Let’s talk about methodology

“Let’s talk about methodology” – this rhetorical flourish could be the sub-title of the ALARA conference I’m designing with Susie Goff of CultureShift.

Let’s talk about methodology. As we dive into the exciting business of designing responses to social problems, let’s talk about methodology, so that we can dive deeper and wider and with more curiosity. Before we commit to the hard slog of actually implementing what we design, with its burden of project management , let’s talk about methodology.

The conversation about methodology is high value at the innovating edges of any domain. In the loose network of policy makers, and in the milling market place of policy developers, talking about methodology is gold. Create the space for critical reflection on methodology, and hold it, and you generate designs that actually get into implementation, and that work.

Talk methodology at the start of projects and you have a good chance of sidestepping knee-jerk responses. You’ll get into much more interesting territory. And you’ll meet a lot of interesting people, on their own terms (here, kudos to Kate Auty).

This will all play out in our timetable for the conference, of which more soon. In the meantime, the invitation to the ALARA conference, August 2014, is an invitation to consider methodology for three days. This invitation goes out to policy developers, to those who design and facilitate participatory inquiry – action reseachers, facilitators of action learning, and on and on out to our qualitative research cousins – and to those peoples taking charge of their collective life.

We lean toward policy research and development, and program design, as  collective self-determination, not just inquiry or rational fitting of means to ends.  We are for agency, and recovery of agency is a recovery of community: the two intertwine.

Grab the opportunity to talk about governance

After two workshops with the Governance Project, we have agreed on 5 systems that need to be improved. We’re out recruiting more participants, and Peter Greig, President of Upper Barwon Landcare Network and one of the Project design team, suggested that we might need to offer some assurance that talking about governance can lead to landscape change. He pointed out that “landcare participants want action first, and talking second, and only if it leads to action.”

A preference for action and suspicion of “too much talk” is strong in landcare, as it is in other community-based groups. Landcare members have wasted much time talking in official venues about what ought to happen, and not seeing any result. They are justifiably cautious when invited to step up and talk (yet again) about stuff (like governance) that needs to be improved. Will talking make any difference?

People in landcare are not anti-talk, or anti-intellectual. They love to talk, and their talk is rich in story, in contestation, and in fine distinctions about what makes a difference. Talk is the juice of the landcare community. But as people living in and working with the land, they also know that action has to be taken. There are cows to be milked daily, feed to be sorted, spraying to be looked to at the right point in the season, paperwork to be done, a multi-stranded and shifting field of activities to be managed, whether your land is 1000 or 100 or 2.5 hectares. If a reasonable amount of talking doesn’t point the way to a course of action, then why waste energy on it? There are simply too many other vital things to be getting on with.

Digging out examples of change in governance changing landscapes is a good idea, but people interested in being constructively critical about governance will grab the opportunity for a vigorous conversation with others who want to improve governance. Once you’ve been through a couple of cycles of “bold new approaches”, you understand how deeply persistent assumptions and established arrangements undermine improvement in governance. You don’t need evidence of better landscapes or even better governance to get started talking. You start to look out for people to talk to.

What do they look like, these people who want to improve governance? Last Friday, I spoke with two of them. First, with Jane Ryan, in DEPI Regional Services, who is negotiating a planning process (and actual plans) for pieces of Victoria’s coast. She’s working with members of Coastal Boards, a small staff team and a host of stakeholders crying out for commitments on the use of coastal environments. She’s savvy and streetwise in NRM-inflected planning, and she’s really got her work cut out for her with this new task. We had a good discussion about how she’s bringing together the various people who can contribute to the design.

Then Moragh Mackay and I sat down with Mark Eigenraam, DEPI. One of Mark’s passions is measuring outcomes in NRM, and MM met him when the (former) ecoMarkets team came in as a partner in the Westernport Targeted Land Stewardship Project around 2009. We were there to tell him about the Governance Project and about one issue in particular, that of creating a better system to measure outcomes. We thought he’d be interested: he was, but we talked about much more besides.

