29 April 2016

A backstage pass: Operation Modulus and the case study approach

What Works Scotland recently published an in-depth case study. People have asked ‘why do a case study?’ and ‘what can others learn from what happened in one local area?’

In this blog, What Works Scotland Research Associate, Richard Brunner tells you what we think.

On one level, the case study of Operation Modulus describes a successful gang violence intervention in Gorbals, Glasgow. But a case study is a story – and all good stories tell a deeper tale.

For the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (2013, p.216), the human being is a ‘story-telling animal’, narratives being the way that we make sense of the world to each other, all the time.

The Operation Modulus case study is really a story about how, through collaborative leadership, patient partnership development, and innovative co-production, successful social outcomes can be achieved. In this case, as well as creating better opportunities for the young people involved, and a more peaceful life for 10,000 residents in Gorbals, the programme led to preventative changes in practice and cost-saving for public services. The model is now being adapted in two other areas of Glasgow.

The principles revealed in the Operation Modulus case study are those through which the Christie Commission (2011) expects all public services in Scotland to operate. But there is as yet little evidence of how public services actually do this in practice (Mitchell, 2015). By being presented as a case study, Operation Modulus allows readers to take a look ‘behind the scenes’ at the vital micro-details of how decisions were actually made, uncovering some of the stresses, strains and synergies of humans trying to do good work together to achieve better social outcomes.

Flyvberg (2006, p.239) points out that professional expertise is developed by people learning case-by-case about how they can best work, and about what best works:
    …true expertise is based on intimate experience with thousands of individual cases and on the ability to discriminate between situations, with all their nuances of difference, without distilling them into formulas or standard cases.
For public services to be able to learn how to implement Christie, they need to hear credible stories that speak to the reality of the complex work that they do each day. This needs to include – and not gloss over - clashes of values, interests, resources and power that all people doing public services know that their work involves. Case studies allow people and organisations to better understand the finer grain of pivotal points, to learn from decisions, indecisions, synergies and discords, which are all part of the human imperfection of trying to do good public work. This type of evidence leads to the real prospect of stimulating engagement and action (Flyvberg, p.240):
    Actual practices are studied before their rules, and one is not satisfied by learning about only those parts of practices that are open to public scrutiny; what Erving Goffman (1963) called the “backstage” of social phenomena must be investigated, too.
We felt that telling the story of the ‘actual practices’ of Operation Modulus in the form of a case study would reveal the ‘backstage’ of implementing the Christie principles; and that this detailed understanding would tell Scotland something new about how Christie can be put into practice, and contribute to the development of some generalisable rules for this.

Finally, a case study, because of its refusal to gloss over complexity, contradiction and ambiguity does not give a simple set of answers, but highlights new ways of understanding a problem. It also expects people to enjoy, criticise and value and devalue different elements of the story, and the interpretation of the story: in other words, to think and learn. As Flyvberg (2006, p.238) notes:
    The goal is not to make the case study be all things to all people. The goal is to allow the study to be different things to different people…
Readers will have to discover their own path and truth inside the case.

Case studies are a long-established approach used across the social sciences to help people understand, in sometimes hugely influential ways, about how elements of the world operate. We look forward to hearing about what you learn from the Operation Modulus case study.

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