Action Research: A Method Reconstructed
This is the next part of my action research project focusing in on the effects and practicalities of outcomes and measurements bureaucracies when they are implemented in care and support processes of people’s lives.
You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: Measurement and the Lifeworld’ by clicking HERE.
The previous section examined how suitable are measurements for people’s lives asking questions on how meaningful the numbers and rubrics which allocate numbers are. It raised the question of whether using simple number valuations to describe complex variables makes sense of people’s experience and identified participatory action research as a methodology used to describe the methodology underlying the outcomes star bureaucracies. This ultimately gave rise to abandoning the metric in favour for a real participatory action research process which you are reading.
This section of the study examines the theoretical frameworks which the authors of the outcomes star bureaucracies use to portray the values at work. We well be retracing the steps of participatory action research and existential phenomenology; looking a bit at the compulsive culture of measurement and identifying some of the influences which have brought us to where we are today; we will be thinking through the process of observation and reality checking and opening out the conversation of what constitute suitable tools for documenting experience.
Potted Historical View: Retracing Our Steps
Everything comes with a story and the stories we are told influence our motivations. Paperworks commonly come with aspirational statements of efficiency, performance and deeper connections with the subjects of the paperwork. Technologies are sold to us by the promises of virtues and so we see incorporated into the ‘sales pitches’ the many and various political myths – that is, the ideological narratives that are believed by social groups which help people buy in.
Many of the latest ‘revolutions’ are based on silicon technologies. Computers are hailed as the great levelers which will make everyone’s lives easier whilst serving the people more accurately and speedily. These machines have embodied the service sector of tomorrow ripened by the powerful investments from silicon valley and other hotbed places of capital investment. Computers are simply machine stored bureaucracies in many situations.
We follow the dizzying spell of the ‘digital by default’ paradigm being rolled out over benefits in the UK. In short all applications will be made via computer systems cutting the amount of human interaction from the administration of UK benefits. The damage this industry is causing – the instatement of computer systems is updating the problems of yesterday and today adding new levels of insolubility to contend with.
The determinisms which arise from prescriptive mediums of representation have the effect of delivering the outcomes which are desirable for those who are instituting the systems. This is in contrast to the systems serving the population which should be served in principle. Looking back at the origins of the idea of measurement we can look to the development of knowledge and it is this which has earned the reputation which supports many useless as well as useful practices.
It might be argued that through championing of empiricism and observation Francis Bacon encouraged the kind of accounting procedures we see today for activity in civic life. A proponent of looking at first principles and reasoning to formulate a true picture of the world rather than the world as we would like to see it, he spoke also about the idols of knowledge which lead us astray from true apprehension of things how they are.
Samuel Pepys is another person who played a part in the development of measuring and accounting procedures. This man was the great organiser of the British Navy developing significant auditing and accounting procedures for which to attend to the logistics of the operations of the Navy. Here is someone who provided a milestone in measuring and bureaucratising which produced great efficiencies which were not being tapped before.
There are long traditions of taking stock and account of what is and what is not. The principles of organisation, analysis and discovery were hotly sought after because of the benefits which they conferred. These enabled levels of control from distances afforded the increasingly intricate coordination of peoples in complex activities. Science, commerce, networks and institutions flourished. Centuries later with the advent of the second world war, the Nazi’s in projecting their ideology made huge and outrageous truth claims.
As a philosophical reaction to the appropriation and manufacture of ‘fact’ and/or ‘history’ the Vienna Circle as a group of philosophers worked towards articulating fundamental characteristics of what constituted reliable knowledge. The use of truth claims proposed as rationales for ideological action had become a powerful tool in manipulating populations. People like Karl Popper, Rudolf Carnap and Otto Neurath tried to formulate critical principles which would help people distinguish truth from falsehood redressing some balance of power through philosophy.
The age of logical positivism was birthed in fire and surged forward on the bow wave of industrial production in which engineering and apparent precision had been extended through applied mathematics and logic. Mills, factories, laboratories, and production lines spewed forth increased outputs in a dream like state that had not even comprehended the limits of natural resources or taken consideration of the psychological and physical impacts of such endeavours. The attitudes of colonialism, now significantly into its transmogrification into commercialism, embraced the reframing of human beings with lives to a series of cost-benefit-time sheets.
As technology developed so the distance between the reality which was represented in the bureaucracy and the bureaucracy itself was increased. Things could increasingly be governed from a remote location and responsibilities to communities, villages, work forces became distant through the abstraction of drawing boards, plans and increased use of statistics.