We talked about the way big ‘P’ policy issues (clean water, healthy soil) get lost as planning moves to the little ‘p’ policy work of constructing or assessing options and setting up programs. We talked about the silos in little ‘p’ policy development that stop people seeing how the big ‘P’ matters are woven together in the actual landscape, and howplanners with a strong commitment to one aspect of landcapes, biodiversity for example, can end up planning as if the landscape didn’t have anything else in it, like people. We talked about the peopled landscape as the one that landcare groups and networks work in.

In these conversations, there was never any doubt that talking about governance was necessary and useful – that we need ways to set goals and priorities that take account of differing stakeholders, that we need policy that integrates with action on the ground as informed by it, not wilfully ignorant of it, that we need planning in government that integrates with planning in communities.

But these are people who work in the governance system, who feel its effects each day on themselves personally and on the effectiveness of work areas around them. What about people in landcare, who don’t live and breath governance? What leads them to see governance as something that needs to and can be redesigned. Perhaps there are two transition points.  The first is seeing the rhetoric of new policies in NRM end up with the same practice, even when well-intentioned people and thoughtful people are enacting the new rhetoric. The rhetoric-practice gap shows not that they are duplicitous, but that there are other and stronger forces at work than good intentions, keeping ineffective ways of governing in place.

The second is having a local initiative syymied by the command-and-control paradigm. That either makes you want to give up, fight the bastards, or reinvent the system in which we all operate. Fighting is tiring; redesign with others who see the need for change is demanding but more sustainable.  Once you reach that point, then you start look around for people who have reached the same point – and set yourself up for deeper, more demanding and more satisfying conversations than the shallow and debilitating litany of complaint that landcarers can get sucked into.

So yes, there are case studies of shifts in governance that have led to better management of landscapes, and those can inspire and inform your own inquiry into governance. But if you need that evidence before you start talking about governance in NRM, then your missing out on a grand conversation.

I love Sandy Creek

How many Sandy Creeks are there in Australia? Too many to count, but I love the Sandy Creek at the bottom of my 5 acre property in Riddells Creek at the edge of the Macedon Ranges. Armed with absolutely no experience and the most basic equipment, I went down to the creek to capture the feeling of being there, and made a short video. See it at http://vimeo.com/70311691

I sent this link to the General Manager of Waterways at Melbourne Water, who kindly referreed me on to Kylie from Communications. I raised a few possibilities. The MW’s Stream Frontage Program gives people on waterways grants to employ contractors to spray weeds, cut down exotic trees, fence and replant, all things that will improve the health of the waterway. I wondered aloud if there might be other people like me interested in sharing why they love their creek, and what they are doing to look after it. Why not invite people to put up photos and video?

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This might be the genesis of a community of practice between people passionate about    their creeks, people currently separated by distance. We’re each in our valleys – perhaps we could leap over those distances, and start talking online, forming a platform of relationship from which we would support each other, inspire each other, and draw in MW’s technical expertise on questions we each have. Should I worry about this weed? Why has this replanting not done so well? How do I get rid of the rabbits?

My starting point is to invite people to say what they love about their creek. From working with landcare groups, and living here beside Sandy Creek, I’ve come to understand that love of place is the seed for responsible action, and leads us out to others, to share what we love, and get and give support.

So what’s happening at Melbourne Water. Kylie tells me the new website has blog capacity, and that the terms and conditions of use by staff and the public are currently being sorted out. We’ll see what eventuates.

The Governance Project

The Governance Project

With Moragh Mackay, whose PhD research focuses on natural resource management (NRM) governance, I am helping to design and facilitate a systemic inquiry supporting innovation in NRM governance in the Corangamite Region of Victoria. Backed by a consortium of Landcare Networks, the Governance Project has conducted two workshops, and plans two more. We define our scope as follows…

Why governance? Every biophysical problem is also a social situation; every environmental crisis is a challenge to improve governance—the way the political, social and economic sectors make decisions and take action for the common good. Governance operates from national down to regional, sub-regional and local level. Each level has its practices and knowledge base. But do accountabilities and relationships help or hinder the contribution of each level?

