In my own words…

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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….

The domain of practice I am interested in improving…

Ulrich (2001) suggests it is important to be clear about the domain of practice that you seek to improve – it’ll take me a while to get there in the explanation below but my domain of interest is policy practices in local government – this is driven by a desire to open up possibilities for ‘healthier’ public policy.  So from the beginning…

Where has this interest come from and why is it important…

Over the last two or three years, I have become increasingly interested in the twin and complementary notions of ‘healthy public policy’ and ‘health in all policy’.  There are different domains of policy for health – most people tend to think of ‘health care policy’ which is about the health (and social) care system, there is also ‘public health policy’ where the main driver is about reducing risks to disease – such as tobacco control policy.  Healthy public policy on the other hand was a term coined by Milio (1986; 2001) to refer to a concern for the health impacts of policies developed in non-health sectors such as economic development; farming; transport and so on.  Thinking about healthy public policy is just as important at a local level as it is at a national one, because local governments (particularly urban ones) can also take action on the social determinants of health.

It is the interest in healthy public policy that led to the widespread adoption of the ‘health impact assessment’ – a tool that seeks to make judgements on the possible health impacts of a proposed policy.  I did lots of reading about health impact assessments for one of my assignments – I won’t go into it in detail here, but I concluded that they were predicated on particular assumptions about the nature of knowledge (it can be used to predict) and the nature of policy (it involves comprehensive, rational decisions by a ‘policy maker’).  Therefore it is part of a broader movement – a now highly contested notion – of evidence based policy making.

Meanwhile, in the academic literature, there seems to be a growing call for greater use of political theory amongst those who are seeking to influence the content of policy.  There is literature on this at a general level (such as work of Paul Cairney e.g. Cairney 2014) and literature on this from a health promotion perspective (e.g. de Leeuw et al 2014).  The argument is roughly as follows – if you want to influence policy, then don’t focus on how you think it ought to be made (normative), learn instead about what political science has learned about how it is made (descriptive).  These theories of the policy process provide helpful ‘lenses’ to understand the messy reality that is policy making and therefore makes you better placed to understand the process you are part of.  Policy literature provides different conceptualisations of the policy process as well as theories of how it gets done.  I have been endeavouring to read this body of literature and do want to use it in my PhD.

In addition to the expectation of considering how policy is made, there is another (perhaps conflicting) thread in literature about policy making.  Moving away from the notion of comprehensive rationalism and the idea that we can predict, researchers have started give a new ‘normative’ call for what policy making should be like.  The argument is similiar – the social issues that policy seeks to ‘improve’ are messy, they are contradictory, they are subject to multiple perspectices, they are contested, there are multiple interacting factors giving rise to emergent and sometimes unintended and unhelpful consequences of our actions.  If we accept that description of the social world, then we need to think differently about how policy ought to be done.  So I have read articles that suggest the need for ‘intelligent’ policy making (e.g. Sanderson 2009), the need for ‘adaptive’ policy making, the need for foresight, the need for greater participatory inclusive democracy, the idea of policy as societal learning – the list goes on and I haven’t made sense of it all yet. It seems though part of it seems to be about re-conceptualisation – looking at what exists through new lenses – but it is also about changing what exists.

So in summary – on the one hand there is a body of literature that says if you want to influence the ‘content’ of policy (for health or other interests) then understand how the policy process happens and work with it.  On the other hand there is a body of literature that says we need to act to change the policy process itself, so we can open up possibilities for the ‘content’ to be better in the future.

Policy practitioners and policy work…

However, for all the big picture theorising about the policy process – I am developing more of an interest in a particular group of ‘actors’ in the world of policy.  They are people like me – I have coined the term ‘policy practitioners’ but I also see policy manager, policy worker, policy analyst.  We aren’t the policy maker or the ‘decision maker’, we aren’t the citizen (or are we?), we aren’t the campaigner or the advocate (or are we?), we aren’t the expert adviser (or are we?) – however we do the work of policy. In a national scene, the civil service is well-known for its role in doing the work of policy, but within local government we are rarely looked at.  The greater potential that local government has in a world of devolution for policy action rather than just service provision, the more important these roles become.

Unless I have completely missed finding an appropriate key word to search with, there isn’t much research literature on policy work or those who do it as part of their work.  The main author who keeps coming up is Colebatch – and his article ‘What work makes policy?’ (Colebatch, 2006) is particularly helpful.  The traditional view of a policy practitioner – predominantly associated with the USA – is as a policy analyst – doing research to provide comprehensive information or ‘advice’ to the decision-maker who then decides.  But the newer conceptualisations of inclusive processes and governance suggests something else – the policy worker becomes a convenor; a facilitator; a creator of spaces and places for dialogue; in addition to, or instead of, subject expertise.

