One of the items we have put in our proposal for Creative Councils is the suggestion that we host an Action Research network looking at the emergent changes in the way in which officers and members are interacting with citizens.  Following a fascinating meeting with some local community engagement experts and councillors last week I wanted to let more people know what we are up to as there are lots of opportunities to collaborate – I hope!

The exploration of new forms of engagement is a strand of work which has been emerging from the We Live Here project, and to be honest a number of other things I have been working on. Its obvious that if we your ambition is to try to reinvigorate civic participation – or at least give it the environment it needs to flourish in the 21st century – then you also need to work with engagement officers and volunteers to look at how their professional practice needs to adjust to this change. We want to make sure that we are doing robust research into the effects – planned and unplanned – that we are having at the same time as ensuring that we don’t get focused on evaluation rather than progress and we believe that an action research approach will help achieve this.

Action research is a method of actively participating in change projects at the same time as conducting research. The ambition with We Live Here, and perhaps further projects, is to embed research practices into the project process so that we can capture the learning that emerges. By making this a wider project than just We Live Here we can draw on wider expertise and draw wider conclusions about the work that we are doing.

I feel really strongly that research and practice need to come together to support innovation in any kind of service design. This means that the academics need to get out of their universities and the participants need to build research techniques into their practice. With our project, which is all about building capacity on all sides for more co-productive working then the participants are not just the professionals – we want the community to actively participate in the research as well.

Using a research orientated structure for the project also starts to address the question of systematic evaluation. Its difficult to evaluate innovative projects where many of the benefits may be unexpected and where the form of the project may change many times within the project frame. However in combination with the agile approach and a strong vision for the outcome we are aiming for I think its possible to embed a research strand within the project which will support the agile project working and also help ensure that we are changing with meaning.

The basic outline of this will be fairly simple as we can’t risk over balancing the work with too much focus on research outcomes but I imagine the following:

  • Design and embed data collection within the project – both in the technology and also in the way we manage offline interviews and meetings
  • Systematic action research blogging from as many participants as possible
  • Regular write up and reflection from the research team on the data which is gathered

A lot of this is about how we set the project up for the next phase as we have the intention of supporting the work with research then this should be achievable.

I also think that the action research approach dovetails neatly with the agile project management approach. You can read more about agile here but one of the essential elements of agile software development is the inclusion of unit and regression testing. Adopting research practices within the project framework does something parallel to this testing within the the social as opposed to the purely technical environment.

I will do a more detailed post on the proposed design of the process (when we know how much money if any we have to spend on it!) but as we have continuation money and support from the Council anyway we will be able to implement this in some form. I also hope to be able to find some people at Brighton and Sussex universities who want to collaborate on this as well as connecting with the other projects going on in the City.

I was at a meeting discussing this last week and there was some blurring of terms between action learning and action research. I think this very clearly needs to be considered action research. Action learning would imply that we know what these new skills and techniques are going to be and we don’t – we have some ideas about what is needed but until we test and develop this we won’t be able to produce the evidence or systematically reproduce this in learning.

The kind of skills and attitudes we see emerging are varied; we need to build facilitation and convening skills. We need to understand how networked power works online and offline and we need to find ways to involve the people who don’t need us but can help us rather than the ones most lacking skills.

Perhaps the most difficult thing that is needed is for professional participants to work towards their own redundancy. There is a seductive quality to being needed by communities which needs to be overcome if we genuinely want them to be more self-reliant but that not a new problem – we just can’t afford not to solve it. More than that, if we consider the idea that we are moving towards a radically smaller state (which the finances point towards whatever your political views on the subject) then we also need to give these people a self-belief and skills which mean that they have a personal confidence that there will be something else to do when this community no longer needs them. This is going to be hard.

We are only scratching the surface of what this means and we are in common with many other projects who are looking at how the relationship between citizens and state might change in all kinds of ways. Within Brighton there is a developing use of Participatory Budgeting as well as the planned Neighbourhood Councils pilots which are being considered at the next Cabinet meeting. Within Creative Councils Cornwall and York are also looking at different forms of citizen participation and in its widest form most of the Creative Councils projects are looking at this issue of the renegotiation of the Citizen / State relationship.  However – I feel that if we don’t start to join up some of these experiences systematically then we miss the chance to draw wider conclusions.  I have been combining project work and research for a few years now and though by no means an expert I think the combination of these two mindsets can be powerful.

So, the ambition is to create an action research group based in Brighton which will support this process. Rather than trying to formalise it from the start we will just get on with it within the We Live Here project and make it as open as possible to other interested parties – either researchers, practitioners or just the generally interested. I hope that by doing it this way we can attract the expertise we need as well as progressing past the planning stage that so many ideas get stuck in.

I’ll be blogging progress here so let me know if you want to get involved.

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