The assumption is: We can do it better. We can work together better, and gradually improve practices and structural arrangements in NRM to make better use of resources and capacities.

Why a systemic inquiry? The Governance Project is a space for the science and practice of change in social systems. Systems thinking is a way to make sense of what causes what, for what purpose. A systemic inquiry supports people in a system looking at what is happening, designing a better way to do things, and learning as they put that into practice.

The assumption is: First solutions often reproduce a problem. You won’t shift a pattern until you change the habits, assumptions and structural arrangements that hold the pattern in place. Real change requires digging down to challenge those forces.

Smart Water Fund

I’ve been engaged by John Saward, a drupal developer working with the Smart Water Fund, to research options for SWF’s Knowledge Hub and its joint venture partners, the water utilities of Victoria.

The first generation Knowledge Hub makes research commissioned by SWF available to water utilities, the water industry and the general public. Water utility users want a stronger focus on
research that meets their needs, and an easier way to search for information on innovation. What else they might want
and how best to meet their needs, is the focus of this research. Framed as a question: What web-based facilities will best support innovation by water utilities?

My job is to find out how people in water utilities currently search for and test out new ideas that might support innovation in their area of responsibility, and to facilitate discussion on how some kind of web facility can support this. John Saward is proposing a process of agile development, where development proceeds in small steps, with testing for use as facilities come on-line.  I am facilitating the process of research in the midst of action that will inform that agile development.

We worked with staff from utilities this week, people who sit at the interface between staff (and potential innovators), and research (and researchers). We asked them how people currently search for ideas when they see a need for a change in what things and how are done (innovation rather than just efficiencies). Their answer was this:

If you want to find new ideas, solid research and good people in a field, then a) consult your own network first, or b) talk with someone who has good networks in the area in which
you are interested.  Best of all, c) find someone with good networks who is a generous networker, and they’ll tell you not just who to contact and where to search, but also why that person and that resource is useful.  If you get really lucky d) they might introduce you.  So e) put time into building your own networks, so that when you have a need for connections to people and resources, you’ve got a broad palette to choose from, and people who know you and are willing to help you.

This reminded me of a study of high performing researchers at Bell in the USE, where the principal finding was that these people invested time in prompt responses to others researchers’ inquiries so that when they in turn had a need to ask for help, they had plenty of brownie points. Norms of reciprocity meant these researchers got much faster replies than average researchers, allowing them to drive their own research faster.

It also brought back an old project, “Working the Networks”, which used action learning to develop networking and network building skills amongst extension staff, 1999-2001, AgWA. Same skills. Strangely, I recently had an email via LinkedIn from one of the project managers of that work, who gave me some feedback on that job:

I am still in awe of the work you did on active networking. The pity is that there are probably only two or three people that really appreciated the rigour of the work and its relevance.” Nice to hear that!

Critique as a challenge to what is

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault developed “a history not of the prison as an institution, but of the practice of imprisonment”. Those working in the prison system who read his critique found themselves with no possible room for initiative; it looked as if they were totally locked into a system where they had little influence. Asked to comment, Foucault said …

“… it seems to me that ‘what is to be done’ ought not to be determined from above by reformers, be they prophetic or legislative, but by a long work of comings and goings, of exchanges, reflections, trials, different analyses. If the social workers you are talking about don’t know which way to turn, this just goes to show that they’re looking, and hence are not anaesthetised  or sterilised at all — on the contrary.

“The necessity of reform mustn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce or halt the exercise of criticism.  …. critique doesn’t have to be the premise of a deduction which concludes: this then is what needs to be done. It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in programming. It is a challenge directed to what is.”

Foucault, Michel. 1991. Politics and the study of discourse.

In The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality,

edited by G. Burchell, C. Gordon and P. Miller. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.