The age of ‘scientific management’ had dawned as the rational way to organise large numbers of lives, and in all fairness, was indeed based on a lineage of advances in reason and collective capabilities, however many of the costs were unknown, unaccounted for, or ignored. The power which such knowledge and technologies had was intoxicating and led to many an abberation of reason where people with privilege concocted all sorts of complicated and obscure secular treatises that were to enable them to justify their actions.
Malthus, for example, founded mathematical rationales for reasoning famine and war as a laws of necessity arguing against poor laws and giving any help to those in need. The power of untempered abstraction.
[Malthus, T, (1820), An Essay on the Principle of Population; An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers]
Over time the application of factory logistics and tin pot science to human populations came about in everything from education to psychology to criminology and government. As Malinowski puts it in his anthropological studies “myth serves principally to establish a sociological charter, or a retrospective moral pattern of behaviour“, and scientific abstraction and the development of rationales through such means has become the means for modern myth making as charters for action…
When the limits of logical positivism started to become recognised, there were reactions to the over application of the methods derived from the physical sciences to those covered by humanities. Norbert Elias described ‘hierarchies of legitimacy’ reflecting caste systems in knowledge.
People like Paolo Friere developed critical pedagogies which took the view of those who were being oppressed by the hierarchies and social orders which pretended over them. Kurt Lewin and others started to conceive of a means of evaluating knowledge and value which accorded with the experience of people who lived the realities in question. Action research became discussed as a type of learning which removed the hierarchies that distorted the socially constructed realities.
[Bradbury, H., Mirvis, P., Neilsen, E., Pasmore W., (2014) Action Research at Work: Creating the Future Following the Path from Lewin , In Bradbury, H., & Reason, P. The Sage handbook of action research: Participative inquiry and practice, pp. 77]
Action research and participatory action research methodologies re-valued people through removing the differentials of power and status. People came to be understood as co-investigators of a phenomenon where all the differing perspectives had something to offer in reaching toward the apprehension of a reality.
This kind of development was particularly important in subject areas such as psychology in which the subjective experience was more obviously to be valued. Existential phenomenology was a part of this need to find better means of valuing the input of people who are the subject of study to construct deeper understandings that serve as the foundations to purposeful action.
Reading the theory which is cited behind the development of the outcomes star bureaucracies helped me learn about helpful methodologies and in turn apply the methodologies in analysing the outcomes star bureaucracy which was functioning in my life. I saw it as a good way to explore how remote the paperwork process had come about from the methodologies hailed as being at the heart of it – asking if they had become remote at all.
This kind of analysis has been especially important to me personally in my life as so many decisions have been made without taking into consideration my experience and opinion, or even worse, having my input discounted. This is especially so in the case of psychiatry and medicine which lack significant participation and interaction with the patient. Questioning the system which is allocating life changing decisions is not an option, in fact, it is by-and-large trained out of medical professionals with the view that capacity for understanding complex realities is lacking.
This results in means of organising around people lacking representation of the patient and systematically referring to the generalised codified practice. This is reminiscent of any given profession which impermeably demarcates expert from layperson. This involves a level of “dehumanized perception” that dementalizes the patient and represents ‘a failure to spontaneously consider the mind of another person’.
Now I extend that question beyond the medical realm to areas of care, governance and support examining whether I and others are viewed through dehumanized perception by proxy of bureaucratisation, whether I am dementalized in the administrative processes by virtue of not having my experience represented by the rubrics, and whether the measurements and regular giving of proofs, outputs and measurements are helping me survive in the society or if they are helping the organising structures justify their courses of action.
We Need To Have A Talk About Kelvin
“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”
Lord Kelvin William Thomson
The setting up of metrics – applied arithmetic ahead of all things I believe has had the effect of creating pseudo hierarchies of knowledge when we examine the conditions in which the metrics are derived. Many kinds of empiricism are so logistically confined which have become the language of the acting bureaucrat; the tools of empires and fiefdoms laid out on one pager briefs in which complex variables are expressed in simple numbers.
The attractiveness of the worship of such an idol is you will only ever see the world in its relations. Peoples lives are being fed through value added measures, tick box tyrannies and increasingly algorithms where there is no recourse to a human being and just oversight. Francis Bacon described various idols in his Novum Organon affecting us when we are apprehending the world:
“The Idols of the Tribe have their foundation in human nature itself, and in the tribe or race of men. For it is a false assertion that the sense of man is the measure of things. On the contrary, all perceptions as well of the sense as of the mind are according to the measure of the individual and not according to the measure of the universe. And the human understanding is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.”
