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Public Administration Review, published by Wiley-Blackwell on behalf of the American Society for Public Administration.

The third and final installment of the first phase of the co-production research that I have undertaken with Kevin Orr, professor of public management at Hull University Business School.

This article was published in Public Administration Review, an American journal, that holds the highest ranking of any public management journal.

We reproduce the final paragraphs below. For those wanting to download the full article it is HERE (Public Administration Scholarship and the Politics of Coproducing Academic–Practitioner Research, Orr & Bennett, July/Aug. 2012, Volume 72, Number 4).

Conclusion: Reflecting on the Politics and Practice of Coproduction in Public Administration Research In this article, we engage with widespread calls to foster a reconnection between academics and practitioners in public administration scholarship. Situating the current interest in academic–practitioner research collaboration within a historical context enables us to highlight that the continuing development of public administration scholarship is part of a long-standing, highly contested, and fluid de- bate about the values and purpose of research, the roles and responsibilities of academics, the expectations of practitioners on the academy, and the basis of academic–practitioner relations. We use Raadschelders’s traditions to illuminate the lines of these debates. Our second contribution is to offer insights about the practical and political dynamics of joint research by reflecting on our experience of coproducing research. Turning the lens on our- selves as participants in a collaborative project allows us to highlight the interplay of our own conduct and context—how we negotiate the interacting traditions of scholarship and research practice and the norms and demands of our professions. Through the reflective vignettes, we illustrate that the dilemmas and choices we face are intertwined with the way in which wider traditions, expectations, and imperatives play out in our sectors. Thus, our article provides a macro analysis combined with attention to situated research prac- tices, highlighting the many connected layers of politics. We hope that this exercise contributes an initiating framework for others to consider the politics of their collaborative practices. Joint projects may mark a return to some of the roots of public administration scholarship, but they also present a set of ongoing challenges. For their advocates, they promise a way forward for integrating theory and practice and contributing knowledge for the benefit of both academics and practitioners. Coproduction may confer practical benefits, including access to elites and other worlds and the capacity to build trust quickly, the better to surface stories, experiences, and insights into practice. Coproduction may also offer the potential to draw practitioners closer to the benefits of academic inquiry and perhaps may enable academics to inquire about the worlds of practice in less condescending ways. However, we have emphasized the ways in which such research takes place within a political environment, requiring the continual negotiation of different interests, including those of the members of the team, the communities to which they belong, and the structural imperatives at the inter- section of universities and the public sector. All research is purposeful and involves people who owe allegiances to others, but coproduction appears to give rise to distinctive expressions of these dynamics. Though it is tempting to sweep tensions and dilemmas under the carpet lest they get in the way of a movement toward greater connectedness, paying attention to these dynamics is worthwhile, as it can contribute to a richer set of understandings of the context of joint endeavors and the roles, relations, and stakes involved.

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The full article is HERE (Public Administration Scholarship and the Politics of Coproducing Academic–Practitioner Research, Orr & Bennett, July/Aug. 2012, Volume 72, Number 4).

This article was first published yesterday on the Guardian’s Higher Education Network.

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“Let’s get together, yeah yeah yeah. Why don’t you and I combine? Let’s get together, what do you say? We can have a swinging time. We’d be a crazy team. Why don’t we make a scene? Together.”

Hayley Mills didn’t have research in mind when singing this duet in The Parent Trap, but the lyrics echo a longstanding goal of social science research – that of co-production, in other words bridging the gap or fostering greater connectedness between academics and practitioners.

Getting together to foster dialogues of theory and practice is frequently presented as one of the major tasks confronting academia: challenging researchers to translate their bright ideas into pay-offs for non-academic organisations. Such dialogue has been presented variously as a means of generating ‘impact’ or ‘relevance’ or of increasing levels of ‘knowledge utilisation.’

Joint projects promise the elusive goal of research which is simultaneously academically robust and useful to practitioners. ‘Co-pro’ also challenges the traditional customer-contractor convention in which practitioners commission research which is then conducted, packaged and delivered by academics.

In the last few years, as an academic at Hull University Business School, and practitioner leading a public sector professional association (a “pracademic” if you will), we have been working together to generate insight into how local government chief executives think about their leadership roles. This collaborative work has involved bridging across town and gown, academia and practice. We think it’s been worthwhile but we’ve also involved negotiating a number of tricky dilemmas.

