Phases of the research: Phase 0 – Discovery

This blog is a public-facing vehicle for findings from my one-year, three-day a week AHRC research fellowship based in Policy Lab, a small team based within the Cabinet Office working with government departments. What I’ve discovered is that it was incredibly hard for me to make sense of this research while I am in the middle of it – at least in ways I want to share openly via a blog.

Now, as I write up some of my findings in various formats for sharing inside Policy Lab and within the policy profession, as well as with others outside government with an interest in design and policy experimentation, I am ready to do some blogging. But it’s the retrospective sense-making kind – a sort of short-form research lite – rather than near real-time reflections from the field which I had wanted to do. This is the first in a series of posts to chart what I now see as the main phases of the research.

Phase 0 – Discovery – September to December 2014

At the point of starting the fellowship I very little knowledge of policy making or how government works. Whitehall and Westminster were parts of London I rarely set foot in. I was more likely to see them on the news that go there. I already knew some of the Policy Lab team – Andrea Siodmok, who leads it, for example, has been involved with strategic design and policy issues for over a decade through her work at the Design Council and the DOTT Cornwall project and our paths had crossed several times. I had briefly met Beatrice Andrews of Policy Lab and Maria Nyberg of the Open Policy Making team (OPM) through my research on Mapping Social Design for the AHRC.

When I started, Policy Lab had been set up in April 2014 and was now mid way through its first demonstrator project with the Home Office on crime reporting. It existed in the form of a very small resource – some headcount (less than 3 people full-time), some budget, some desks to sit at – and what seemed like a constant stream of activities – workshops, discussions, meetings, writing up workshops, planning and drawing. Much of the discussion was about what Policy Lab could or should be and activities to bring it into being by trying things out. With blog posts on the Open Policy blog and a twitter feed it was already visible to the world outside government, while inside it was just as much in formation in relation to Cabinet Office and departmental priorities. The election in May 2015 was already on people’s minds.

Much of my participant observation consisted of turning up in the morning, and following the team around to their various workshops and meetings. In particular I sat in on several “Lab Lights”, short taster sessions during which Policy Lab would work with policy makers from a government department enabling them to try out using design methods on their challenges. Mostly I listened and asked some questions as I tried to understand what was going on. I wrote lots of notes (by hand) and tentatively took some photos (see the note on ethics below). I did some interviews which I sometimes recorded by audio. I did a few literature searches and nosed around the web.

The practicalities of getting inside the building where Policy Lab is based hampered my research. Policy Lab is part of the Government Innovation Group (GIG) team in the Cabinet Office, based in the HM Treasury building at 1 Horseguards Road. As a visitor to the building your host has to come down and escort you through the barriers and stay with you throughout your visit, which does not suit day-long visits, several days a week, where you might want to make tea, go for lunch, pop out of the building, or go to the toilet.

Then in mid-December, my security clearance came through and I finally got given a security pass giving me access to many government buildings. Around the same time the team switched to using a calendar system that meant I could see their diaries (even as I write this I am wondering how open to be about locations and technology providers, and erring on the side of caution). This meant I could see what was planned each day – I didn’t have to ask when I arrived what was happening and where and if I could come along. I was also given access to the digital drive where Policy Lab’s documents were stored which I could now roam around, much as I could now roam around the building unescorted. We talked about whether I should get a email address too to have access to the email discussions where much of their work happened. But to get this I’d have to get a secure laptop and use it and I was not keen.

Working out what research ethics meant in this context too was a challenge. The Policy Lab team and the slightly larger OPM team who we sit next to and work closely with knew who I was and what I was doing. At meetings with others I made sure I that I introduced myself as a researcher and explained that I was taking notes and might be using them. I always emphasised that I would not attribute anything to anyone named without asking them which seemed to satisfy them, although even if I was not naming them or making them recognisable I was still researching them. Sometimes I took photos of workshops as did other members of the Policy Lab team and we said we might use these images publicly for Policy Lab – but where did Policy Lab end and my research begin? For my few formal interviews I brought a consent form for the participant to sign. But informed consent was tricky to work out for a long-term engagement when I was working consistently with some people, meeting many others each week, and had access to privileged information.

The blurred lines between research and my own strategic design practice emerged early on too. For example I helped facilitate one of the eight concurrent ideas days organised by Policy Lab for Northern Futures. For this I was paid as a facilitator on the same basis as the other facilitators. But unlike most of them as a researcher I was involved in helping shape and make sense of the ideas days and what learning they offered to Policy Lab and the Cabinet Office. My growing access to this world was had limits, of course. One of the people we worked closely with did not give me access to the summary of that event which was a report that was going to be seem by a minister. A line emerged – things that were for ministers were not things I could see.

A brief trip to Washington DC for a data science and humanities workshop, to New York to visit GovLab, the Parsons DESIS Lab and Public Policy Lab, and another short trip with some of the Policy Lab and OPM team to MindLab in Denmark, gave me access to other practitioner and practice-academic hybrids also experimenting with design and policy. By the Christmas break I had a sense of what Policy Lab was trying to do, I knew something of the culture of the civil service and the emerging “policy profession” and the OPM agenda. I was enjoying being part of this all-women (at that point) team. And I was excited by the idea that academic research could help shape organisational practice in the field.

My guides at this point were Dan Neyland’s Organisational Ethnography, Bent Flyvberg’s Making Social Science Matter and Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures. Re-reading these while visiting a central government department on regular basis helped me acknowledge the essential ambiguity inherent in participant observation. Just as Policy Lab was performing itself into being as a resource for the policy profession, so I too was performing myself into being as a practice-oriented researcher.