Political rhetoric in Aboriginal affairs is a galling display of concepts thrown about as if the mere act of saying them will produce magical change. I refer to statements such as “a new way of engaging”, “better participation”, “strong consultation”, “greater integration”, “better collaboration”, and so on. And foolishly, policy neophytes – new converts to the artificial power of rhetoric – buy the slogans and sell them off to the nearest politician as a new way to improve Aboriginal affairs.
No really critical questions are asked as to why this “new way of engaging” is better than the old way, or how we put this new way into practice. Why? Because answering the questions is impossible as there is no comparative evidence base.
This is where my research comes in. I hope to develop a sophisticated understanding of what people mean when they make these statements and provide evidence as whether they work in comparison to other policies or not. That’s the long-term plan, anyway.
I am often faced with bemused looks when I say that “I study committees!”, especially when I’m so enthusiastic about it. But I use committees as the real-world edge to study serious social problems.
As a western democratic society we have the right to be consulted by our elected representatives on social issues. In the health system, that means forming committees (also called boards of directors; advisory, steering or working committees; or parties or executive groups or clinical committees, and so on). Big deal, or as my PhD supervisor said, “Where’s the ‘so what’?”
Well, having a voice on a committee is one way to achieve change, to influence the agenda, to get your voice heard. There’s no methodology in it though, just studying one committee is very limited. So how about over 800 committees? Remember, because there are different people on each committee then these “structures” are effectively sites of integration.
Now to chocolate cake – yum! I like Nigella Lawson’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake, which I’ve made at least 20 times, and my favourite ingredients are dark muscovado sugar (not brown sugar) and Ecuadorian single origin chocolate. The ingredients make a big difference for sight, taste, texture and smell. As for committees, I examine the ingredients because what the members bake-up is a product of their different knowledge bases.
Aboriginal people want to be involved in committees because their Indigenous knowledge should be reflected in the outcomes of the committee – such as policy, programs, strategies and activities. But there are a lot of committees and in fact they are all inter-connected. A methodology point in my research is to join together committees, which is quite easy because often one person will sit on two or more committees.
Like a spider’s web, the points of inter-section of the web are people who inter-lock to other committees. The aim is to construct a giant map of committees in order to have a big-picture view of how different knowledges (i.e. people) inter-connect together, so that you can “see” your voice. This addresses one of the concerns that any citizen has in policy-making processes, where we sit on committees, give advice for a policy, and what comes out at the end doesn’t seem to fit with our advice, so we ask: “Where is my voice?”
That’s a fair question – a democracy also means accountability and transparency. That’s why my committee interlock map is the first attempt to make visible the otherwise invisible process of citizen participation in committee processes.
My map will show how committees connect into the larger picture of governance in our democracy and my online database will allow you to ask, “where is my voice?”
The committee interlock graph reveals how citizens are inter-connected through different committees (note – only public domain data is used, and only as related to the Hunter Valley in NSW).
The concluding point is that these ways of seeing “voice” in democratic processes helps you to pose really critical questions when next a policy maker asks you to participate on a committee.
How is that committee connected to others, what people are points of intersection (knowledge brokers), and what does the bigger picture look like now? That last question goes to the point of comparative evidence because when a politician states that their “new way” is better than that of other political parties, well, now there is a way to truly “see” what changes are made!
That’s my form of policy concept research which you can engage with through the Avid social media channels, publications and reports.