Establishing the potential for relational and critical action research within the context of Scottish public service reform
The What Works Scotland (WWS) research programme aims to inform development and generate critical dialogue on current Scottish Government public service reform, across macro, meso and micro dimensions of policy and practice. Central to this endeavour is a cross-disciplinary, collaborative action research methodology being applied to work with Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs); partnerships set up by local authorities, as mandated by the Local Government (Scotland) Act 2003, and involving multiple sectors and organisations in strategic governance and public engagement.
The Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services (2011) or ‘Christie Commission’ provides a new reform narrative in Scotland, one that promotes collaborative approaches to local partnership-working and the prevention of inequality and promotion of equality. It positions such reform within the context of sustained inequalities, an ‘ageing’ population and severe UK and Scottish Government public spending cuts; the latter driving an emphasis on performance improvement, cost efficiency and community participation.
WWS is generating an eclectic, pragmatic collaborative research methodology of relevance to the Christie Commission principles. It draws on diverse action research practices concerned with transforming organisations, services and systems and often committed to emancipatory approaches and critical thinking (Reason & Bradbury, 2006; Heron & Reason, 2006; Kindon, Pain & Kesby, 2007; Denis & Lehoux, 2009; Bartels & Wittmayer, 2014). More particularly, it draws from the experiences of educational action researchers concerned to promote service transformation (Chapman & Hadfield, 2010: Chapman et. al, 2015). WWS seeks then to pursue both relational and critical approaches across different ‘orders’ of inquiry and change (Bradbury & Reason, 2006; Chapman & Hadfield, 2010; Coghlan & Brydon-Miller, 2014).
Four Scottish CPPs are our partners in this evolving approach and provide a diversity of contexts: urban and rural; and varying concentrations of inequality and uneven development. Each is generating a mix of research activity – in terms of methods and scale – and this includes: community-led approaches; evaluation and learning; participatory budgeting; welfare; education; data use; health and social care integration; and CPP strategy development. Community planning officers – playing strategic and operational roles – are being joined by other staff and professions from across public and third sectors to undertake these inquiries. They will examine policy and practice across different levels of delivery and reform, identifying areas of potential improvement and providing space for learning and critical dialogue.
In this paper we will discuss common dilemmas in establishing collaborative action research. These include gaining management support, locating project ‘champions’, building understanding of action research, and gauging capacity, commitment and relevance. It will argue that relational approaches across such complex local and central partnerships must be mutually-constructed over time if service transformation is to be pursued. Whilst national policy-making generates particular urgency, constraints, and financial challenges which impact at all levels, the current Scottish policy emphasis on collaborative partnership-working can provide space for critical dialogue, and hence opportunities to explore both the relational and the emancipatory within action research.