interviews and interviewing: a case study in geography and public policy

6
261 Research Note: Interviews and Interviewing: a Case Study in Geography and Public Policy JOHN JENKINS This paper discusses the arrangement and conduct of personal interviews during a study of Crown land policy-making in New South Wales (NSW), (Jenkins, 1995). The aim was to describe, analyse and explain the Crown land public policy process with reference to the Heritage Lands Project, a resource management strategy undertaken in central western NSW (Fig. 1). Given limited documentation concerning the politics of Crown land management in NSW, the objectives of the study were threefold: 1. to provide an historical understanding of Crown land policy-making in New South Wales, focussing on the period 1965 - 199 1 ; 2. to explain the development of the Heritage Lands Project within a theoretical framework that deals with personal and organisational values, perceptions and choices, power, policy development, pressure groups, law and the state; and 3. to demonstrate how a study of a resource manage- ment organisation in a complex public policy arena might be accomplished. The NSW Department of Lands was established in 1856, to administer Crown lands in NSW according to traditional anthropocentric values. The department disposed of Crown lands with the principal objec- tives of effecting economic and social development and obtaining revenue for the government of the day. For more than one hundred years 'Lands' was an important government department responsible to a senior Cabinet minister. However, from the mid John Jenkins is a Lecturer in the Tourism Programme, University of Canberra, Belconnen, ACT, 2616. 1960s, the department met with strong forces demanding that it shift from a land disposal agency to an agency for retaining and managing Crown land. As the department began to embrace such demands, it met with challenges and setbacks. The Heritage Lands Project, launched in November, 1986, was put forward as a pilot project that would combine public and private expertise in a regional approach to Crown land management. It signified overt bureaucratic and political support for the philosophical shift of the Department of Lands from an agency for Crown land disposal to an agency for retention and management. Shortly after the NSW state election in March 1988, the new Coalition government instructed the Department of Lands to alienate Crown land, includ- ing many areas that had been retained under the pre- vious Labor government (1976-1988). In 1991, the Department of Lands was abolished and its functions were amalgamated with other NSW government bodies to establish the Department of Conservation and Land Management. The Heritage Lands Project was ultimately dismantled by that department. The study demonstrated that the Crown land pol- icy process is highly political and value-laden. Single individuals or institutions seldom dominate the process or impose on it a consistent logic or direction. The process has been characterised by conflict, bargaining, negotiation, compromise and incremental policy development, interspersed with marked policy shifts according to the party political ideology of the govenunent of the day. The study was based on information which had hitherto received little detailed public scrutiny. Much information was obtained from documents and files Australian Geographical Studies October 1996 34(2):261-266

Upload: john-jenkins

Post on 02-Oct-2016

213 views

Category:

Documents


1 download

TRANSCRIPT

261

Research Note:

Interviews and Interviewing: a Case Study in Geography and Public Policy

JOHN JENKINS

This paper discusses the arrangement and conduct of personal interviews during a study of Crown land policy-making in New South Wales (NSW), (Jenkins, 1995). The aim was to describe, analyse and explain the Crown land public policy process with reference to the Heritage Lands Project, a resource management strategy undertaken in central western NSW (Fig. 1). Given limited documentation concerning the politics of Crown land management in NSW, the objectives of the study were threefold: 1. to provide an historical understanding of Crown land policy-making in New South Wales, focussing on the period 1965 - 199 1 ; 2. to explain the development of the Heritage Lands Project within a theoretical framework that deals with personal and organisational values, perceptions and choices, power, policy development, pressure groups, law and the state; and 3. to demonstrate how a study of a resource manage- ment organisation in a complex public policy arena might be accomplished. The NSW Department of Lands was established in 1856, to administer Crown lands in NSW according to traditional anthropocentric values. The department disposed of Crown lands with the principal objec- tives of effecting economic and social development and obtaining revenue for the government of the day. For more than one hundred years 'Lands' was an important government department responsible to a senior Cabinet minister. However, from the mid

John Jenkins is a Lecturer in the Tourism Programme, University of Canberra, Belconnen, ACT, 2616.

1960s, the department met with strong forces demanding that it shift from a land disposal agency to an agency for retaining and managing Crown land. As the department began to embrace such demands, it met with challenges and setbacks.