All social science research has political dimensions. What we’ve been struck during our joint endeavours is that academic-practitioner research is infused with its own politics, important to appreciate, given the increasing interest in collaboration of this kind. By politics we mean questions about the purpose of scholarship, but also the tricky issues which arise in the accomplishment of research by two people who have, to a certain extent, distinctive interests, expectations and priorities.

One of the reasons why co-production has generated such interest is its promise to facilitate communication between academic and practitioner communities. However, one of the principal challenges facing participants is the distance between the academic and practitioner worlds.

For example, the local government chief executives we interviewed largely perceived academia as an insular profession, requiring modes of thought, analysis and language which are alien to practitioners’ day to day lives. Equally, we can call to mind innumerable examples of academics patronising practitioners. One professor we spoke to described practitioners, casually but with some confidence, as people who earned “elephant salaries” despite having done less well at school.

Co-production may confer practical benefits, including giving academics access to elites and other worlds, and the capacity to build trust quickly, helping to bring stories, experiences and insights into practice. It may also offer the potential to draw practitioners closer to the benefits of academic inquiry and engage with their context from a different perspective.

However, such research takes place within a political environment that requires continual negotiation of different interests, including those of the members of the team, the communities to which they belong, and the structural imperatives at the intersection of universities and, in our case, the public sector.

The dilemmas and choices we face are also intertwined with the way wider traditions, expectations and imperatives play out in our respective sectors. We don’t operate in isolation from career structures, performance management regimes, structures of reward and sanctions, and the expectations of employers and peers.

It is disingenuous to imply through the presentation of social science that research is a clean, objective process carried out by purists who stand above politics, and this picture is further complicated in joint projects, where participants are mindful of a complexity of interacting demands and interests.

It may be tempting to sweep these tensions and dilemmas under the carpet in case they get in the way of greater connectedness, but paying attention to these dynamics is worthwhile if it contributes to a richer understanding of getting together to form “a crazy team” – and the roles, relations and stakes involved.

We’d be interested to know how other experiences of co-production have played out, in particular how those involved have navigated institutional, sectoral and professional norms and interests.

Do academics engaged in this mode ever feel that their licence to ask critical questions or produce awkward findings is constrained? How have practitioners or pracademics experienced the process? What have they gained and what’s been difficult? Have others experienced negative stereotyping of academics and practitioners and with what impact on research practices? We welcome your thoughts below.

Kevin Orr is professor of public sector management at Hull University Business School. Mike Bennett is director of Public Intelligence and a former co-managing director of SOLACE – follow him on Twitter @bennettmike

Over the next few months I will be posting some extracts from, or links to, a number of new articles and a book chapter that my friend and colleague Kevin Orr and I have co-authored. Kevin and I used to work together at the Scottish Local Authorities Management Centre at the University of Strathclyde. He is now professor of public sector management at Hull Business School and founder and co-director of the Centre for Organisational Futures. In recent years we have been working together on various research projects and also writing on the politics of co-production in research. The articles on the politics have been the more recent part of our work and will be posted as they are published. The first in this series is based on an article that was included in a joint Improvement and Development Agency/Local Government Leadership Centre publication, entitled Local Government Leadership: Creating Political Value. Originally published in 2008, the piece is a resumé of our research findings into leadership and storytelling among local government chief executives.

This essay outlines some of our headline findings and argues that storytelling should be recognised as central to the ways in which local authority chief executives act as leaders. We confined our findings to three main areas: The ways in which chief executives use stories to:

  • persuade and to construct meaning for others;
  • establish credentials and join the group;
  • build relationships and learn from others in the group.

Storytelling, 장승업 (張承業 1843~1897), Jang Seungeop, or Owon (Jang’s pen name)

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Connoisseurs of complexity: Leadership and storytelling, by Mike Bennett and Kevin Orr (2008)

Science, once the great explicator, garbles life with complexity and perplexity. Who can listen without cynicism to economists, sociologists, politicians? Religion, for many, has become an empty ritual that masks hypocrisy. As our faith in traditional ideologies diminishes we turn to the source we still believe in: the art of the story.” Robert McKee, screenwriter

Storytelling is not one of the classic features of managerial leadership in local government, yet it will soon form part of a new orthodoxy. As the quote above from Robert McKee, the screenwriter’s screenwriter, suggests, while many traditional forms of authority are declining, the story retains its power. Managing a local authority is a messy business. Robert Chia talks of the ‘blooming buzzing confusion’ of managerial life but in local authorities this is conducted in direct political glare. In the centre of this heat, noise and motion council chiefs are expected to plan services and ration resources, implement policy and manage performance. One way that they do so is by telling stories.

