Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Useful sites for planning

The PhD skills web site also sends me to:

and post-graduate online research training at:

Planning review- Why am I doing the review?

I have to identify relevant literature, to find what is already known.

What do I hope to achieve?
  • to gain ideas of what to follow up,
  • to learn relevant models that might apply,
  • to identify where my research might fit in,
  • to see if there is a gap in the literature

Notes to make during the review

  • On critical decisions (& justification)
  • All meetings (what was discussed & decided)
  • Measures put in place to reduce bias
  • How my understanding of the topic develops

Thursday, 25 October 2007

What it's about

My research is about public accountability for the use of external consultants in the public sector.

The aim is understand how public organisations express accountability for the use and management of consultants. Do relationships with consultants influence the expression or do requirements to account influence the relationships?

A question that arises concerns what issues become visible thus eliciting demands for accountability. This relates to hidden dimensions of power: the power to decide which issues are discussed, and which aspects of those issues become visible.

I'm trying to write only 300 words about what I'm researching and it seems hard. Why is it that whenever I have to write, I have a blank mind?

Friday, 19 October 2007

Skills audit

To get through the skills audit at the end of the first year, a student has to show evidence (tick boxes) of a lot of skills. See

However, this useful link is only available if you are logged on to the OU system.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

To do in first year PhD

At supervision meeting we talked about what I need to get done in the first year of the PhD so that I have an idea what I am aiming at, i.e.:
  • lit review,
  • clarifying research questions,
  • working up the proposal for what I will do,
  • considering research design and methodology

Supervisor's suggestions:

  • Identify the key issues in accountability. A couple of years ago, there was an ESRC meeting in the West of England University where Marilyn Taylor & Helen Sullivan spoke and Bovens provided a paper. The results were produced a special issue of a journal. I should find out what that journal was.
  • Consider a question of what issues do become visible so there are demands for accountability? This relates to the hidden dimension of power, and power as decision that sets what issues are discussed, and which aspects become visible. Steven Lukes has written on “Hidden Dimensions of Power”.
  • Use the above to identify search terms.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

First supervisory

First supervisory meeting of the PhD is due tomorrow. I need to think in the light of the MRes experience, what to do next:
  • is this still the topic I want to pursue?
  • what is the research question?
  • what further reading do I need to do?

I think it is still what I want to pursue. Accountability is so important - public accountability is especially demanded in a social state that provides care such as the NHS. See for example the outcry over the dirty hospital.

What light does the MRes cast? That there are different ways of accounting for use of consultants depending on what sort of client relationship you have with the consultants, but also what your relationship with the public is, and what sort of job you have. Relationships are complex.

What's the research question? For the MRes, it was about how the client-consultant relationship influenced accountability. But perhaps there's further to go on this question. Perhaps develop the question further to examine types of clients, types of consultants types of relationships and different types of accountability. There's more research to do on just the question as it stands, using other organisations, or a different project in the same organisation.

What further reading do I need to do? But, if I read further, then I might find new questions. What should I read? Do I read quantitative or qualitative papers? Both I think, as both shed light on what research is already done. What areas? Accountability relates to ethics, and to finance. I think it's more ethics that interests me. What else does accountability relate to - psychology, such as personal construct theory? When starting a systematic review of the literature last week, there were questions:

What is the size of the literature?
How do I measure size of literature? There is a body of literature on accountability, a sub division on public accountability. Similarly, there is academic literature on consultants, written either from the consultant’s perspective, or from the client’s.

Are there any cross-disciplinary perspectives that need to be taken into account?
Could be, such as psychology, social science, maths if it gets complex, IT if concentrate on one of the large sectors for consulting. Use economics for agency theory. Perhaps social network theory is relevant.

What are the major issues and debates about the topic?
Issues about client types, about the discourse of accountability, and about the discourses between clients and consultants.

I have a year for the literature review, so there must be a lot of reading.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Participatory video

Chris High runs a series of work shops on participatory video. As this involves participants in film-making I cannot see how it will fit in with my research. Can I get clients to film themselves? Get them to film themselves accounting for their use of consultants?

