Helping to improve malaria health care in southern Africa

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Work conducted by a Bristol Business School Professor on organisational systems in malaria zones has had a significant impact on international efforts to eradicate the disease.  Backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Malaria Elimination Initiative, Professor Peter Case’s work has introduced a new approach to tackling malaria in Zimbabwe and Swaziland.

Every year some half a million people die from the disease, which still exists in nearly 100 countries. Humans bitten by infected mosquitoes carrying the parasite can experience high fevers, chills, and other severe symptoms.

Although many NGOs distribute treated mosquito nets, or supply anti-malaria tablets to high-risk communities, human and organisational factors are often overlooked, says the academic.

“A vaccine or technology used as a solution is often seen as a silver bullet and is vital. But I believe this makes up only five percent of what can be done – the remaining 95% comes down to dealing with the flaws, difficulties, idiosyncrasies and foibles of human organisational systems,” he says.

Professor Case’s work, in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), provides methods to identify, analyse, and resolve context-specific challenges. Through a series of workshops taking place in the country where malaria poses a threat, members of staff (from the most junior front-line staff to the most senior medics and administrators) are able to meet in the same space and communicate the challenges they face when tackling malaria.

Together, they can then generate collective solutions and trace necessary changes that need to be made within the delivery system to improve prevention and treatment.

“While all the workshop participants play a crucial role in the process, hands-on expertise lies at the front line, because these are the people who see others with the disease day in day out, or who go in to spray homesteads,” says Professor Case.

Past examples of challenges these workers have experienced include instances when villagers who are issued with mosquito nets are later seen using them for fishing. In another African village, witnesses have noted that people who develop malaria symptoms sometimes seek non-medical care from traditional healers rather than go to a clinic.

Professor Case and colleague Dr Mberikunashe in Zimbabwe

This exercise of generating a list of shared challenges leads to a practical work plan with a dedicated group of people who take responsibility for implementing solutions. It has helped instil self-confidence and assertiveness within individuals who work on the front line, helping staff to realise that they can rely on themselves and colleagues to problem solve.

Professor Case’s work has had significant impact in southern Africa. Implementing this methodology across Swaziland has led to improvement in the reporting of malaria cases by health facilities and increased collaboration between the malaria program, schools, and community organisations. It has also led to improved communication between leaders within the National Malaria Control Programme (NMCP).

In Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South, Case’s system of structured organizational development has led to improvement in the availability and use of malaria registers by health facilities, a decrease in stock-outs of key malaria treatment drugs, and an increase in malaria case investigation rate within three days.

To ensure the project remains sustainable, Bristol Business School has begun training six medical staff at all levels of seniority in Zimbabwe via a PG Cert in Leadership and Professional Practice, which they are undertaking through distance learning.

These initial trainees will be assisting with similar process improvement initiatives in other malaria-prone countries in southern Africa, beginning in 2018 with Namibia.

Romantic poet’s home discovered through UWE Bristol research

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This week, a blue heritage plaque was unveiled in Bristol to denote the house where a famous 19th Century Romantic poet once lived – all thanks to research carried out at UWE Bristol.

While researching a new online course about writers in the west country, Robin Jarvis, who is Professor of English Literature at the University, discovered that former Poet Laureate Robert Southey lived in 87 Kingsdown Parade from 1802-1803.

The house in Kingsdown is a Grade II listed building Southey resided in, and is largely unaltered from how it was when he lived there.

Robin said: “Southey lived the first 30 years of his life in and around Bristol, but this is the only house he lived in for any length of time that survived the Blitz and post-war redevelopment. The link to the poet was previously unrecognised, owing to the renaming and renumbering of streets since Southey’s time.”

Southey was well known in his day as the member of a prominent movement of romantic poets that included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was his friend. He also held the post of Poet Laureate for three decades.

Born in a Bristol house on Wine Street, he later shared lodgings with Coleridge in College Street, lived with his aunt on College Green, and occupied a house in Stokes Croft. None of these buildings exist anymore.”

In December 2017, Robin contacted the Bristol Civic Society, which administers the blue plaques scheme in Bristol, to draw their attention to the house, and they approved the commemorative ensign. This week, alongside the academic and the property’s owners, they unveiled the historical plaque in memory of the poet.

“This was a significant residence for Southey because it is where his first child, daughter Margaret, was born and died before her first birthday, hence his short stint in the house,” said Robin.

“Bristol has a rich literary heritage that is less visible compared to Bath, and these are links worth recognising and celebrating,” he said.

“You can often walk around Bristol and be unaware this exists because, unfortunately, a lot of physical evidence of any links has suffered in the war.”