So the newer conceptualisations of policy suggest that policy work is changing (or isn’t changing but ought to?).  It seems to me that governmental bodies – whether national ones or local ones – can either leave this change to chance or take purposeful action to push it in the right direction.  And so….as mentioned above, my domain of interest is policy practices in local government – with a particular desire to open up possibilities for ‘healthier’ public policy.

Practice and practice development…

But then that leads me into the literature on organisational change and development – and a particular ‘corner’ of it concerning practice development.

Given that I did a Masters in systems thinking in PRACTICE and given the name of this blog, it isn’t suprising that I have an interest in practice.  It seems some organisational change literature focuses more on ‘behaviour change’ (yuk) than practice development.  I prefer the notion of practice development as I blogged about a while ago.

So I have been doing some reading about Practice – or more specifically an article on the epistemology of practice (Cook and Wagenaar, 2012).  It is one of those dense articles that is hard to get your head around and I do need to keep re-visiting it.  It argues that, contrary to the common view that practice is driven by knowledge, knowledge and practice mutually constitute each other and equally practice and context mutually constitute each other.  It also introduces three concepts that help to capture a dynamic, relational perspective on practice – actionable understandings; business as usual; and, the eternally unfolding present.  I like these ideas, they do resonate with me, but I struggle at the moment to understand how I can use them! It seems as if there is also helpful stuff in discussions of praxis – theory-informed action – a notion that goes all the way back to Aristotle.

So far I haven’t searched much for literature on practice development, but the article I have read (Manley and McCormack 2003) provides a helpful distinction between professional development (concerned with the skills and knowledge of the individual) and practice development (concerning changes in how things are done).  Practice development may also lead to individual learning but that isn’t the main driver.  The article uses Habermas’ three forms of knowledge – technical, practical and emancipatory – to discuss different forms of practice development – these also link across to different forms of action research [hold that thought…].

How do I turn this interest into a research project…

I face a choice – study the ‘status quo’ i.e. describe what is going on – perhaps compare that to what ought to be according to academic literature – or compare what is happening in a number of different places.  Or, use the fact that I am doing a PhD as a helpful prompt for change.  The latter seems more appealing and more congruent with the role I have in my workplace.

It seems that many work-based research projects are focused on change – studying it happening and/or studying how people are seeking to bring it about (Costley et al 2010) and there is one group of approaches to change and to research that were formed just for that – action research.  Action research does have a dual identity – in literature on organisational change (e.g. Burnes 2011) it is spoken of as an element of planned change originating from the work of Lewin.  In literature on research (e.g. Reason and Bradbury 2006) it is spoken of as an approach to human inquiry devoted to practical knowing and is as much concerned with the knowledge developed and used directly by those involved as it is the more traditional propositional knowledge that ends up in a Thesis or research article.

So it seems appropriate to use action research as the broad orientation to my research.  But there is then a ‘double layer’ of purpose that I need to develop some clarity around – for myself and for others.  Zuber-Skerritt and Perry (2002) provide a distinction between the ‘core action research project’ which happens out in ‘the field’ as a collaborative piece of work carried out by an action research ‘group’; and the ‘thesis action research project’ which is undertaken more independently by an individual for academic accreditation.  The ‘core’ and the ‘thesis’ will have different (but obviously inter-related) aims, objectives and questions.  The ‘core’ provides the field work part of the ‘thesis’ cycle and could also be conceived as an ‘intervention’.

In a similiar vein, Coghlan and Brannick (2010) suggest that your thesis proposal needs to separately distinguish between the ‘action’ (the rationale for that action, the desired situation and how one plans to move from here to there) and the ‘research’ (the rationale for researching this action and the contribution to knowledge that it seeks to make).

I’ve already taken steps to define the ‘action’ in the form of a proposition for what I have called a development programme at work.  The good news is that it has been well-received which means that all this is a viable idea.  I conceptualise the purpose of the programme as to create changes to policy practice in a local authority by means of a development programme in order to open up possibilities for ‘healthier’ public policies.  When I think of the ‘black box’ that is referred to as ‘the development programme’, it includes a range of activities that perhaps step out of the ‘purity’ of action research – it does include some ‘educational input’ such as the theories of the policy process or introducing systems approaches, but only in a way that informs and enrichens the action research cycles.

