This is by way of a short Action Research reflection so if you are not interested in that kind of thing then move along! Next post will be the write-up of the Agile session at #UKGC12 and much more practical I promise.
I have been mulling on the tension between co-production and Action Research and the need to separate one’s desire to keep the experiment intact at the same time as being open to other people’s views both with respect to the process but also the content within the process.
Action Research is about designing an experiment or project with sound reasoning as to why you think this is the best way to develop knowledge and improve practice – and then seeing if it does. In the case of ‘We Live Here’ for example we have designed an experiment which maps online and offline networks and then gathered them into a single online space which will be discussed with those networks in an open public meeting. The hypothesis that we are testing is that better networked communities are better able, and more likely, to participate in local decision making. This experiment was designed we a certain set of assumptions that we should probably state more overtly namely:
- Good decision making and effective democracy needs to be underpinned by civic conversation and the opportunity for deliberation and debate outside of the decision making process. The absence of this ‘public sphere’ is one of the things that has weakened democratic engagement over time
- That one of the reasons that people don’t participate in decision making – or deliberation — is that the process is unwieldy and inappropriate for their needs and needs redesigning to be relevant for modern life.
- That there are people that have other, deeper reasons for not participating but that we are not looking to deal with more complex issues of access within this project – our focus is creating an environment which is self maintaining and active that we can then help further people participate in over time.
- That the project needs to be digital by default but not solely digital.
- That networks – and networks of networks – will need different types of support and we can’t make assumptions about what this support might be.
However we also want to work co-productively both within the project team and also with the participants and we are actively looking for positive by-products – for example increased resilience or service access – within the areas that we are running pilots. One of the effects of this is that we have stakeholders (dreadful word) within the project who are not primarily motivated by the initial experiment design and who were not involved in creating it.
For the research to be useful we need to keep the experiment as intact as possible within each iteration at the same time as being open to challenge both on the nature of the underlying principles and also the design of the experiment itself. We also need to keep careful separation from the design of the process from the content and connections that are created within the bounds of the experiment.
This creates a tension – we are trying to keep the experiment intact at the same time as telling people we want to create the outcome with them.
I have been thinking about how to do this – and also how to separate my own twin desires to both defend the underlying context and assumptions (which is a bit defensive of me) at the same time as defending the need to keep the experiment intact (which is the inner researcher speaking).
The Agile project management approach that we are taking is one way of doing this and communicating these three elements to the project team:
So I think this means I need to think about more formal project reporting and to start to structure feedback on it so that we can clearly seeing the different questions that we need to consider. I also need to consider how we are going to communicate the action research approach to a wider and not at all research focused audience – or indeed if this is a good idea.
I’ll be speaking to the rest of the project team on this and might be back with an update.
Thank you for today’s musings on Action Research but unfortunately I don’t know enough about how you currently put it into practice to be able to comment or come up with creative ideas. I agree that it’s vital for as many people as possible to engage with democracy, whether off or online but the main challenge, it seems to me, is to arouse their interest and the key to that may be exciting publicity which inspires people to get involved and to express their views. I too am a researcher. Today I have received an invitation online to comment on the Local Plan. For each aspect of it there are an average of 6 background documents offered, some of which are 50+ pages long, and many of those I’ve read still don’t give adequate information. Those who read them may well get an overload, and still not have sufficient information to make informed comments. The majority who log on, I feel sure, won’t read all the documents and – if they decide to take part in the survey – will do so without knowing enough about the issues. Come what may, the people contributing their views will NOT be representative of local residents and businesses. Please direct me to more information about your current approach to public engagement, the idea is so good.