Robin said that Coleridge and Southey got married in Bristol’s St Mary Redcliffe church in 1795, weeks apart from each other. In the latter half of their careers, both poets lived in the Lake District and were part of a Romantic poetry group called the Lake School.

The academic realised that Southey had lived in the Kingsdown House while carrying out research for UWE Bristol’s new free online course called “Writing the West: Literature and Place.”

The programme tells the story of famous writers who have lived in the South West of England. As well as Coleridge and Southey, these include Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, among others.

This is only the second MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) available through UWE Bristol. Since its launch on 18 June, more than 1,000 people from more than 80 countries worldwide have enrolled.

More information about the free MOOC course can be found here:

£6.5m project aims to drive digital innovation in the South West

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A project worth £6.5million is being launched across the South West to expand the use of digital technologies throughout the region’s creative, health and manufacturing sectors.

The new Creative Technology Network will bring together universities and industrial partners, pooling their research and innovation expertise to develop cutting-edge practices, techniques and products in creative digital technologies.

Supported by a grant from RESEARCH ENGLAND, and led by the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), the three-year project is a partnership with Watershed in Bristol, Kaleider in Exeter, Bath Spa University, the University of Plymouth and Falmouth University.

UWE Bristol Professor Jon Dovey is leading the project for the DCRC

As new technology, including automation and big data, raises new challenges and opportunities for businesses, this partnership is designed to respond to industry needs across the health and manufacturing sectors and the creative industries, driving productivity and resilience.

The grant is part of RESEARCH ENGLAND’s Connecting Capabilities Fund, which supports university collaboration and encourages commercialisation of products made through partnerships with industry. The funding will kick-start the project, which begins in April.

Professor Martin Boddy, who is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Business Engagement at UWE Bristol, said, “We are immensely proud to be taking the lead on this exciting project which builds on UWE Bristol’s vision to work with partners to enhance innovation across the region and nationally. This new network will stimulate the regional economy and will undoubtedly lead to new products and new ways of working, all thanks to shared research experience and technical expertise.”

Professor Jon Dovey, who is Professor of Screen Media at the Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries, and Education at UWE Bristol and leading the project for the Digital Cultures Research Centre (DCRC) said, “This project will bring together the best and the brightest researchers in creative arts, technology and design to work with companies old and new to show what new kinds of value can be unlocked by the application of creative technologies.

“We are going to be working with immersive media, processes of automation and the new availability of big data to support business to find new ways of working with their customers and our citizens. Watch this space for the amazing new products and services we invent in the next three years.”

 

Plants grown from seeds that orbited earth to go on show at national event

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Tomato and rocket plants grown at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) from seeds that were taken into space in a rocket and orbited the earth, are to feature as part of a research event in London in January 2018 that will bring together leading experts on radiation.

The event in Westminster from 15-17 January 2018, will display findings from a national consortium involved in the UK-wide £5.6m Radioactivity and The Environment (RATE) project. Its aim is to determine how best to safeguard human health from releases of radioactivity from nuclear power plants or nuclear waste repositories.

UWE Bristol is part of the TREE consortium, which won the THE Research Project of the year award in 2016, and will display the plants grown from the seeds as part of its exhibit.

The rocket seeds were sent up with astronauts in a Soyuz space rocket as part of a collaboration between the European Space Agency and the Royal Horticultural Society. They were kept in the International Space Station where British astronaut Tim Peake monitored them for six months. During that time, the seeds were exposed to radiation from cosmic rays that exist in space.

After they were returned to earth in June 2016, UWE Bristol PhD student Nicol Caplin from the Faculty of Health and Applied Sciences conducted experiments on the rocket seeds. The objective is to determine the effects of radiation on plant development and whether the seeds ‘remember’ their time orbiting earth and therefore change their growth in response to stressful conditions.

After planting the rocket seeds in early 2017, the University also acquired some tomato seeds in November 2017 that had been taken up to space by the Canadian Space Agency.

Findings from the UWE Bristol tests on both sets of seeds are expected to be revealed in spring 2018.

Professor Neil Willey, who is overseeing the project, said, “The dose of radiation the seeds were exposed to in space is eqivalent to the levels found in some parts of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. As part of our overall research on how radiation affects plants, we wanted to test the seeds in a controlled environment.”

Professor Willey, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the effects of radiation on plants, is one of many researchers involved in the RATE project. “The building of a new generation of nuclear power stations, and the fact that the UK does not have a permanent nuclear waste repository led to this project,” said Professor Willey.

RATE involves three consortia, each examining different parts of the environment such as rocks, sediments and wildlife, which could be affected by increased radiation levels. UWE Bristol researchers are focusing their work on plant species, and have grown plants in the laboratory after applying the same levels of radiation as in Chernobyl. “The problem with a lot of data from Chernobyl is that scientists take individual plant samples and make measurements, but they have no idea what happens to them over several generations under controlled conditions. So we have applied Chernobyl levels of radiation over multiple generations of plants and followed what has happened,” said Professor Willey.

