Evaluate a selected example of research from public policy or public management

For this assignment, I have chosen the research piece Shaping our lives – from outset to outcomeI (published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which looks at service users views of the social care services that they receive. The research project was carried out from 1999 to 2002, and was developed from an earlier Shaping our Lives project (carried out from 1996 to 1998). The project aimed to explore and examine people’s views on the social care services they receive based on the findings from the first phase of the Shaping our Lives research. The six key findings from the 1996-1998 phase of the research were:

* Value of outcomes;

* Difficulty in identifying outcomes;

* Outcomes for users of direct payments;

* Negative outcomes;

* Outcomes and process;

* A holistic approach (users have needs that go beyond social care services).

The main aim of the second phase of research was to explore and interpret these original findings in further detail using a variety of user groups across the country. The Shaping our Lives project worked in partnership with five user groups, while being primarily funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. These were Shaping our Lives National User Group, Black User Group (West London), Ethnic Disabled Group Emerged (Manchester), Footprints and Waltham Forest Black Mental Health Service User Group (North London), and Service Users’ Action Forum (Wakefield).

With the exception of the Shaping our Lives National User Group, which were labeled as development areas for the purpose of the project. At the end of the project in 2002, the Department of Health granted Shaping our Lives funding for three years to establish a national network of service users’ organisations. Thus, to further research in this area. In total, sixty-six users were involved in the research project.

During the Shaping our Lives project, researchers identified three key stages. These were:

* The joining-up of user-defined outcomes;

* Working with and supporting user groups across the four development areas;

* Key themes and learning would be shared across the four development areas.

The Shaping our Lives project mainly used observations and interviews (its researchers where significantly involved with the subjects) instead of using statistical information. This mode of research technique is habitually identified as ethnography or participant observation. Bryman (2001) comments that this is frequently becoming known as longitudinal. Bryman argues that the reason for this is that during qualitative (in particular during the ethnographic technique) research, over a period of time, the researcher seeks to map a process or change – hence the term longitudinal. Within these techniques, the social researcher is immersed with the subjects in order to observe more closely.

Such techniques were widely used by Gans (1962) and Whyte (1955) in various research pieces concerning social structures and development. Therefore, the researchers were interested in using observations to generate theories while at the same time seeking to interpret ideas and opinions in order to understand and form findings surrounding user-defined outcomes. Thus, the project is a qualative research piece rather than being quantitative. If we look at the theory behind this research project, we can see more elements of this being a qualative research project. Elements of phenomenologyII are present within the project itself as the researchers recognise that their findings have many interpretations depending upon the persons own views, opinions and status in society. In essence, the Shaping our Lives project “focus’ on meaning given to events by those involved.”III

Furthermore, if we look at the reasoning behind the research itself we can see more links to the qualative form of research. The project seeks to explore ideas and findings rather than explain them. Since this piece of research stems from an earlier Shaping our Lives project carried out from 1996 to 1998, it suggests that the researchers are interested in stating findings based on initial observations (etc.), and then to carry out further observations to investigate the original findings.

The Shaping our Lives researchers were continually comparing and contrasting initial conclusions against further observations, they refined their findings or key concepts as the research project evolved. This form of reasoning is frequently acknowledged as induction. Since researchers continually review findings by further observations, the Shaping our Lives project was a process and not an event in terms of time spent actually ‘researching’. The continuous review of findings enabled the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (among other organisations) to establish separate research projects on specific findings (for example, around direct payments to social care service users). Therefore, there is “the development of a sense of process”IV

From examining the project, the researchers chose a wide stratified random sample. This form of sampling allows researchers the ability to sample separately within particular groups, therefore ensuring that those who interest the researcher are involved.Not everyone who uses social care services was included in the project. However, the researchers chose user groups from across England in order to give a wide geographical spread of subjects. They also chose various ‘specialist’ user groups in order to sample people from all sections of the population (for example, the Ethnic Disabled Group Emerged in Manchester). Overall, “they [the research subjects] ‘are known to have been involved in a particular situation’ (Merton et al. 1956: 3)”V, and that is why they have been chosen in the research sample.

The way in which the Shaping our Lives research project was carried out was by using user (or focus) groups. Bryman (2001) argues that a focus group us similar to a group interview with some structured questions or discussion. Bryman goes on to argue that a focus group should have “…several participants … [with] an emphasis in the questioning on a … defined topic …”VI Examples of focus groups in social research can be found in the writings of Lupton (1996), Kitzinger (1993, 1994), and Livingston and Lunt (1994). Nonetheless, on the other hand it can be argued that the Shaping our Lives project is also an example of a case study. A case study is where the researcher is wholly interested in the exploration of a single case that all subjects have been involved in, in some way by extensive examination.

The Shaping our Lives project is similar to what Waddington researched in 1994 when he studies (by using participant observation) a strike at Ansells Brewery in Birmingham during the 1980sVII.

LeCompte and Goetz (1982)VIII may argue that findings from qualative research cannot be generialised and that it may not be replicated. However, Mason (1994)IX “argues that reliability, validity, and generalisability”X are separate and individual factors within qualative research and will therefore differ for each research project.

If we look at the Shaping our Lives project, the research itself can be replicated. Researchers can, over time, return to the user groups studied in order to repeat the observations so that they can review and test earlier findings surrounding user-defined outcomes. Within the concept of qualative research, this is known as external reliability. Further examination of the project, it becomes apparent that the findings themselves can be generialised across the whole spectrum of social care services. This is known and external validity.

One main critique of the Shaping our Lives project (and more widely of qualative research) is the lack of structure within the actual research in comparison to quantitative research techniques. Throughout the Shaping our Lives project, the social researchers where, to a degree, highly dependent upon the subjects themselves to actually ‘discuss’ user-defined outcomes. In comparison to quantitative research techniques, those used in the Shaping our Lives project could not fully control all the variables that presented themselves during the period of research.

However, this lack of structure should not be frowned upon as it presents the choice of flexibility. Flexibility allows the researcher to change momentum (which quantitative research rarely allows us to do). For example, during a user group meeting the subjects mat digress onto another topic with is related to (and of interest to the researcher) user-defined outcomes. The researcher may (due to the techniques in use being flexible) steer the group into discussing this further in order to (in the end) present a wider range of research findings – some of which may lead onto new research projects.

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