Over the last year we have spoken to wide range of chief executives and senior managers about the role of storytelling in their day to day activities. We found that storytelling forms an important part of the way in which they lead, learn, persuade, establish credibility, network and form relationships. Yet while political organisations have always been a rich fund of colourful stories (who’s up, who’s down, who’s in and who’s out) and powerful visions (I have a dream …) this is excluded from the traditional account of managerial leadership. Our research highlights the distinctive ways in which storytelling serves strategic purposes for chief executives’ leadership behaviour. This short article outlines some of our headline findings and argues that storytelling should be recognised as central to the ways in which local authority chief executives act as leaders. We confine our findings to three main areas: The ways in which chief executives use stories to:

  • persuade and to construct meaning for others;
  • establish credentials and join the group;
  • build relationships and learn from others in the group.

Leadership and persuasion

Leaders are sometimes described as those who can make sense of complexity for others. A powerful means of achieving this goal is through a story that changes the way that others understand their environment. Leaders often use stories to construct a narrative that draws out apparent contradictions and conflicts into an engaging sense of purpose. This art is widely recognised in the world of politics where stories are aimed at changing the state of mind of voters. As the Democrat political psychologist Drew Westen writes, political parties’ big picture narratives must be “clear, coherent, and emotionally alive” to define “the overarching message of its framers, its leaders, and those who identify with it” (p151). In politics, he argues because it is positive emotions that motivate “voters to rally to the polls” (p310) that “successful campaigns compete in a marketplace of emotions and not primarily in the marketplace of ideas” (p305). This point is supported by Republican strategist Frank Luntz when he argues that “words not only explain but also motivate … They trigger emotion as well as understanding” (xiv).

Some of our chief executives described this to us in terms of trying to win the heart as well as the head. They identified that the social roles – better local environments, better health outcomes, improved life opportunities – played by councils give them more opportunity to create powerful or emotive images and ideas than their private sector counterparts. However, they also expressed a sense that this cuts against the grain of some local government traditions. Local authorities are complex organisations founded on principles of corporate governance which enshrine the importance of reason, rules and regulations – and of hard facts, based on evidence. Effective organisation and good governance promise to create order in a chaotic world and make the job of serving the competing publics manageable. Bureaucracy’s potential to produce fairness and equity means that it remains the dominant organisational form, but it is also one which generates jargon and darkness – languages and methods of communication which are exclusive and fragmenting, deadening rather than enlivening and muddy rather than transparent. The chief executives we spoke to stressed the power of stories to articulate purpose, or social mission, in ways which can resonate across different professional or technical groups. Stories transcend the traditional communication methods of council papers laden with facts and figures. As one of our interviewees told us “it’s difficult because our profession, you know, says that professionalism requires one to be detached and factual and rational and all those things … but in reality to lead a group of people and get them engaged in something, you need to be a bit more than that.”

A dual challenge for chief executives becomes how to interpret a bewildering world for an organisational constituency that is itself characterised by enormous complexity. Storytelling is, therefore, one way in which chief executives make sense of their complex and often contradictory environments for staff, partners and for the wider community. As Barry Quirk has posed it, how do you turn a mass of critical people into a critical mass of people? Stories allow leaders to create a narrative about the challenges the organisation is facing and what it needs to do to overcome them. As one interviewee said, “chief executives construct realities for other people and the way they marshal resources of information, of experiences from other places so they have a successful narrative for their management teams.”

As this suggests, stories are not morally neutral and can spring from different motives. A number of chiefs we spoke to raised an ethical concern about the ways that stories can be used to manipulate audiences. Stories can operate in a grey area between the desire to show leadership and the temptation to manufacture consent. As with other forms of managerial authority its use requires an ethical mindset.

A different image for the managerial leader therefore emerges. Rather than heroic decision-maker in full control of the levers of power in their organisation, a picture emerges of the need to be a “connoisseur of complexity and paradoxes” (Czarniawska-Joerges and de Monthoux, p13), who is able to read and operate in a dynamic inter-organisational, social and political context.

Establishing credentials

Anyone who has been to a SOLACE conference will have observed chief executives telling stories to each other as a means of establishing their credentials and building relationships. Occasionally this will even happen over a drink at the conference bar.