— Novum Organum, Aphorism XLI
I mention all of this in regards to the power associated with the bureaucracy particularly so in the advance of the digital information age, the ‘digital-by-default’ age, the digital-haves and digital-have-nots age. The power of managerialism bureaucracy has imposed itself further into the lives of people with digital systems. The digital measure of wo(man) has suffered lossy compression from trying to squeeze it all in a box.
Ultimately what I am saying is that we need to have a talk on the kind of thinking that Kelvin has propagated because it is doing a lot of harm. Many people feel wedded to the idea that this kind of way of operating will prove to be good in the end…
The next part of my analysis of Outcomes Star bureaucracy continues after some more aphorisms from Novum Organon I found to meditate on:
“The human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds.”
Novum Organum, Aphorism XLV
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it.”
Novum Organum, Aphorism XLVI
“The human understanding is moved by those things most which strike and enter the mind simultaneously and suddenly, and so fill the imagination; and then it feigns and supposes all other things to be somehow, though it cannot see how, similar to those few things by which it is surrounded.”
Novum Organum, Aphorism XLVII
“The human understanding is of its own nature prone to abstractions and gives a substance and reality to things which are fleeting.”
Novum Organum, Aphorism LI
A Method Reconstructed
The process of developing each new Outcomes Star is similar and is purported to follow four key steps that Von Eckartsberg described. Here Von Eckartsberg describes the development of ‘life-text’ to build a human science:
“Like time itself, life is forever streaming on and changing. Fortunately, by way of articulation and reflection, we can preserve our experiaction as narrative, as ‘life-text’, and even submit it to rigorous and systematic investigation. While we live more than we can say, we can express more than we usually do if we make the effort, and nothing prevents us from describing our experiaction more carefully. With our ability to observe, remember, report, and reflect on both our own and others’ experience and action, we have a rich source of material from which to build a truly human science” 
The key steps in existential phenomenological research methodology are crystallised in the work of Alberto De Castro  and are cited to guide the process of creating an Outcomes Star:
(1) The formulation of the question in which the researcher delineates a focus of investigation
(2) The data gathering situation in which co-researchers give a description of their experience
(3) The data analysis in which the researcher reads the data given by the co-researchers and works to reveal the meaning of their experiences
(4) The presentation of findings where the researcher puts forward the research results in public
This document constitutes an ongoing Participatory Action Research project initiated by the authors’ own experiences with the Outcomes Star, bureaucracies and administrative systems from the client-side perspective. The intent here is to take the original and formative principles of the Outcomes Star and apply them to the extant bureaucracies.
On finding the practical realities stifling, this project was undertaken to document the experience, deconstruct the paperworks identifying the key ideas at work, critique the bureaucracy, reconstitute it using it’s own ideas and ‘re-propose’ it in a form which more effectively facilitates the support process and life change. What follows here is the reconstitution of the process of creating an Outcomes Star.
1: The Formulation of the Question
The key questions that must be addressed to develop a version of the Outcomes Star are:
A) What are the main areas in which services and service users are seeking to create change ?
B) What is the desired end point of the change process ?
C) What model of change describes the core steps that service users take on their journey towards the end point ?
In this paper we will be exploring these questions with a perspective of enacting the creative process of developing an outcomes system by following key axioms of the Outcomes Star generation protocols. Reconceptualisation of the outcomes paradigm seems an essential part of the Action Research methodology and systems development such as is found in British Standards Institute ISO 9001 Quality Management. Implicit in this perspective is that there are improvements which can be made and that the current paradigm of metrics and administration falls short of it’s ideals.
A: What are the Main Areas in which the services and service users are seeking to create change ?
This is a list of the outcome areas identified which become the points on the star in development. Each point must be coherent in itself and distinct from the others. It is suggested that it is important to limit the points to a manageable number, and that 10 is suggested as a maximum. This can be achieved by combining related points in a theme (e.g. physical health and self care). A process of grouping areas and writing descriptions of the differences can help clarify the distinctions or similarities which separate or combine areas into themes.
This document has been written to develop a novel ‘Outcomes Star’ methodology which includes its application to the services and systems within which the service users and the frontline workers operate. The methodologies of Action Research, Participatory Action Research are brought together with those of Institutional Ethnography and pedagogies which utilise existential phenomenology. Narrative discourse and discourse analysis play a role in this development.