Last night on BBC there was a documentary on public accountability, specifically of the accountability of MPs. Unfortunately a number of MPs being filmed took exception to the interviewer's suggestion that MPs lie, and asked that the filming be stopped. So how could I get clients who are politicians to agree to be filmed? I recorded only the voice of the politician I interviewed for my Master's and when she saw the transcript she withdrew permission for me to use anything from it.

So I can't see me getting access from PV. But I'll find out more before I reject it.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Literature search

This first year is about the literature search, as I understand it. By the end of the year, I have a probationary report, must present a review of the literature and a proposal for research at a viva. So now I must plan how I go about this.

Dave Denyer from Cranfield came and talked to us last year about a systematic review of the literature as a means of ensuring that you have covered all the relevant sources, and can provide an audit trail.

Secondly, last year we were introduced to Endnote. I'd come across Refworks, but not doing academic research had not seen the need for it. Now I do see the need for an electronic tool for referencing and citing. However, my skills with Endnote haven't been sufficiently honed so went on a refresher course. I think that together with a systematic review of the literature I should find enough to keep me going for the first few months. But I'll check when I get my first supervisory meeting next week.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007


I find a thesaurus really useful for helping me write. It sits right next to my dictionary.

For example, today I was considering the word 'astute', perhaps as a way of describing the diplomatic senior public managers who implement the politicians' policy decisions. But I wanted to identify other words that might mean the same as 'astute', or that might be its opposite, so I got out the thesaurus and identified other words like 'Machiavellian' - I hadn't thought of that.

My surprise and perhaps concern is that other students don't use a thesaurus, don't even know what one is and how useful it can be. Can they write so easily? or is it that I recognise a useful tool that they haven't got?

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Getting going

First doctoral training workshop today was full to standing space only since all the new PhD and the MRes students were there.

Why are we doing this?
Reasons included:
  • vanity
  • curiosity
  • the money
  • career
We divided these into essential reasons, such as following up interesting ideas, and some supporting reasons such as career development.

What the examiner will be looking for:
  • good style and presentation
  • proficiency in research methods
  • initiative and independence of thought (Masters)
  • significant (distinct at Masters) contribution to knowledge
  • material worthy of publication (PhD)
  • able to pursue further research without supervision (PhD)
  • able to argue and discuss research (PhD viva)
We had a short discussion on what ways we expected our research to be original and what various streams accepted as originality. Apparently, whereas for instance a new criticism of something might be original in some disciplines, in others it is merely a review.

And we finished up with some mention of resources such as DVDs and web sites. I think I'll try for my social bookmarking - I've given up with scuttle.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Induction conference

The Open University had its postgraduate research students induction conference this week on Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday was for registering. As when I started the Masters in Research Methods, there were hundreds of people gathered in the Old Lecture Theatre, which is both impressive and a bit daunting. However, this year I know that few of those people are full time students, and I'm unlikely to meet them again. Only about 50 are full time students who will be studying on campus. And some of the full time students will be starting, like I did a year ago, their MRes.

There was the usual speech from the Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, the networking and the food. I am well impressed by the variety of people we have. At lunch time I sat on a table with five Chinese, a Bermudian and 3 people from Africa (I think). As usual, I was the oldest, although I did meet some part time students who were around my generation.

There were three workshops, which turned out to be very much about what I had learned over the last year, so I skipped one of them. It is nice to realise how much you now know, like the difference between constructionist and positivist approaches. Nevertheless, the dreams and nightmares continue to exist because life goes on despite what you learn.

In the session on planning research we listed our dreams and nightmares:
  • Talk and coffee with like minded people
  • Engaged for three years
  • Writing well, writing easily
  • Producing something meaningful
  • Publishing a book
  • Time to ponder
  • Changing minds (others)
  • Changing mind

  • Being poor
  • Everyone else being better than me
  • Not thinking at a high enough level
  • Too much reading
  • Insufficient data
  • Loss/death in family/at home
  • Impact on relationships
  • Supervisor problems
  • Lack of access to data
  • Changing tack half way through
One of the useful things was a reminder of the PhD skills web site at

The timetable for the doctoral training workshop is at sites are only available though if you can log on to the OU site.