Based on their research, Professor Willey said he and colleagues believe that current reference levels of radiation stipulated by the regulator, in other words the amount of exposure there needs to be before the environmental regulator has to start investigating, do not need to be modified.

The London event for goverment, regulators and industry is organised by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Commuting has Multiple Impacts on Employee Wellbeing

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Blog originally posted on www.whatworkswellbeing.org. 

A study of Commuting and Wellbeing undertaken by Dr Kiron Chatterjee and Dr Ben Clark of the Centre for Transport & Society at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) shows how different modes of transport for commuting affect our wellbeing.   

Many of us spend longer commuting to work than we would like and find our journeys stressful, but how detrimental is commuting to our wellbeing?

The journey to and from work is a routine activity undertaken on about 160 days of the year by those who are full-time employed in England. The average one-way commute time is 30 minutes, hence commuting consumes about one hour per day for the average commuter. However, one in seven travellers has a commute time of one hour or more, spending at least two hours per day going to and from work.

lyon-cycle-laneThe impact of this travelling on our wellbeing has been studied before, but results have been inconclusive and we do not have a complete picture of how commuting affects different aspects of wellbeing.

Chatterjee and Clark’s study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), took advantage of Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which tracks the lives of a large, representative sample of households in England. The data set allowed them to examine how changes in different aspects of wellbeing from one year to the next were related to changing commuting circumstances for more than 26,000 workers in England over a five-year period.

As set out in their summary report, they found that, all else being equal, every extra minute of commuting time reduces job satisfaction, reduces leisure time satisfaction, increases strain in people’s lives and worsens mental health.

Job satisfaction (as measured on a 7-point scale) declines with commute time (the exception being the small proportion of workers with extreme commutes of over 90 minutes each way)

The effects of commuting on employee wellbeing were found to vary depending on the mode of transport used to get to work:

  1. Those who walk or cycle to work do not report reductions in leisure time satisfaction in the same way as other commuters, even with the same duration of commute. Presumably, active commuting is seen as a beneficial use of time.
  2. Bus commuters feel the negative impacts of longer journey times more strongly than users of other modes of transport. This could relate to the complexity of longer journeys by bus.
  3. Meanwhile, longer duration commutes by rail are associated with less strain than shorter commutes by rail. The researchers believe this is explained by those on longer train journeys being more likely to get a seat and to have comfortable conditions to relax or even to work.
  4. Those who work from home are found to have higher job satisfaction and leisure time satisfaction, but working from home is clearly not possible for everyone on a daily basis.

Their findings have particularly important implications for employers.  An additional 20 minutes of commuting each day was found (on average) to have the equivalent effect on job satisfaction as a 19% reduction in income – this is a loss of £4,080 per annum for someone earning £21,600 (the median value for our sample).  They found a gender difference for this result with longer commute times having a more negative impact on women’s job satisfaction than men’s. This is likely to be related to the greater household and family responsibilities that women tend to have. They also found that employees with longer commute times are more likely to change job, and this has implications for employee retention.

The overall message for employers is that job satisfaction can be improved if workers have opportunities to reduce their time spent commuting, to work from home, and/or to walk or cycle to work – such commuting opportunities are likely to be good news for employee wellbeing and retention and hence reduce costs to businesses.

Whilst Chatterjee and Clark found that longer commute times have adverse wellbeing effects for job satisfaction, and even more markedly for leisure time satisfaction, they were not found to have a large impact on life satisfaction overall. Their analysis showed that this is because longer commute times are taken on for jobs which provide higher salaries and other benefits which serve to increase life satisfaction.

This does not mean that the negative wellbeing impacts of longer commutes can be disregarded. It is important to recognise the negative impacts on job satisfaction, leisure time satisfaction and mental health. People are only likely to continue to accept that a long commute is a price to pay if it is unavoidable and a social norm.

The Commuting & Wellbeing study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (Grant Number ES/N012429/1). The project was led by Dr Kiron Chatterjee at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) and ran for eighteen months from February 2016 to July 2017. A summary report from the study is available at https://travelbehaviour.com/outputs-commuting-wellbeing/

How to prepare for flooding: a guide

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flood1This year has seen gargantuan hurricanes roaring across the Caribbean, with storms also making landfall in the UK, which can increase instances of flooding. Experts from organisations like the Met Office and the Environment Agency tell us that global warming will most likely lead to the UK experiencing increased flooding in the years to come. But don’t despair: there is help and advice at hand and the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)’s Centre for Floods, Communities and Resilience is a hive of information. 

