Posts

‘Don’t shoot the messenger’.  Can we face reality?

As the Covid-19 crisis has deepened relations between politicians and their scientific advisers have become increasingly frayed. Politicians want to hear we are making progress and that the actions they are taking are being effective. They may want to highlight statistics that point in this direction. The scientists however must stay true to their data and if that says the infection rate is still too high to support some lockdown measures that is what they must advise.

Anyone who has practiced action research will recognise this dilemma. The people responsible for action want to hear that it is working and they may find it uncomfortable to hear from those responsible for the research what is actually happening on the ground. And if they don’t like the message the next step may be to ‘shoot the messenger’; perhaps to ignore what they are told, to question the competence of their researchers or even get rid of them. It is a very human characteristic. As Paul Simon wrote, ‘Still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’ (The Boxer). And it may not just be a question of information about an action that is not working: it is even more difficult if the information challenges fundamental beliefs and ideologies. 

But if we are to deal effectively with a very dangerous and unfamiliar opponent like the virus we have to deal with reality not with our own favoured construction of it. If we don’t, we run the risk of having to deal with a much worse situation later.

So how can we help people take on-board information that may be difficult for them? What we don’t want is pressure on the advisers to hold back from presenting evidence for fear of their own future. They need to be given a kind of immunity, a license declared at the beginning of the process to report things as they find them. Another necessary requirement is that the people responsible for the action plans do not receive research information in any kind of public forum in which they may feel they have to defend their actions. They need a private space in which they can consider and reflect on the new information, question it as appropriate and explore its implications. The process also needs trust between colleagues and confidence in their judgement.   

Professor Ken Eason

We need to separate the research from the policy making

The Government process for dealing with the Covid-19 crisis has revealed many of the issues at the heart of creating an effective action research strategy. The Government is responsible for policy making and they have SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) to provide scientific and technical advice.  SAGE assesses the data on the progress of the virus, models the impact of possible actions and collates all the relevant information. The Government says it ‘follows the science’ but that is not the same as ‘we do what the scientists say’. Scientists advise but ministers decide: weighing up the trade-offs between the health risks and the economic consequences of different ways of coming out of lockdown is a burden politicians must bear.

The structure we have at Government level mirrors the separation between the research phase and the action phase in action research. This is a necessary separation so we get evidence that is as objective as possible.

Any organisation seeking to use an action research strategy to find their way out of lockdown will need to separate the responsibilities for planning and action (the policy making) from the responsibilities for research (the gathering and processing of the evidence). In a large organisation this separation of function may be relatively straightforward: the senior management may determine the action steps and staff from functions such as information analysis, business analysis, Human Resources and Health and Safety may undertake the research. It is also possible that a separate organisation, such as ourselves, takes responsibility for the research and evaluation functions in the action research cycle.

But in a small organisation there may be no pre-existing separations of role to make use of. If this is the case it can be useful to give somebody a specific responsibility for gathering the evidence to underpin the debate about the next action steps.

How well this separation will work in practice will depend upon the level of trust between members of the organisation and the degree of openness that people display to the evidence that is gathered. This is a topic we will attend to in the next post.

Professor Ken Eason

Covid-19: How will we know how well we are doing?

The Government mantra is ‘our actions follow the science’. The scientists collect evidence of how the virus is spreading in order to give the politicians the advice they seek. But what evidence to collect?  And how long is the lag before you know whether actions taken are being effective? 

Problems about gathering the evidence have bedeviled our national response to Covid-19, so much so that our strategy has been likened to ‘driving blind’. These same issues will confront every organisation that is trying to find its way out of lockdown, albeit on a more local scale. If careful steps are being taken to get going again, how can we avoid ‘ driving blind’? If the aim is to scale up business activity without endangering staff and customers, what evidence can be collected to show the plans are working?  The obvious hard data includes the number of staff, customers etc who test positive and the number of customers prepared to come through the doors. The Government test and trace system is gradually providing more local data but there have been lags in getting information that is sufficiently detailed to be useful.  

There are, however, lots of other indicators that may provide more immediate and useful feedback. In action research every new action phase has specific aims and we need ways of measuring whether these aims are being achieved. If the aim is to create safe workplaces for staff, regular surveys are needed to assess how staff are feeling. Ideally there should also be opportunities to discuss specific problems and these can be addressed in the next action phase. Similarly, as shops, pubs and restaurants re-open there will be a crude measure of how many customers arrive but, if the response in slow, more effort needs to be put into discovering why and what can be done to give people more confidence that they will be safe. As schools re-open ways are needed to assess whether children and their parents feel confident about the measures taken and opportunities need to be created to discuss any concerns they may have.  

The basic message is that if you are going to take ‘baby steps’ into the unknown you have to have measures in place to warn you if you are about to fall down the stairs.

Professor Ken Eason