The Heritage Lands Project, launched in November, 1986, was put forward as a pilot project that would combine public and private expertise in a regional approach to Crown land management. It signified overt bureaucratic and political support for the philosophical shift of the Department of Lands from an agency for Crown land disposal to an agency for retention and management.

Shortly after the NSW state election in March 1988, the new Coalition government instructed the Department of Lands to alienate Crown land, includ- ing many areas that had been retained under the pre- vious Labor government (1976-1988). In 1991, the Department of Lands was abolished and its functions were amalgamated with other NSW government bodies to establish the Department of Conservation and Land Management. The Heritage Lands Project was ultimately dismantled by that department.

The study demonstrated that the Crown land pol- icy process is highly political and value-laden. Single individuals or institutions seldom dominate the process or impose on it a consistent logic or direction. The process has been characterised by conflict, bargaining, negotiation, compromise and incremental policy development, interspersed with marked policy shifts according to the party political ideology of the govenunent of the day.

The study was based on information which had hitherto received little detailed public scrutiny. Much information was obtained from documents and files

Australian Geographical Studies October 1996 34(2):261-266

262 Australian Geographical Studies

0 lOOkm u

U 0 Rylstone @ Abercrombie @ Canobolas @ Llthgow mMMacquarie-Turon @ Lachlan

NEW SOUTH WALES

LoCALlW, MAP

NEW SOUTH WALES

LoCALlW, MAP

Fig. 1 The Heritage Lands Project: Regional Subdivisions

Source: New South Wales Department of Lands, 1986a, in Jenkins, 1995.

of the Department of Lands and CaLM. In brief, I had established a similar position to that described by Palmer (1988). I had access to thousands of depart- mental files and to officers of the department. Indeed, many officers went out of their way to be helpful and to furnish me with resources (eg. photocopying, desk, telephone calls, assistance, advice, commentary, and personal and departmental working papers). Information from departmental documents and files was supplemented by other sources, including the documents of other government agencies (eg. the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service), media reports, interest group publications and submissions, parliamentary debates, academic publications, and the personal papers of several interviewees.

Many departmental files have been lost, are incomplete, or have been destroyed. In addition, two detailed, internal reviews of the Department of Lands and CaLM were not made available in their entirety. After informal requests to senior officers of CaLM I was informed that those reviews contained very

sensitive personal and political comment, and there- fore that access would be limited.

Despite the extensive range of secondary sources describing Crown land policy formulation and imple- mentation there was scant documentary evidence explaining Crown land decision-making and policy- making processes. Therefore, the foci for primary data collection were interviews with present and former officers of the NSW Department of Lands and CaLM, former government ministers, interest groups (eg. conservation organisations), landholders and others. Often lengthy interviews were held with more than 40 bureaucrats, prominent political figures and private citizens.

Contacting interviewees All interviews, with the exception of those conducted with two senior departmental officers and some members of the Mount Canobolas Park Trust, Orange, were arranged by telephone. With the excep- tion of telephone interviews with a former Lands official (interviewed by telephone because of finan- cial and time constraints) and a former Secretary of the NSW Premier’s Department (in order to confirm the use of quotations from an earlier interview), I conducted face-to-face interviews.

The strategy of arranging interviews by telephone occurred as the result of my early inquiries to the Orange Land Board Office (OLBO), one of fifteen Land Board Offices that existed at that time (Fig. 2). The telephone was important in locating ‘actors’ who had departed the stage many years before interview. For instance, many long distance telephone calls were needed to trace two former Lands ministers.

For each interviewee, except one former Lands Department officer and two people (a former Minister for Lands and a former Premier) who declined to be interviewed even after letters were sent at their request, meetings were promised, and in some cases arranged immediately.

The telephone proved valuable for other reasons which mail-out requests could not have accomplished so speedily and perhaps so comprehensively. For instance, some prospective interviewees stated that they would not be able to provide any useful infor- mation. However, during each telephone conversa- tion I had an opportunity to: (1) discuss those people who had consented to interviews; (2) explain the need to cross-check and validate my information and the sources of that information; (3) outline the impor- tance of a balanced account of events; (4) respond

Research Note 263

Fig. 2 The Land Board Districts of New South Wales at the time of the launch of the Heritage Lands Project

Source: New South Wales Department of Lands, 1986a, in Jenkins, 1995.