Chief executives in local government come from many different backgrounds and, in a UK context, rarely meet outside of their local or personal networks. We found that stories play a role in enabling chief executives to communicate directly about issues of common interest. Stories can be seen as capital to trade by way of displaying competency and experience; establishing licence to practice. Chief executives we spoke to volunteered examples which often contained the added frisson of competition. One chief described the practice as follows:

A little bit of preening, a little bit of one-upmanship, a little bit of establishing your credentials, a little bit of the unspoken ‘I’m fit to be in this company because I’ve also got a story I can trade.’”

Like most people in work, chief executives also trade stories about the people they work for. As one chief executive told us, “if you tell a Councillor Bloggs story when you’re sitting at the SOLACE conference you can bet somebody is going to try and trump it! Because their Councillor Bloggs is more of a lunatic than your Councillor Bloggs for sure! I mean the tale will get told in the best way but what we’re doing when we do that is we’re either letting off steam or we’re just trying to demonstrate that, you know, I’ve got a hard job back at the office because I’ve got these characters to live with just as much as you do.”

A former chief offered this interpretation: “These things often have mixed motives … it is a bit of a display, you have to hold your own, and if you’re in a peer group and you’re not talking about your situation in ways which are interesting and indicate you’re at the cutting edge, you know, people sort of … it’s a dramaturgical kind of situation and you either have to be in crisis or you have to be fighting the enemy or you have to be doing interesting things.”

Focusing on stories highlights the performative aspects of chief executives networking behaviour, and can give glimpses of the sociological dynamics of these groups. We found that stories offered a compelling way for chief executives to project and to reflect upon issues of common professional concern. Stories provide a means to access collective experience and to establish their right to group membership.

Storytelling and learning

It would be misleading, however, to suggest that chief executives peer to peer behaviour is simply competitive. Anyone who has been to a SOLACE conference will have observed chief executives telling stories to each other as a means of learning, support and mutual reassurance. Occasionally this too might happen over a drink at the conference bar…

Stories enable busy people to cut to the chase, to share common issues and to both learn and gain reassurance. This process is important both for highly experienced chief executives and for those still finding their feet. “I remember, I think it was just before I became a chief executive hearing from a well known figure about one thing in particular he’d done, and I did it when I took the new job… and it bought me months of credit. It wouldn’t have worked if he had just expressed it conceptually, rather than as a story… it wouldn’t have stuck, or had an impact.” Stories, therefore, play an important part in ‘becoming’ a manager.

Exchanging stories is also an informal – if routine – means of sense-checking their experience against others. Stories provide resources for reflection. “When you share tales the biggest thing I notice is how recognisable the things that are troubling me are vis a vis the things that are troubling other people. I mean if I ever went to a conference and came away feeling they’re all talking about something completely different from me, I mean, then I’d start to worry. And that’s quite important because where else do you get that point of reference?”

Chief executives often speak about the isolation that they experience in their roles. It is among peers that they experience a safe environment in which they no longer feel the need to show leadership that they can expose cock ups, near misses and darkest fears. Stories also enable them to experience the intimacy they need from peers while expressing the distance they feel from others not in that group.

As one county chief said “you’re not in competition, not directly anyway with those people and you’re not seen as being responsible for them or leading them. It’s a much more relaxed dynamic”

Conclusion

The role of chief executive is a purposeful one and the stories they tell are expressions of purpose. Storytelling emerges as a well established culture within this context, but one that cuts against orthodox accounts of managerial and professional traditions in local government. It also suggests a different image of the chief executive. Stories reveal the human and emotional dynamics of leadership with effective chief executives acting as connoisseurs of context, not organisational engineers. Stories also offer resources for learning and reflection which can help leaders develop. Exchanging stories is part of how intimacy and closeness can develop between chiefs who can otherwise feel distant from others. Yet they can also be used in competitive ways, establishing pecking orders, acting as currency and to gain group membership. Our work suggests that while other forms of authority decline, the power of the story is alive.

Czarniawska-Joerges, B. & de Monthoux, P. G. (1994) Good novels and better management: reading organizational realities, Routledge, London

Luntz, F. (2007) Wordsthat work: it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear, Hyperion, New York

McKee, R. (1998) Story: substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting, Methuen, London

Westen, D. (2007) The political brain: the role of emotion in deciding the fate of the nation,Public Affairs, New York


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