How Do We Get Out of Here: Heuristics for Relational, Frame-Reflective, Facilitative Action-Research Practices in Messy and Ambiguous Policy Situations
Ambiguous and messy policy-situations such as the location of refugees, planning in a dense neighbourhood, or prevention of juvenile delinquency in a problematic urban neighbourhood, can easily lead to impasses or even conflicts in the collaboration between policy-practitioners and other stakeholders who depend on one another to get things done (Rein, 2009; Roe, 2013, Van Hulst and Yanow, 2016). Facilitative action-research practices that organise ‘research in the moment’ (Mackewn, 2008) by applying interpretive and deliberative strategies, can offer opportunities to find breakthroughs in these situations by moving away from conventional, rational strategies that emphasise truth-seeking and risk-avoidance and focussing on collaborative sensemaking (Yanow,1996, Fischer and Forester, 1993; Forester 1997, 2003; Hajer and Wagenaar, 2013; Forester and Laws, 2015; Yanow, 1996).
The relational aspect of the practices is more and more understood as important in these practices (Forester, Kuitenbrouwer, Laws, 2019, Bartels and Wittmeyer, 2019; Wagenaar 2019, Bartels and Turnbull 2019). By taking the relational dynamics as a diagnostic starting point, policy-practitioners can focus on the question ‘how did we get in this situation together’ and subsequently ‘how can we get out of this situation together’, which can help in finding a collaborative action frame. Critique have highlighted, however, how the emphasis upon the ‘situatedness’ and ‘context-relatedness’ of these settings can lead to a lack of transferable methodological guidelines (Loeber 2007: 57).
This paper seeks to contribute to the development of transferable methodological guidelines by offering both a taxonomy for ‘stuckness’ in messy and ambiguous policy-situations and a heuristic for relational, frame-reflective, facilitative action-research practices that can assist in finding breakthroughs in such situations. It draws on empirical evidence from nine cases to describe how designs for these practices – including narrative reconstruction of escalation, dynamic visualisation of unwanted patterns of interaction, and the role-playing of ‘the unknown persons’ – must reflect the relational dynamics of stuckness that policy-practitioners experience, in both a diagnostic and a transformative sense. In this way, policy-practitioners can be helped to focus on collaborative, interdependent actions in their search for breakthroughs, rather than repeating the cognitive discussions about the problem(s) at hand that have contributed to the situation of ‘stuckness’ in the first place.