-L KEY

Eastern Division

Ceniral Division

Western Division

Central West Land Region

Head Offices of Local Land Boards O d B O NEWSOOTH WALES

immediately to questions; and (5) suggest that perhaps they could provide insight into aspects of the study on which information was scant. It was impor- tant that I be familiar with several events in which each actor had been involved and which might then be used to attract their attention . The strategy proved successful because interviews were secured with all those approached.

I am satisfied that the use of letters to arrange interviews would have resulted in lengthy delays, some people would not have been located or con- tacted, and perhaps some people would not have replied. The use of the telephone to arrange inter- views provided an opportunity to readily locate peo- ple, to discuss the study with potential interviewees, to seek interviews, to clarify some initial reactions and ideas, and to generally make the process of pri- mary data collection an easier and quicker process.

Who to interview? Deciding who to interview and when to conduct interviews raised problems which have not been dis- cussed at length in the literature. After consulting the literature (eg. Barton, 1958; Filstead, 1970; Bradbum

and Sudman, 1979; Williams, 1980; Nachmias and Nachmias, 1981; Sproats, 1983; Douglas, 1985; Dane, 1990; de Vaus, 199 1) it seemed most logical to begin the interviews with lower (or street) level departmental staff and to proceed up through the ranks of the bureaucracy (including present and for- mer staff of the NSW public service) and the govem- ment (present and former ministers). However, the complexity of the policy process under study, the numerous individuals, agencies and their intricate networks meant that not all the actors and agencies were readily identified in the early stages of the work and new actors came to the fore as additional docu- ments and people were consulted. People were not interviewed in what, in hindsight, might have been an 'ideal' sequence. Such a rational process was also not possible given time and financial constraints. When dealing with politicians and senior officers, a useful strategy was to arrange no more than two interviews for any one day (also see Williams, 1980) and to organise travel and interviews so that at least one day and several hours each day were kept free of formal commitments. Thus there was ample time to write up interviews or take opportunities to arrange new inter-

264 ‘4 ustralian Geographical Studies

views at short notice. I was particularly mindful of Sproats’ (1983: 261) comment that he had been unable to interview any minister whilst in office.

Although the support of the Orange Land Board Office was forthcoming (access to files, staff and office resources), it was still necessary to contact the department‘s most senior officers to secure interviews and gain access to documents in the head office, in Sydney. Separate appointments for interviews were made with the Acting Director General and Acting Deputy Director General, CaLM, through their administrative assistant. The interviews were to take place at different times on the same day, and each had requested a letter providing further details of my research and the topics I wanted to discuss. I responded to their requests and separate interviews were confirmed. As with all interviews where consid- erable travel on my part was involved, I phoned on the day before the interviews in order to confirm the appointments. The first appointment was to have been with the Acting Director General.

To my surprise, I was informed that the officers would meet me together. This seemed to present a problem. My first consideration was whether they would discuss sensitive topics given their positions and the compromise of a three way discussion. I decided to pursue a general line asking their views on the Heritage Lands Project, using probes directed at one person or the other, but not both. At times, I asked the same question of each person, but not at the same time. I wanted as much as possible for them to make their own responses. It was difficult to stop interjections from one as the other responded. It seemed that each interviewee was filling gaps for the other as glances were exchanged and rejoinders called for. When they did not know about, or were unwilling to comment on, such matters as the spe- cific details of the development of the Heritage Lands Project, the discussion became generalised. This was not surprising because many aspects of the project had not been fully documented by the regional officer primarily responsible for its develop- ment.

Moreover, as outside appointments, they admitted that they did not possess detailed technical knowl- edge of Crown land legislation as might staff who had progressed through the ranks of the former Department of Lands and who had thereby acquired considerable field and technical skills (eg. the sur- veyors). The Acting Director General and Acting Deputy Director General were quite open in their

opinions as to the likely future of the Heritage Lands Project and the roles of various individuals, espe- cially the interpretations of departmental policies by regional managers and former district surveyors. The interview yielded useful information but it was ‘tainted’ by collaboration. After the Acting Director General retired, I organised another interview with the Acting Deputy Director General.

