Knowledge, competencies and self-awareness in public affairs: A UK pilot study and methodological approach

Bowman, Sarah (2014) Knowledge, competencies and self-awareness in public affairs: A UK pilot study and methodological approach. In: 8th World Public Relations Forum Research Colloquium, 21st - 23rd September 2014, Madrid, Spain.

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Purpose: This paper presents a pilot study connecting the scholarship from the fields of competencies and knowledge with the theory and practice of public affairs (PA). It provides a basis for in-depth research allowing the creation of a knowledge and competency framework that addresses what PA practitioners need to know and do and how they should behave. Although there is a growing range of literature looking at PA there is limited conceptual and practical connection to competency and knowledge scholarship. This research aims to fill the gap. Early indications suggest an appetite for improved understanding of PA at the micro (individual self-aware), meso (organisational) and macro (societal) level that could lead to better PA practice and discourse.

Design/Method/Approach: The study takes a multi-methods approach. It draws on Bhaskar’s (1998) concept of critical realism and its focus on the social world of human interaction and the often unobservable forces and influences that operate within it. As PA is at the heart of influence such an approach could yield fresh insights. The study leads on a qualitative investigation allowing rich data mirroring the complexity of work (Garavan and McGuire, 2001) and the inter-connectedness of policy construction. The pilot study consists of six in-depth interviews and content analysis of competency frameworks of four practice areas - the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, the Institute of Civil Engineers, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Government Communications Network. These four frameworks were analysed against Campion, Fink, Ruggeberg, Carr, Phillips and Odman’s (2011) recommendations for competency best practice modelling to provide context. This pilot work is feeding into 32 in-depth interviews with PA practitioners and policy makers and a quasi-ethnographic study observing an in-house and a PA agency team. It integrates a survey of PA practitioners to test themes and incorporates structural equation modelling to elucidate fully on the connections between knowledge, competencies and practice. The limitations relate to its scope – a UK focus. Further studies in different cultural and political settings need to be encouraged and perhaps longitudinal studies developed to look at the longer-term impact of whether a competency approach can lead to better self-awareness and practice.

Literature: Many PA scholars from Schuler (2002) to Boddewyn (2012) have all tried to define the practice but common to all is the understanding that PA is about building relationships with those who shape public policy. Yet there is little agreement as to the definitive knowledge roots. All touch on aspects of political science, culture, economics, communication and theories of the organisation but no prioritisation of what really is fundamental. There is confusion as to the word theory – is it the conceptual underpinning or models useful to daily delivery? The same scholars talk of competencies but this tends to be US focused and comprises of lists of broad attributes that are useful but have limited reference to competency literature. This disconnect is reflected in two UK PA studies undertaken by recruitment consultants Watson Helsby (2012) and VMA (2012).

A lack of synthesise to the conceptualisation of knowledge is noted in particular to the ideas of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), who suggest two types of knowledge - explicit and tacit. Explicit is objective and codified, whereas tacit is subjective and difficult to formalise. Here scholars such as Cowan, David and Foray (2000) believe too much knowledge is suggested as tacit where in fact it can be codified. Competency literature is rich in depth reflecting on the differences between competence (skill in a functional area), competency (associated behaviours) and those that are the domain of the organisation and the individual (Nordhaug, 1998). A range of typographies such as Sparrow and Hiltrop (1994) and Le Deist and Winterton (2005) have also been developed building on the original work of Boyatzis (1982). In particular, the ideas around meta and social competencies are worth noting given the human interaction at the heart of PA.

Initial Findings: Literature suggests there is an opportunity to bring fresh insights. An analysis of competency frameworks identifies a limited connection to best practice scholarship and the regular use of generalisations such as “listening" that are vague. Interviews reveal an appetite for more detailed information around a PA knowledge base that could be useful for training, development and allowing practice to become more reflexive, self-aware and professional.

“There is a desire for PA to reach a state of maturity but PA practitioners are in two camps – those that fall into narcissism (self-admiration and belief) and those that want to approach practice with more academic context and professionalism” (1).

There is a limited understanding of the wider impact that PA has from a cultural and social perspective but a curiosity to find out.
"the social context and theoretical PA meets the need of society and the solid basis for it" (2)

Such a framework could also have a wider educational role demonstrating to the organisation the value PA delivers.
“they (competencies) help break down the smoke and mirrors or mystery of early PA which relied heavily on address books and contacts….(they can) demonstrate key skills and expertise as a marketing/PR discipline in its own right” (5)

“we need to be transformational inside the organisation” (1)

The concept of emotional intelligence also emerged. An ability to delve deeper into this idea is appealing as it links directly to issues of self-awareness, responsibility and trust.

Early findings suggest there is scope to build a unique PA framework with granularity and relevancy to practice.

Value: This research when completed has conceptual and practical value by establishing a body of knowledge and competency framework that is at the heart of debates around self-awareness and trust in PA. It can be used by PA practice for educational, training and development purposes and has the scope to be integrated into wider organisational competency frameworks. It helps address issues around PA transparency and the often poor regard in which PA is held given the view by some that advocacy corrupts democracy. This has been fuelled in the UK by a number of PA and political scandals leading to the introduction of new regulatory measures. An improved understanding of practice could link directly to how future regulation may evolve.

Originality: The study aims to fill the research gap between PA and competency scholarship. At the same time, most research into PA has had a North American focus, this paper adds value by looking at a UK and more broadly European perspective allowing for comparisons and shared learning.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Subjects: L400 Social Policy
P900 Others in Mass Communications and Documentation
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Social Sciences
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Paul Burns
Date Deposited: 02 Aug 2019 14:39
Last Modified: 01 Aug 2021 11:00

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