A new book on action research includes a chapter by two What Works Scotland research associates, drawing on the collaborative action research projects with community planning partnerships in Scotland.

Cover of the book Action Research In Policy AnalysisAction Research in Policy Analysis explores how action research can be a valuable methodology for producing the collaborative knowledge and action required to produce effective policy responses for the current political, social, economic, and environmental crises.

The chapter, by Dr Claire Bynner and Dr James Henderson, is entitled Cultivating ‘sanction and sanctuary’ in Scottish collaborative governance: doing relational work to support communicative spaces.

The community planning partnerships (CCPs) are seen as key vehicles for transforming public services in Scotland and working toward the goals of reducing social inequalities through more democratic, collaborative forms of governance, whilst pursuing greater economic efficiencies in response to public spending constraints.

What Works Scotland has been supporting the development of collaborative governance within community planning partnerships (CPPs) and exploring the potential for relational and critical action research in these settings.

Claire and James explain:

“By relational, we mean action research that builds mutual trust, shared goals and works with the practical realities and possibilities for change. By critical, we mean an approach that challenges power inequalities, hierarchies and assumptions.”

In the chapter, they discuss action research theory and practice by drawing on illustrations from two CPPs. They emphasise the relational strategies required to carry out action research in these complex public service partnership settings and the cultivation of ‘sanction and sanctuary’ to support group inquiry and collaborative action.

“‘Sanction’ entails recognising the need for sustained support for this approach from managers and others operating at strategic levels of the partnership. ‘Sanctuary’ refers to the importance of developing communicative spaces where people can speak openly about ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t’ and where there is an opportunity to critically reflect on local policies and practices.”

Claire and James show that that by negotiating sanction and sanctuary, adopting an ‘in-flight’ approach, and seeking to ‘hold steady’ to an accountable process, it is possible to sustain these spaces.And they explain that, given the demanding policy context and institutional pressures, commitment to both relational and critical approach to action research is crucial to understanding the realities, constraints and opportunities of collaborative governance.

Practitioner reflections from one of those involved in the action research process add to the discussions in the chapter, working to deepen understanding of the context in which the research is taking place:

“In our day jobs, we are conditioned to show immediate results. We are normally under pressure to produce results in a much shorter timescale. Having the time to see the bigger picture was quite a luxury.”

Edited by Koen P.R. Bartels and Julia M. Wittmayer and published by Routledge, the book is available to purchase as a hardback and an e-book.

See Action Research in Policy Analysis on the Routledge website