I had expected during the early part of the study that my investigations would be complicated by political developments and, in particular, the aboli- tion of the Department of Lands on 30 June, 1991. I was very surprised, therefore, at the ease with which I was granted access to staff and other resources of the Department of LandsKaLM. I detected that there were officers genuinely interested in opening the department to outside investigation, others who were pensive or sceptical but came to accept the project, and, of course, there were many actors with ‘axes to grind‘. Clearly, I had to be critical and wary of infor- mation stemming from primary sources. Such infor- mation was not only forthcoming from personal interviews, but by way of confidential documents which helped construct the story, but which were not cited in the study.

Interviews and memories Personal interviews tested the recollections of peo- ple, some of whom were requested to scan their memories to recount events spanning two or more decades. According to Foddy (1 993: 19 l), ‘It must be accepted that memory traces and cues fade over time so that eventually most, if not all events will be for- gotten. This applies to all events - even though the time it takes for the memory traces associated with some events to fade may be longer than the time it takes for other events’. Foddy’s work was published, after I had conducted many interviews but there are limitations in his observations which were high- lighted by the nature of my research.

First, the interviews were primarily concerned with people’s working lives and personal values. Officers of the Department of Lands were inter- viewed about events (often occurring over lengthy periods of time) closely associated with an organisa- tion in which most had been employed for many years. Second, several departmental officers, even after retirement, kept a close relationship with former colleagues, or kept an interest in developments con- cerning the Department of Lands. Third, a flexible

Research Note 265

interview format permitted me to vary my approach with each interviewee.

A balance was struck with each interviewee - that of having a number of broad relevant topics, rather than one sentence questions, to use as the focus for discussion. In most cases, the use of discussion topics seemed to lead to a positive rapport between myself and each interviewee. This, in turn, created a more relaxed atmosphere which led to several interviewees offering information (at times sensitive) with very lit- tle probing. In different interviews the interviewee and I worked backwards from recent events, or for- ward from early days, but in most instances we cut across time as events were discussed.

Conducting the interviews I was balancing the benefits and costs of the use of a tape recorder to conduct the interviews when I con- sulted Sproats’ (1983) thesis. Sproats had interviewed two key actors related to my research and declined to interview a former minister I eventually interviewed. He referred to an article by Williams (1980) as ‘the most useful advice on interviewing’ for the purpose of his research. Williams’ article Interviewing Politicians: the Life of Hugh Gaitskell provides a vivid account of the procedures he adopted in inter- viewing 300 people, including senior politicians and bureaucrats; Sproats and Williams alerted me to the problems that the use of a tape recorder might bring - the possibility of ‘mechanical’ failure of the recorder and inhibitions that may arise in the interviews. I was confident that my note-taking was efficient, and that I could rely sufficiently on my short term memory to rewrite, organise and reflect on my notes at the con- clusion of the interview. Like Williams, I was not intending to employ direct quotation extensively; substance mattered more than the exact wording, though some quotes were carefully noted at each interview and in some instances checked with inter- viewees.

Thinking out, arranging and rote-learning the list of questions, so that they could be injected naturally into the flow of the discussion, recognition that I might not be aware of what information a respondent held or was prepared to impart, and a commitment to a flexible approach where listening might permit the interviewee to address questions out of order but in considerable depth, were important elements in preparation and in the conduct of the interviews (see Williams, 1980: 305). These preparations were

designed to facilitate what Douglas (1985: 22) termed ‘creative interviewing’:

Creative interviewing is purposefully situated interviewing. Rather than denying or failing to see the situation of the interview as a determinant of what goes on in the questioning and answering process, creative interviewing embraces the immedi- ate, concrete situation; tries to understand how it is affecting what is communicated; and, by understand- ing these effects, changes the interviewer’s communi- cation processes to increase the discovery of the truth about human beings.

Douglas’ advice was useful. Interviews rarely lost their thrust or finished within the scheduled time lim- its. Several interviewees clearly enjoyed recounting events, their roles and the roles of others in those events, and other forces influencing Crown land deci- sion-making.

