Friday, 10 January 2014

Dishing the dirt on local government in Scotland

So, I’ve managed to get the final paper out from my PhD - Being Strategic in Partnership – Interpreting Local Knowledge of Modern Local Government in Local Government Studies. It’s a paper I knew I could develop from the PhD but never thought I’d manage. As it turned out quite a few applications for research grants didn’t amount to anything so I had the opportunity to crack on with it. Also, the big empirical chunk of it was fairly easy to construct – it was one of the rare cases where I could just copy-and-paste lots directly from the thesis or earlier drafts.

As Pat Thomson reiterates it’s never as easy as just chopping up your thesis chapters and getting them published as papers; and most theses need a lot of work to turn into books. I didn’t know this when I developed my writing plan post-thesis, but I realised this anyway and chose themes across my thesis chapters for the various papers:
  •           Mind the Gap’ - A discourse analysis of Scottish urban regeneration policy (which was written concurrently with my fieldwork and write-up).
  •           Problem definition and re-evaluating a policy’ – A funny one as it was written in response to a conference CFP which turned into a special issue that never was. However, it gave me a good space to write out some of my interpretive policy analysis stuff and work through my insights in place-based stigma and policy-making.
  •           Have we lost the meaning of regeneration?’ – this one was pretty much the thesis in 9,000 words. This is what I add to the world’s stock of knowledge in what might work in urban regeneration policy.
  •           The difficulty theory paper.

These papers all are either critical/interpretive in their stance, or focus on the communities I was researching rather than the policy-makers. Being Strategic in Partnership focuses on the policy-makers and I like it. I enjoyed writing it and I think its insights are important. Unlike my other papers the case studies are quite anonymised in this paper because, as the title of this post suggests, I “dish the dirt” on the local authorities involved. As an outsider on my ethnographer’s balcony, some of the practices I watched were absolutely astounding, and the critical analysis wrote itself.

However, the paper does not blame the policy-makers and I hope that any of my participants who recognised themselves in it would not feel too hurt by the portrayal. The paper makes two key points. Firstly, although “strategic partnership working” is portrayed as a very modern way of working in local government, it actually dates back to the late 1960s at least and it is embedded in the ways of acting in organisations and by organisational actors.
I then go onto elaborate some of these meanings and practices as they happen in the Community Planning Partnerships I observed. For example, a common key metaphor used by local government officers was “partnership is a table” – this makes perfect sense, they often meet around tables. Nut it also then framed how actors approached partnership working – tables are something you bring stuff to and share it. Therefore if people did not share things all hell broke loose (as it often did).

What I highlight is how all these meaning and practices together form a sort of “strategic” cultural domain by which these officers understand the world – it’s a discourse, a spatial scale, and a broad system of meaning-making. They cannot help it; it’s the world in which they work. The trouble is, and the critical insight I offer is, it’s completely alien to community activists trying to make their neighbourhoods better. For them partnership working is one bit of the council knowing what the other bit is doing and not accidentally working against each other; it is not delivering strategic projects sat around a table. So, that’s the trouble with “strategic partnership working” is that by it’s very nature it excludes the community.

What I find very worrying is I can’t see this getting any better. I bang on at length about the National Performance Framework and the “what matters is outcomes” mentality in contemporary Scottish public services (another paper I want to write). Part of this is the idea that outcomes are easier for the “community” to understand compared to inputs or outputs. However, from my research I just see this as the latest development in the strategic domain alienating people from policy-making. What is more worrying is that because “outcomes” are seen to be a Good Thing in a quite unquestioned way, it leaves government at all levels to ignore, or just not bother, with community engagement as “it’s ok, we’re developing positive outcomes”. I found it very telling that a search for new research on community engagement and empowerment on the Improvement Service (for local government in Scotland) website I did yesterday found results on statistics for single outcome agreements, stuff focused on customer service, and reports from prior to 2006.

If we want to engage people with local service provision then it has to be focused on things that really matter to them. And with that we have to accept that this engagement will be tense, shouty, unpleasant and deeply political, because these things do matter to people so they get emotional about them (something else I want to write/research about). Local democracy can’t be about cuddly consensus and is about making hard choices about who gets what and what the justification for that is.

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