B: What is the desired end point of the change process ?
In the Outcomes Stars this becomes the model of change which underpins all the scales which create the spines of the star. It must be expressed in a way that is general enough to apply to all service users and specific enough to be a meaningful expression for a particular user.
This document includes a discussion on a necessitated accompanying body of narrative research to bring concrete meaning to the process and administration of human beings’ lives otherwise it is at risk of banality and creating paperwork which holds no intrinsic value that can be fed forward. In meaning making terms this is imperative to client users; in academic terms it is vital for continuing knowledge building in the field; and in the service provider frame of reference it forms a critical foundation of material for future learning.
The ability to feed forward through documentary processes is an important part of a sustainable, accountable society as opposed to one which produces paperwork that – after the fact – tells very little of use about what was learned in the complex coproduced living action which happens in a support service. The work should be inherently multi-functional constantly adding value to each stakeholders lot.
This paper also questions the idea of the keys for the said scales and the practicality of using scales. The creation of a scale, and a key to the scale, is specific and too significant an amount of work. Standardizing is a questionable tactic here, particularly as there is a lack of representation in the bureaucracy. Standardizing and normalizing are convenient fictions (magical thinking ) for the administrator.
C: What model of change describes the core steps that service users take on the journey towards the end point ?
The model of change is described in a series of steps and it is suggested in Outcomes Star literature that there must be distinct qualitative differences between each step of the journey.
In this document it is queried how impasses are accommodated for, along with incorporating the unknowns which occur in the irregular pattern of life. How are differences in energy, time and effort related in these steps which idealise a ‘model of change’ ? If they are not depicted, there is a danger of deproportionising the journey and equating each ‘step’ as easy and available as the other. In the example to grow a tree to eat fruit from it: (‘get a seed, plant it, water it, nourish it, pick the fruit and eat it) we can find the obvious deficiencies in idealizing life tasks.
Where might we get a seed ? Is it fertile ? Is there ground to plant it ? Is it the right time of year ? Is there water available ? Is it clean water ? Is there permission to plan (i.e. on an allotment) ? The questions are innumerable without a specific context to work from. Without a specific context to work from, generating a critical path of steps towards a desired outcome is often an inconvenient fantasy to which people are misled. Thus only guides can be produced for skilled workers to apply in context with the client.
Beyond that, instituting a bureaucracy to define practice on the ground suffers from being an exercise in futility compared to less administrated approaches; in short, it works out to be a dead weight cost. SMART plan culture is only realistic to those who are in highly resourced, enfranchized positions; this managerial determinism is ludicrous for people who have their opportunities defined by the situational circumstance on a moment by moment basis. A result is that simple objectives are made complicated by the cultural trappings of an inappropriate starting point.
2: The Data Gathering Process
In the context of mental health, Anderson, Oades and Caputi used overviews of user accounts of recovery to inform the choice of outcome areas and put forward the validity of a model of change. “A review was conducted of published experiential accounts of recovery by people with schizophrenia or other serious mental illness, consumer articles on the concept of recovery, and qualitative research and theoretical literature on recovery.
Meanings of recovery used by consumers were sought to identify a definition of recovery. Common themes identified in this literature were used to construct a conceptual model reflecting the personal experiences of consumers….
A preliminary overview of this literature revealed that:
(i) There are different understandings of the meaning of recovery;
(ii) There are strong common themes among the consumer accounts of recovery; and
(iii) Recovery is a stage-based process.” 
The data to answer the methodological questions are gathered in various ways:
A) A review of literature of user accounts of change where available – it must be considered and opened out as to how these are collected; i.e. by written account, by audio file, by video. In practice many areas of support lack such accounts, but where they do exist, they are considered extremely useful. In an age of digital tools the traditional methods must be reviewed and updated to include entry of newer media which hold greater relevance to certain individuals.
Where a written report might be the traditional means of documentation, an updated approach where a digital document in the form of a blog constructed of audio and video files could be encouraged and considered valid. This is a type of narrative discourse ultimately and storytelling embodies a number of qualities which stimulate learning, growth, cooperation, collaboration, expression, confidence, ownership, and responsibility from the agency gained.
B) Interviews with workers and service users to draw out their subjective understanding of the change process from their point of view. Interviews done in the right way embody the qualities of Participatory Action Research, and unabridged, firsthand accounts embed authenticity into the process.
