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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.


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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I’ve made myself a list of all the theories, concepts and key players that seem to appear in literature about the policy process.  The idea is that I use this braindump as a springboard to structure my reading a little more.   Kingdon and his multiple streams approach  was the first one on the list.  You see it in lots of places.

So I’ve read relevant sections of Hill’s book (2013) and Cairney’s book (2012) and a few other bits and pieces.  As Paul Cairney has written a great blog summarising all the key elements and concepts in Kingdon’s work I am not going to repeat all that here.

Instead I want to reflect on a few things.

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Given the name of this blog and my use of the Leonardo Da Vinci quote in the side panel, it just came as a bit of a surprise to me that I haven’t really posted before on the inter-relationship of theory, research and practice (the main exception being one on Knowledge into action).  Or maybe it is because the whole blog is implicitly about that very topic, that I’ve never thought to address it explicitly.

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This was written yesterday…just didn’t get round to publishing it…so for ‘today’, read ‘yesterday’!

Today, I started what I hope will be a longer inquiry into theories of the policy process.  I’ve been telling myself for a long time that I need to ‘get to grips’ with it.  As mentioned in my last post, I’ve kind of got this general overview of the landscape and know names of some theories and bits of associated jargon, but I do need to develop my understanding (and confidence in that understanding) more if I’m going to do research in my interest area of  ‘healthy public policy’.  So, instead of just staring at a pile of books and thinking “I need to read them”, I’ve written myself a topic list to guide my learning.  Just hope I can keep the motivation going alongside the ‘real’ studying of my PhD module.

Today, I read the Introduction (well most of it, I was using the Amazon Look Inside!) and penultimate chapter (available as a pdf on Paul Cairney’s blog) of Sabatier and Weible (Editors) Theories of the Policy Process (third edition, 2014).

I’m not going to reiterate the content, just note a couple of insights…

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This is one of those blogs I have to get out of my head….that means it isn’t going to be full of references that back up my thoughts, I just need to round them up so that I can be more structured in taking them forward.

It’s prompted by the idea of the ‘ideal’ type – a normative standard against which we compare things.  Often ‘ideal’ types get understood as prescriptions…and also sometimes we start thinking that things actually do happen according to those ‘ideal’ types (which is dangerous!).

So as I’ve been looking into policy making, I’ve started to realise that we have a number of ‘ideals’ as to what it ought to be like.  I’m going to brain-dump them here…

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This is one of those blogs that I am starting with no way of knowing where it will go.  It follows on from my recent post on practising systematic reviews systemically.  It was prompted by re-reading an old post on the ‘design turn’ (which my blog stats tell me someone looked at today – if it was you, thanks 🙂 ).  So, I’ve re-opened Ison (2010) to the two-page long section on ‘Systemic Inquiry and the ‘Design turn’ (pages 260-262).

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I’ve just realised that my post from early february on Discovering a landscape of research practice can provide effective insights into my current struggles and tensions about systematic reviews (discussed in my last post).  I’ve yet again gotten bogged down into the need to construct typologies or categories – this time of systematic reviews.  But my ‘aha’ moment – Instead I can choose to think of a landscape of literature review practices – with communities of reviewing practitioners identifying with each other, with certain questions/tasks to do and with certain ways of answering those questions/doing those task drawing on existing literature as ‘data’.

So whether you are concerned with ‘does x work for y condition for z population?’ or ‘what is known about the phenomenom a?’ or ‘what are the problems/gaps with the existing literature around q?’, you can belong somewhere in this landscape and identify with different sets of practitioners at different times.  New practices emerge from critiques or problems with existing ones, new communities form around those new practices, boundary spanners move between them taking ideas from one place to another where they mutate.  The ‘old’ practices pick up practices from the ‘new’ ones or respond to the critiques made of them.  Technology such as research databases revolutionalise the opportunities.  It shifts, it changes, it diversifies – it isn’t fixed

Why didn’t I spot the read across before! Doh!

My current PhD module is on the research ‘technology’ of systematic reviewing.  This type of research study is a manifestation of the evidence-based practice movement driven by the desire to make sure that research informs practice and/or policy.  Systematic reviewing arose in the world of medicine as a way of drawing together the findings of different ‘Randomised control trials’ in order to come up with a better answer to whether the intervention x leads to an outcome y.  The method of systematic review was/is hailed as better than traditional literature reviews which were criticised for cherry-picking the studies that fit with what an author wants to say.  My own view is that the traditional literature review actually has a different purpose – to scope out existing research in an area to highlight the ‘niche’ for a proposed piece of research and as Boell and Cecez-Kecmanovic (2014) eloquently argue can be undertaken just as rigorously.

Anyway, as I’ve gone through the module, I’ve begun to understand that the term systematic review now goes well beyond the original ‘what works’ review of the Cochrane collaboration.  There are a multitude of different approaches to identifying and synthesising both quantitative and qualitative information held in research literature underpinned by a variety of study designs – like other forms of research they arise from different epistemological perspectives and therefore approach the task in different ways in order to answer different types of questions.  There are now articles of systematic review methods leading to different typologies and a multitude of terms (see for example, Dixon-Woods et al, 2005; Gough et al, 2012; and, Grant and Booth, 2009) and more that focus on different ‘stages’ of the review process especially synthesis (see Barnett-Page and Thomas, 2009).

As I near the end of the module, I’ve started to wonder about the degree to which systematic reviewing can be undertaken systemically.  The systems practitioner in me is rearing its head! As Ray Ison once said to me – “research is a practice too” – words which I directly hold responsible for me doing a PhD in the first place [depending on the day I am having that may be blame or gratitude!]

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