Blog | January 2009

Waiting ... how to get field access to a public administration

by Boris Nieswand


“This is a completely different Ghana, isn’t it?” said one of the first ‘real persons’ I encountered after months of writing emails and letters and doing phone calls in order to get field access to a public administration. His comment referred to differences and similarities between my former project on Ghanaian migrants and my new research project on public administration in Stuttgart. In fact, the ‘administration-Ghana’ I am approaching is different – but not less complex or ‘exotic’.

To make it short: Until now my attempts to get field access were unsuccessful. However, probably as a coping strategy with their sometimes uncomfortable working conditions and their professional clumsiness, ethnographers developed artistic skills to reinterpret their adversities, clangers, crises and failures into academic benefits. For that reason the anthropologists among my colleagues did not express pity or compassion when I reported my difficulties but rather became enchanted: “Fantastic! This is already part of your field research! You have to write it down!” And, in fact, this ‘ethnographic trick’ works well. By reflecting about the causes of my complications in approaching my field, I learnt something about how my new field operates.

Being a grown-up in our culture means among other things to have some knowledge how to approach public administrations. This means normally: You have to find out, which department is responsible for your concern, (traditionally) to go to where it is located, ask somebody at the reception and/or follow the information signs inside the building to the waiting zone, draw a number and wait until the number flashes up. Subsequently, you enter the workspace of an officer and try your luck… Although a field researcher who wants to make a participant observation in a public administration faces comparable practical challenges there are some slight but relevant differences: there are no formal procedures how to apply for “field access” and no departments in charge of granting it. There are no counters, no forms, no responsible officers, no information signs, no numbers to draw at the entrance and no waiting zones. Nevertheless, it has to be done - somehow. In particular, it requires the most characteristic of all activities in approaching public administrations: waiting...

If you do not know where to start it is good just to start anywhere. Since I did not understand the internal structure of the organisation which I was approaching, I initially asked the wrong persons or the right persons at the wrong time or in the wrong way. Who and what was wrong or right had to be tried out in an initially relatively accidental and labour intensive process. In this context, the most significant practical problem was that persons who I approached did not reply to my requests. My first research result was that non-communication is a rather ambiguous form of communication. It has – somehow contraintuitively – too much meaning (and not too little): Has he or she just not yet answered? Should I wait for some more time? Has he or she forgotten to answer? Doesn’t he or she want to answer? Does he or she reject the project? .... On a practical level the observed non-communication was closely linked to the organisation of work in public administrations. Since structural units like departments or work groups are defined by a set of practical responsibilities it is difficult in a huge anonymous social setting, such as the public administration of the city of Stuttgart, to find somebody who feels responsible for a concern for which nobody is formally responsible for. Why should somebody declare himself or herself responsible for something he or she is not responsible for? And even more difficult: Who is allowed in the formal hierarchy of a public administration to declare herself or himself responsible for something which he or she is not responsible for?

In such a rather difficult situation non-communication is a rational strategy. If requests arrive which are (a) not very important for your work, (b) difficult to understand, (c) difficult to translate in terms of internal responsibilities (c) and/or (d) entail further inquiries (which means additional work!), it is advisable to leave them unprocessed (strategy 1). If you wait many problems just disappear and you will never hear again something about them. Is the request made again or – depending on thickness of an individual’s skin – several times you can use strategy 2: delegate the request: “Dear Mr. XY, I am sorry but I cannot help you but I would advise you to ask somebody else...” As alternative strategy you can play back the responsibility for taking the next turn by asking for a reformulation of the original request (strategy 3): “Could you write more exactly what you want to do?” If the requester is not scared by the call for reformulation (“was my request really so bad?) and sends a reformulation it is also possible to apply strategy 3 more than once (e.g. “Please, could you give me some more information about the institution you are working for?”) or, alternatively, to go back to strategy 1 and strategy 2....

Both non-responses and calls for reformulation have the same result: a deceleration of the process. If one allows a person, depending on the level of hierarchy, for one to four weeks to answer, one can imagine that altogether one easily spends several months with waiting for answers and with rewriting the request (by now, I reformulated my original request approximately twenty times either in order to adapt it to different addressees or because I was asked for reformulation). The practical challenge of this stage of the field process is to be politely persistent and, above all, not to take these complications and frustrations personally or as statement of irrelevance of the research project. Instead, it is a much more comfortable interpretation – and ethnographers like this type of snuggy interpretations – that they just reflect the structural difficulties of large anonymous organisations to deal with concerns, which are complicated to classify according to the existing structure and for which no formalised procedures exist.

However, in the medium-term my labour-intensive trial-and-error strategy led me to identify some persons who reacted in an unlikely way: they declared themselves responsible to help me. They gave me strategic information (e.g. an organigram or information about promising field sites) and functioned as “patrons” to whom I could refer to in my further requests. The reference to a “patron” is important because it personalises the communication to some extent and makes something which was originally part of the external environment of an organisation (and therefore relatively irrelevant) a matter of internal relevance (because it concerns the relationship of the addressee and the patron). Thereby, it increases for the recipient of the request the subjectively felt social risk of non-response, mobilises emotions of collegial solidarity and, consequently, increases the probability of answering.

To summarize my research results: After a longer period of straying around I found, guided by some benign spirits, a waiting zone which promised access to the non-existent department for “field research affairs”. I drew a number, took a seat and now I am excited to learn what is hidden behind the door, which I can open when my number flash up… At least, I hope that this is the kind of waiting zone where numbers flash up and, even more so, I hope that behind the door are not only other waiting zones! ;-)


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