C) A workshop in which managers, frontline workers, and service users come together to discuss questions. Different techniques can be used to draw out people’s experience and reveal the implicit understandings they hold, for example: In engaging with a person who has undergone a substantial change, to identify the significant steps in the change it could be done in a workshop environment where social learning and empowerment can be a feature of the dynamic.
Giorgi expresses, as cited by Outcomes Star literature, the first step of the core of existential phenomenology is to take the affirmative unaltered expression of the co-researcher as the basis of the work.
Data gathering could involve use of metaphor and art to lend a sense of the whole situation-specific-context or essence(s) of change people undergo. Extending the forms of expression used in the data gathering process is a vital route to representing the authentic reality of the user.
Acceptance of artefacts and outputs are important both as signifiers of engagement but also of overt acknowledgement from the service provider, which is an essential condition for empowering the individual being supported.
Structured questioning exercises can help to identify the steps of change one by one. The aim here is to get at the experience of the individual and articulate the signs of change. With a skilled helper, this fits into the paradigm of Participatory Action Research and with creating safe spaces, stable situation and constructively challenging the person receiving support towards personal growth. The individual in the therapeutic role can act as a stimulus to the thinking through of the essential steps and barriers to health, happiness and autonomy in a dialogical space where the details can be negotiated and renegotiated.
Listening to the client is of paramount importance in achieving capture of data, as many people suffer from dyslexia, literacy problems and paperwork fatigue. It is then incumbent on the support worker to adapt to the circumstance and use the appropriate methods and tools to collect each unique story.
It is also vital that in this documentary process the systemic barriers and problems are included; even though it might be disruptive to the service and superstructures involved. Without this the whole purpose is fatally compromised as major factors in welfare are occluded from the guiding analysis of steps to improvement.
3: The Data Analysis Situation
The researchers (and the co-researchers in Participatory Action Research) write up all the material which has been gathered and review it, as best as possible, without preconceptions. The aim is to allow the meanings and common strands to coalesce without interference from constraints, predilections, professional, personal and/or institutional bias. Although existing models of change or outcome frameworks exist, these can be held in mind but the intention is to allow the raw data to speak for itself rather than to organise the data into such preconceived schemes.
Here the situational perspective has primacy and is to be arranged into a formal construct that relates the vernacular expression to broader societal terms which draw in and anchor specialized and policy related language to the context. The purpose is to cross navigate the information for learning and clarity reasons so that a wider understanding can be built against the themes and language.
For example, being displaced from one office to the next without having needs met relates to the technical language of failure demand. This concordance of meaning aids the analysis of subject, and ultimately the development of a deep, meaningful grasp of the matter at hand.
4: Presentations of Findings
It is here that the authors of the Outcomes Star suggest that the methodology connects with Participatory Action Research. The answers to the three previously mentioned formulated questions are presented back to the coresearchers in the form of an outcomes star for conversation and reflection.
This seems out of step with the spirit of Participatory Action Research as the central modus operandi is to work from inception with the co-researchers rather than create a situation where information is referred to them in the last stage. The process is scantly participative and abstracting, thus suggestive of a lack of ownership and a connection to learning.
It has more of the characteristics of ‘something which happens to’ rather than ‘something which is co-created with’, The Outcomes Star process is described as a creative one where each stakeholder takes part in every step of the active design of the project. This perspective is based on the assumption that the tool is based on reflections of the worker rather than the client.
The idea contained in the Outcomes Star literature  is to repeat this until it results in a document which resonates with both frontline workers and service users. It is suggested to take 3 steps:
- The outcomes areas
- The model of change
- The descriptions of the steps towards change in each outcome area
A) A workshop is delivered where the first draft of the star is presented, feedback gathered and changes made through feeding forward (This seems to lack the participative quality cited in its theoretical inception).
B) A 4-6 month pilot is developed where co-researchers test the star in practice and their experience is recorded through questionnaires (Questionnaires lack a narrative quality on their own and again this seems like a parallel, asymmetric process divorced of the conception of the co-researcher as agential).
C) A final workshop is staged in which the results of the pilot are reviewed with questionnaire results and the Outcomes Star, and the experience of the participants shared (This appears to describe the extractive process which the Outcomes Star suggests it avoids. There is some confusion as to the axioms at work in the Outcomes Star and whether they are participative on the part of the user or not).
D) After these steps further revisions are made and a final version is published. It is an iterative process which apparently carries on after publication where new editions are produced in light of further research i.e. on cultural competency