I was very sceptical about the use of in-depth tele- phone interviews, particularly as I had not had con- tact with any interviewees prior to the conduct of the study. Telephone interviews are a necessarily con- strained and impersonal method. They are easily ter- minated, produce less information and interviewers cannot describe or readily observe the respondent’s characteristics or their environments, which may restrict their responses. They are unlikely to facilitate research on such sensitive matters as political atti- tudes and perceptions (Nachmias and Nachmias, 1981). In brief ‘telephone interviewing should be used as an alternative to personal interviewing under special circumstances’ (Nachmias and Nachmias, 1981: 200).

Interview time with ministers and senior public servants is generally brief. Therefore, in arranging interviews I enquired as to how much time might be allocated to the interview so that I could frame and order the issues to be addressed. Arriving early proved a good tactic. For instance, the interview with a former Lands minister scheduled to last one hour began early and continued for two hours when an earlier appointment had failed to arrive. Like Williams (1980), I had to be wary of arranging too many interviews in one day. One hour of interview time often amounted to three to four hours of exten- sive note preparations and typing.

Outcomes Unfortunately not all interviews provided useful results. It was not possible to economise by seeing only the most ‘valuable’ informants, for one could

266 Australian Geographical Studies

never predict who they would turn out to be (see Williams, 1980: 303). Indeed, some interviewees who I suspected might not yield much information made considerable contributions to my understanding of events and policy generally. The interview with a former senior Lands officer was a case in point. I was informed by several sources that I could expect little more than detailed technical interpretations of legis- lation, policies and actions from this officer who was renowned for his knowledge of many of the Acts for which the Department of Lands was responsible. However, this officer also provided interesting and very informative evaluations of the department and many of its staff during an interview that lasted con- siderably longer than anticipated.

The personal interviews of course provided colourful, in-depth assessments, at times defamatory, praiseworthy or humorous of the department itself, its bureaucrats, ministers and other actors and agen- cies. Several respondents were not identified in the interview list in the completed thesis at their request, and a number requested that certain comments be kept confidential, or not be reported at all. Requests to keep comments 'off the record' were considered less as a problem than an opportunity to improve my understanding of the policy process. Moreover, per- sonal mistrust, hate, admiration and other personal 'feelings' triggered or affected some important events detailed in the study, and others which were omitted because of their sensitivity.

In summary, the personal interviews were critical to the study. They contributed much information on the backgrounds, attitudes, perceptions and tactics of many actors and agencies in a complex and dynamic public policy arena.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank John Pigram and Tony Sorensen of the Department of Geography and Planning, University of New England, Armidale, and Rob Schaap of the Faculty of

Communication, University of Canberra, for their critical comments on earlier versions of this paper.

REFERENCES Barton, A. H., 1958: Asking the embarrassing question,

Public Opinion Quarterly, 22, 67-68. Bradburn, N. M. and Sudman, S., 1979: Improving

Interview Method and Questionnaire Design: Response Effects to Threatening Questions in Survey Research, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Dane, F. C., 1990: Research Methods, Pacific Grove, Brooks Cole.

de Vaus, D. A,, 1991: Surveys in Social Research, 3rd Edition, London, Allen and Unwin.

Douglas, J. D., 1985: Creative Interviewing, Volume 159, London, Sage Library of Social Research, Sage Publications.

Filstead, W. J. (ed.), 1970: Qualitative Methodology: Firsthand Involvement with the Social World, Chicago, Markham.

Foddy, W., 1993: Constructing Questions for Interviews and Questionnaires: Theory and Practice in Social Research, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Jenkins, J. M., 1995: Crown Land Policy-Making in New South Wales: A Study of the Public Policy Process Leading to the Development and Demise ofthe Heritage Lands Project, Armidale, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Department of Geography and Planning, University of New England.

Nachmias, D. and Nachmias, C., 1981: Research Methods in the Social Sciences: Alternate Second Edition Without Statistics, New York, St Martin's Press.

Palmer, I., 1988: Buying Back the Land: Organisational Struggle and the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press.

Sproats, K., 1983: A Tale of Two Towns: Policy and Action in the Bathurst-Orange Growth Centre: A Case of Perceptions, Politics and Power in Centrally Commanded Regional Policy Planning, Armidale, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Department of Geography and Planning, University of New England.

Williams, P. M., 1980: Interviewing politicians: the life of Hugh Gaitskell, The Political Quarterly, 51 (3), 303- 316.