Saturday, 21 January 2012

32. Proper Methodology

If you follow me on twitter you might have heard me moaning about people who use the word methodology when what they really mean is method.  You probably think this is just some grumpy middle aged bloke being pedantic and, well, you are probably right.

Anyhow, I do wonder whether 'proper' methodology has something to offer for council decision making.  Before I explain what that might be, here is my go at defining methodology - forgive me if you already know this stuff - you can skip to the last bit. 

Methodology in Research

In broad terms methodology refers to the consideration of methods (survey, focus group, participant observation etc etc) and is a word normally found in the context of research.  Specifically it tends to refer to a discussion of why certain methods were chosen over others. If you have ever produced a dissertation for a course you will probably have written a methodology section (you know, that bit about quantitative and qualitative methods – you probably wrote it last).

A methodological discussion in the context of research would normally include:
  • The aim / purpose of the research
  • Your philosophical assumptions – such as how you view the nature of reality (ontology), how you think things can be known (epistemology
  • The different methods available
  • The resources available to undertake the research and any other practical limitations
  • Ethical considerations – if your research involves children, for example.
  • The characteristics of the group, people or things being researched –researching an elite is different to researching the public for example
Having taken all these factors into account the researcher can then justify the choice of research method and how set out how the research will proceed.  A clearly stated methodology provides transparency and supports rigour.  By setting out your choices it is possible for others to challenge poor decisions and see if your reasoning is consistent.  This point about consistency is why it is important to set out your philosophical assumptions even if these things may seem ‘academic’ and are ultimately difficult to prove one way or the other. 

A Proper Public Service Methodology

Boiling it right down, methodology is simply an aspect of decision making and this is why I think it can be applied in the public sector which is, after all, constantly considering methods.  If you think about it, many of the questions that go to local government cabinet and council meetings are about choosing methods e.g. ‘which method should we use to deliver this service?’ or ‘which method should we use to achieve this policy aim?’.

Why not include a methodology section, similar to that used for research, in every report that considers this type of question?

I am not suggesting that every council report should spell out the author’s philosophical assumptions (although, why not!) but, while many factors are explained (aims, needs etc), there are some important assumptions that inform decision making that often go unstated such as:
  • Assumptions about human nature and how people will behave
  • Assumptions about what people want
  • Assumptions about staff behaviours, capabilities etc
  • Ethical assumptions
Exactly how this might happen in practice might need some further working out but I hope you get the gist.

Let me give the example of sickness absence policy to show what I mean.

Essentially there are two views of human nature / behaviour that can underpin this policy each having very different implications for the methods that get used.  One is to assume that people want take advantage of the organisation and ‘pull a sickie’ given the opportunity.  This assumption lead to policies such as increased monitoring by managers and use of disciplinary procedures.  The alternative is to assume that sickness is genuine and that employees want to be in work.  This assumption leads to investment in occupational therapy, stress counselling and the like.  A third option is to assume that both types of behaviours exist and this implies that both strategies need to be used but is this really possible?  Does one set of strategies cancel out the benefits of the other?  To be honest I don’t know but if these assumptions were set out clearly then the implications could be tested and debated.  

So, by introducing proper methodology into council decision making we should get a more transparent, rigorous and ultimately effective process.

It's the democratic equivilent of showing the working out.

And, if I have used the term methodology incorrectly – please feel free to tweet me :)

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