Ethnographic Study of Policy and Practice in Local Government in England

LSHTM building  Gower Street corner with a red bu[1615]Why do we need to do this research?

Public health in England has been moved back into local government after 40 years in the NHS. Politicians and practitioners alike hope that this will allow more coordinated and effective work on the social and physical environment that affects people’s health and well-being, from alcohol and fast food availability to housing and employment. However, the influence of the medical profession on public health has led to a view that research “evidence” about these approaches is perhaps the most important consideration for deciding policy and designing public programmes. Many public health professionals have criticised local government for being too political and giving little room for consideration of “evidence” about what might have the most impact. This political culture is seen as a threat to the professional evidence-oriented expertise of public health.

There is an abundance of research asking public sector policy-makers and practitioners, from health to housing, what they think about “evidence” from academic research and how they use it. Very few researchers have taken a more holistic approach, to try to understand how officers in national or local government work on a day-to-day basis, looking at what they actually think and talk about in responding to problems and making decisions. This type of approach would give us a much better understanding of where evidence and evaluation feature in the way that local government officers make sense of their work, to see whether and how it might be possible for the public health approach to fit into this logic and what concessions public health practitioners might have to make to be successful in their new role.

What are we doing?

In this project we are using ethnographic methods to describe the work of local government in England. We are spending time with officers in local authorities in different parts of the country as they go about their everyday activities from meetings and committees to visiting community groups or inspecting businesses. We are also interviewing them to ask them in more depth about their work. From what we observe and hear we are hoping to be able to answer these questions:

– what does the work of local government involve?
– what is the logic that underpins this work?
– what information and knowledge resources do officers use and how?
– how do officers value their work? How do they know they are doing the “right” thing?

Time frame

November 2012 – October 2013

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