It is important to research this action because no-one has done that before!  Whilst the ‘action’ itself will unfold according to the needs and ideas of those involved it is important that the story/journey is documented as well as the changes itself.  From the story broader lessons can be learned about what works (or doesn’t) for (healthy) public policy – not just in terms of practitioner skills and knowledge but also the context that afford or constrain new practices to develop (though that conceptualisation doesn’t really fit with the Cook and Wagenaar epistemology of practice described above).  It should be interesting to other local authorities in England or elsewhere especially those involved in the healthy cities movement initiated to WHO.  The purpose of the research then is to develop propositional knowledge about how to (or not to) develop policy practice by means of research into the action in order to contribute to the body of literature concerned with healthy public policy.

What issues does this throw up…

There is an interesting body of literature on the tensions that arise in ‘insider’ research – I’ll be wearing multiple hats – still a colleague but also a change agent and also a researcher of that change.  This has impacts on issues such as confidentiality and observations that may be under the radar.  The multiple roles will keep challenging my ‘ethics’ – not just at the outset to get through the ethics approval but at each step of the ‘eternally unfolding present’.

Add in ‘action research’ and its critical stance with an emancipatory angle, there is also the potential that the work will challenge relationships of power.

Then I have this worry, working with policy practitioners only does provide some ‘wriggle room’ in terms of changing our practices but there are some things which are outside our scope of control – yes, we have agency but is the structural dimension too strong to make too many changes.  What will that mean – both for the individuals involved and the lessons learned – if all we do in the end is come up against a brick wall?  Will I/we know how to act in that eventuality?  I do worry about this but at the same time I don’t want it to be an excuse not to take purposeful action now.


I’ve been writing this virtually all day today.  I’ve noticed the word count for the blog is three quarters of the length that my proposal has to be – and I haven’t gone into any detail at all on the research methods and timetable.  I was pleased to see how much some material came to my mind when I needed it and it seems that for each paragraph I have written above, I have a ream of related references.  Now to mull all this over and write it for real.


References (in no particular order – sorry!)

Coghlan, D. and Brannick, T. (2010), Doing action research in your own organisation, London: Sage Publications.

Zuber-Skerritt, O. and Perry, C. (2002), Action research within organisations and university thesis writing. The Learning Organization, 9(3/4), p.171.

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (2006), Introduction: Inquiry and Participation in Search of a World Worthy of Human Aspiration. In Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (Editors) The Handbook of Action Research. Concise Paperback Edition., London: Sage Publications, pp. 1–14.

Burnes, B. (2011), Managing change Fifth Edition., Harlow: Fiancnial Times / Prentice Hall.

Costley, C., Gibbs, P. and Elliott, G.C. (2010), Doing Work Based Research : Approaches to Enquiry for Insider-Researchers, London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Manley, K. and McCormack, B. (2003), Practice development: purpose, methodology, facilitaiton and evaluation. Nursing in Critical Care, 8(1), pp.22–29.

Cook, S.D.N. and Wagenaar, H. (2012), Navigating the eternally unfolding present: towards an epistemology of practice. The American Review of Public Administration, 42(1), pp.3–38.

Sanderson, I. (2009), Intelligent Policy Making for a Complex World: Pragmatism, Evidence and Learning. Political Studies, 57(4), pp.699–719.

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

De Leeuw, E., Clavier, C. and Breton, E. (2014), Health policy – why research it and how: health political science. Health Research Policy and Systems, 12(55).

Cairney, P. (2014), If you want to inject more science into policymaking you need to know the science of policymaking. In Political Studies Association 64th Annual International Conference. Manchester. Available at: [Accessed April 21, 2014].

Milio, N. (2001), Glossary: healthy public policy. Journal Epidemiology and Community Health, 55, pp.622–623.

Milio, N. (1981), Promoting Health through Public Policy, Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.

Ulrich, W. (2001), The quest for competence in systemic research and practice. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 18(1), pp.3–28.

3 thoughts on “In my own words…

  1. Fascinating and it makes me want to read all your references! Good luck now with fitting your ideas into a template

  2. Thanks Helen, yet again a very useful and insightful piece. It’s particularly useful for me because I’m just starting an essay on policy responses to health inequity. Unintentional good timing, again.

    Just a thought; the article below may be of interest if you haven’t seen it. V useful re policy acceptance and setting political agendas.

    Embrett, M. G. and Randall, G. E. (2014) ‘Social determinants of health and health equity policy research: Exploring the use, misuse, and nonuse of policy analysis theory’, Social Science & Medicine, 108, pp. 147–155. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.03.004.

    • Thanks David – glad you found it interesting and useful. Sounds like an interesting essay you are doing. And thanks for the reference too – I think I saw it once before but have forgotten all about it.

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