about ‘the system’ but here are some insights into my thoughts as I read it…

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The minute I wrote that title, I realised that in a strict sense it is a little back to front.  We all know that our choice of research methodology should follow the definition of our aims, objectives and research question – form should follow function!  At least that is what the text books say.

But I’ll readily confess that I became a research student because I wanted the opportunity to learn more about and experience action research – others do that too for example some embark on a PhD because they want to home their quantitative data analysis skills.  So the ‘search’ for a research question and defining aims and objectives is also informed by the sort of knowledge, skills and experience I want to develop through my PhD and ultimately the sort of researcher I want to be.

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I am reading a book at the moment called ‘Researching with integrity‘ by Bruce Macfarlane.  The book starts out by critiquing usual rule-based codes of ethics in research which have been derived from bioethics.  It goes on to suggest that a focus on moral virtues can be helpful to a range of academic disciplines.  Crucially, virtues need to be lived out (in spite of the complexities, dilemmas and tensions that arise) on an every day basis.  They are not just words to be repeated as a mantra or a checklist to adhere to.

Integrity in research then is a set of virtues and Macfarlane spends the book unpacking what virtues (and associated vices) are important to integrity in research.  It paints the image of navigating a balancing act – avoiding the vices associated with extremes whilst remaining true to the virtues.

There is a table (on page 42) which lists six virtues each of which comes to the fore at a different ‘phase of research’.  I’ve adapted the table slightly to include below:

Virtue Associated Vice (when in deficit) Associated Vice (when in excess)
Courage Cowardice Recklessness
Respectfulness Manipulativeness Partiality
Resoluteness Laziness Inflexibility
Sincerity Concealment Exaggeration
Humility Boastfulness Timidity
Reflexivity Dogmatism Indecisiveness

Needless to say I am finding the book useful as a ‘novice’ researcher, struggling with the structure and expectations of research ethics committee.  But the book also led me to wonder whether the idea of virtues (and its associated vices) could be applied to other professional practices.

 

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The policy work practitioner – that’s what’s invisible.  I don’t know what makes a profession a profession but there are people out there (me included) who do policy work.  We’re a bit eclectic, there isn’t a specific body of training or degree we’ve all had.  But we are ‘professional’ level workers.  Do our job well and we help society, do our job badly then there can be missed opportunities or unintended consequences.

I was in a library today linked to a university health and social care faculty.  There were rows and rows of books on ‘nursing practice’ and a whole other set on ‘teaching practice’.  Nurses and teachers are advised on how to be reflective practitioners, to be ‘evidence-based’, to close the theory-practice gap and there are books on ‘practice development’ (a deliberate individual and collective orientation to improving how work is done – as compared to professional development which is more about an individual gaining knowledge and skills).  There are even books written – in fact flourishing sets of literature – about how to use (emancipatory) action research in education and health care settings.  This stretches to social work too.   And that’s just the books – there is an even greater wealth of journal articles, even entire journal titles, dedicated to practice development in these areas.

Now I have searched and searched and searched online and I have only found ONE book (written in 2005) that specifically talks about the work of policy – and that isn’t available in any of the three university library catalogues that I have access to. [If you look for books ON policy or theories of the policy process you have more luck, but these are grand theories, not about the day to day doing of policy work].  The editor of the book Colebatch wrote a journal article around about the same time which gives some insight into what is covered in the book.  It highlights the type of work that policy work practitioners do and how different conceptualisations of what policy and the policy process is can result in different orientations to what the role is.  Colebatch has written a number of other articles that are helpful too, but on the whole this is a very, very small research base on what can be quite an influential role.  Whilst there is one article (Adams et al 2015) I have found focussing on professional development needs of policy work practitioners, I haven’t identified anything taking the broader practice development focus afforded to nurses and teachers.

So if I ‘creatively swipe’ the practice development ideas that are so well developed and accepted in nursing, what can happen?  Can we adapt and change policy work practice in a local authority?  That’s one way of looking at my research – that’s one ‘gap’ in the literature I’d be looking to put a small offer into.

References

Adams, D., Colebatch, H.K. and Walker, C.K. (2015), Learning about Learning: Discovering the Work of Policy. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 74(2), pp.101–111.

Colebatch, H.K. ed. (2005), The work of policy: an international survey, Lexington Books.

Colebatch, H.K. (2006), What work makes policy? Policy Sciences, 39, pp.309–321.


I’ve reached that stage in my PhD programme where I have to start ‘formalising’ my research proposal.  I need to iterate a few drafts over the next few weeks with a view to submitting it for formal assessment towards the end of July.  In the same time period, I do my first proper draft of an ethics application. That isn’t the ‘end point’, it can be refined or even changed after that – but it is a goal to be reached and a goal to make the most of.

But there lies a problem.  As I read – both the ‘content’ literature and the methodological literature – I can easily talk to myself about what I want to do and why, but when I get faced with the structure (template) for a research proposal, it just won’t come out, I can’t construct all those ideas into a coherent sounding explanation.  So I wondered whether writing it in my own words first of all would help – hence this blog.  Some researchers refer to this sort of thing as first person memos – so given it has a name, it must be an appropriate way of moving forward!  I have no idea as I start whether it is going to be one long blog or the first of a series focussing on different parts of a research proposal but here we go anyway….

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I had a great day on Friday – once again I had a rare opportunity to come together with other OU Systems Thinking in Practice alumni/students and with the course team and tutors.  I’ll put aside the topic of the get together for now, needs more digesting.  But I wanted to reflect on something that happened in the social spaces – the number of times other people mentioned this blog and my blogging activity.

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