Ethnography in policymaking: Barriers and opportunities

Originally published on the Cabinet Office Open Policy blog on 27 March, this is my write up of an event I chaired during Open Policy 2015.

Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: “Due to [the employer] not helping (they didn’t provide sick pay), I got into extreme financial difficulty. Benefits weren’t enough to cover everything and everything went wrong. The empty fridge represents no money as I couldn’t feed myself sometimes.” Picture and story from Katrina, circling in and out of work with a physical health condition, Sussex (name and details anonymised)
Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: “Due to [the employer] not helping (they didn’t provide sick pay), I got into extreme financial difficulty. Benefits weren’t enough to cover everything and everything went wrong. The empty fridge represents no money as I couldn’t feed myself sometimes.” Picture and story from Katrina, circling in and out of work with a physical health condition, Sussex (name and details anonymised)
Increasingly on the agenda of policymakers is a need to understand the needs, capacities and perspectives of citizens, service users, beneficiaries and front line staff so that policies are fit for purpose and deliverable and public services are better designed. Ethnography is seen as one way to achieve this. Based on a methodology originally associated with anthropology, ethnographic approaches are now found within product development, innovation, strategy, marketing, and research and development in a wide range of organisations from Intel and Amazon to start-ups to central and local government. In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) and government departments, as well as others such as Nesta and the King’s Fund have promoted ethnographically-informed approaches to doing user research.

But the value of ethnography is not simply that it’s a method for understanding people in the context of their own lives, although it does offer that. The real potential for ethnography in policymaking is to help reframe government’s understanding of its purposes and how the world in which it exists and which it shapes is changing. This insight emerged from a panel discussion organised by Policy Lab in the grand surroundings of the Churchill Room during Open Policy 2015, during which three people with different perspectives reflected on the opportunities and barriers for ethnography in government. An audience of over 50 people, the majority of whom were civil servants, gained a valuable overview from leading practitioners applying ethnographic approaches to contemporary organisational and social issues.

The first speaker, Dr Simon Roberts of Stripe Partners, set the scene, informed by his extensive knowledge of applied ethnography from consulting work and gained by twice co-chairing the international Ethnographic Praxis in Industry conference. He summarised what makes ethnographic research distinctive and illuminated the ongoing challenge of understanding its value and impact.

Next up was Lisa Rudnick from Interpeace, previously at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, where she co-led the development of the Evidence-based Program Design tool and the Security Needs Assessment Protocol with Derek Miller, now of the Boston-based consultancy, The Policy Lab. Sharing perspectives gained from conducting ethnographic research in post-conflict contexts such as Nepal conducted with Ruth Edmonds,  she highlighted the importance of not just using the parts of ethnography that generate local descriptions, but of engaging ethnographic analysis of those descriptions as well as the basis from which to design, or implement, policy for shaping local action on the ground.

Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: Photo taken by interviewee Kelly to highlight the amount of work required to manage health conditions at her place of work. (Details changed)
Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: Photo taken by interviewee Kelly to highlight the amount of work required to manage health conditions at her place of work. (Details changed)


The third speaker, Rupert Gill, is a policymaker within the Department of Work and Pensions, currently using ethnography as well as data science approaches on a joint project with the Department of Health and Policy Lab. He shared some of the challenges civil servants face when trying to make use of ethnography in a policymaking culture which values particular kinds of argument and evidence.

What ethnographic research is

  • Today’s ethnographic research in organisations exists on a spectrum from hypothesis-free, exploratory research over several months into topics such as “ageing and mobility”, to targeted requirements gathering over a few days to inform the design of a service.
  • As a kind of qualitative research, ethnography investigates worldviews, socio-cultural structures and the practices that shape behaviours. It’s not just finding out what people think, listening to what they say or watching what they do.
  • Ethnographic research makes a commitment to being there with people in their worlds – which these days includes people’s digital lives. Its emblematic method since anthropologist Malinowski went to the Trobriand Islands a century ago is participant observation.

What ethnographic research produces

  • Ethnography is not just descriptive fieldwork. It’s a theory-building endeavour that makes use of research from across the social sciences. While the data might include stories about people’s lives, in their own language and categories, or observations about what people do, what is just as important is the interpretive analysis of that data. Or as Lisa Rudnick put it, “It’s not the story that matters for policymaking. The value is in what makes the story make sense.”
  • As a result, the output of ethnography is informed by people’s stories, and generates insights derived from people’s day to day experiences, but is better understood as an analysis of a social world within which people exist within and have relationships with others including organisations, governments and places.

The opportunity for using ethnography for government

  • The value of ethnographic research is how it creates (re)framings of a social world and helps an organisation understand what it exists for. Reflecting on the impact on technology firms such as Intel, which have made extensive use of ethnography over nearly two decades, Simon Roberts argued, “Ethnography has created a space and a possibility for organisations to reshape their understandings of the world and their understandings of how they have those understandings.”
  • The opportunity is for government to address the complexity of society by understanding people better in the context of their lives, and then changing the focus of policy responses, especially when things are changing. Rupert Gill said there was an appetite for this within the civil service. “We hope to get insights we wouldn’t get elsewhere and use them to create interventions we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of.”

Barriers and challenges

  • The culture within which policy making takes place is dominated by the need to produce evidence that is statistically valid, and not “policy by anecdote”. The small sample sizes associated with ethnographic research may not be seen as valid in this context. Minsters who have to give an account to parliament about their policies feel more confident about analysis from large data sets. But there is a contradiction here, in that ministers also get first hand access to, and are influenced by, stories from their constituents – a kind of field data with very small samples sizes.
  • What’s needed is to combine quantitative data with other approaches, recognising what each brings. “It’s real depth that we need and we can’t get this from numbers,” argued Rupert Gill.
  • Within the UN and peacebuilding contexts in which she works, Lisa Rudnick shared how the approach she co-developed (with Derek Miller) makes managers accountable for the data they use (or don’t) to shape their decisions. Like the policy tests being used in the civil service, this involves asking managers considering a proposal if they have the right kind information for the question at hand, enough information and whether it’s reliable. Posing such questions makes any commitment to action rest on research findings, not on data points or methods.


Policy Lab, GDS and government departments continue to explore ethnographic approaches in practical projects in policy making. If you are a civil servant, look out for guidance on the Open Policy Making Toolkit, Civil Service Learning short courses and Policy Lab workshops to try using the approach yourself.

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Published by

Lucy Kimbell

Director, Innovation Insights Hub, University of the Arts London. AHRC research fellow, Policy Lab, Cabinet Office. Associate fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford. Author of Service Innovation Handbook. @lixindex

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