Dr Jessica Lamond is Associate Professor in flood risk management and works within the research centre. Below are some of her tips on how best to prepare for inundation in the UK, as well as ideas on how to mitigate the impact of water if it enters our homes:

– When renting or buying a house, visit the Environment Agency’s (EA) website to check if the property is in a flood plain. The EA provides maps showing zones susceptible to flooding. However, view these with caution as they are still somewhat imprecise, and a house that sits in a high risk zone can still be at very low risk of flooding due to its elevation. Another source of information is Know Your Flood Risk.

– Make sure you take out building and household insurance. Most policies in the UK include flood damage, but check with your insurer to be sure that this is included in the policy.

– If you receive a flood warning in your area, put in place a plan of action in advance i.e. work out how you will take the kids to school, how to protect your belongings in your house (i.e. move them upstairs), where to put your car, and where to put your pets etc.

– It sounds obvious, but keep all documents upstairs or, if living in a bungalow, keep a copy of them in another safe place, such as a friend’s home.

– If your home is at risk of flooding or is actually flooded, don’t despair. There is a lot of help out there from organisations such as the National Flood Forum.

– When taking out your next household insurance policy, find out about Flood Re, a flood re-insurance scheme that enables you to keep your premiums down, even if you have already claimed for flood damage.

– Once your home has been flooded, watch out for access to government funding. Sometimes you can access money to help guard your house’s structure against further flooding.

– You can modify your home to make it more flood resilient. Such measures include buying a flood resistant front door that fully seals when closed, smart ventilation bricks (these contain small balls that rise up when in contact with water and seal the air holes), and water-resistant wall coatings on the outside of the house.  There are also ways of protecting the inside of your house.

Of course the above tips are for those susceptible to flooding. However, UWE Bristol’s Centre for Floods, Communities and Resilience also assesses the causes of flooding, some of which are man-made. For more information on how the Centre is addressing this and many other issues around flood risk management, click here.

Helping India to help itself with water management and reforestation

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Dr Mark Everard is driven by a desire to shape the direction of development and influence world views about sustainability, given his love of nature. This drive has taken him all over the world and most recently to India, where he is working on two projects. One involves reforestation in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the other pertains to water management in the north-west state of Rajasthan. “I think, globally, people have forgotten the importance of nature and my work is to help re-invent an ecologically based economy,” says the environmentalist, who is Associate Professor of Ecosystem Services at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

Tamil Nadu

One element of Everard’s work in India is in partnership with The Converging World (TCW), a charity that helps regions in India work towards low-carbon energy production and development. One of the charity’s activities is to install wind turbines before recycling a proportion of operating surpluses into reforestation across the country.

Nadukuppam_forest
The beginnings of a forest at Nadukuppam

Reforestation, the natural or intentional restocking of existing forests and woodlands, provides multiple benefits. First there is the positive impact on people and nature, including hydrological buffering (helping with flood reduction and water resource regenerations), biodiversity enhancement, microclimate, and production of food and medicinal resources. A 40 year-old restored forest at Pitchandikulam demonstrates this. Tended from initial plantings on degraded farmland, it now hosts a diversity of wildlife, medicinal plants and a cold microclimate.

Then there are the carbon and climate benefits. By analysing data on carbon storage in the region’s typical forests, Everard and colleagues have demonstrated that an area of forest restored by incremental investments throughout the operational life of a wind turbine can sequester 3,000 times more carbon dioxide than that averted by the wind turbine.

Along with partners, Everard is involved in an ongoing reforestation programme around Nadukuppam village.  The planting of young trees began two years ago, and the involvement and empowerment of local people has played a vital role in its progress. The academic has now contributed to two scientific papers about the scheme.

Rajasthan

In India’s largest state, Everard is involved in a different environmental issue: water management. Rajasthan is a desert state and is today experiencing rapidly depleting groundwater levels and increasing geological contamination of the water, as mechanised pumping of deep groundwater becomes more common.

The region contains many traditional water management methods attuned to local geography, rainfall and culture. Unfortunately, a lot of this traditional water wisdom is lost today, according to the academic. “When the water levels decline, traditional water extraction techniques may cease to work, so interest in communal efforts to replenish it are displaced by competitive pumping of receding water,” he explains.

The environmentalist therefore looks at success factors in cases where people have reversed the cycle of degradation.  He collaborates with NGOs working with local people to restore traditional water harvesting solutions, as well as more modern innovations that complement local hydrology, geography and cultural perspectives. Such solutions can help intercept infrequent and increasingly erratic monsoon rains, enabling them to percolate into groundwater insulated from the region’s high evaporation rate and available for year-round access. In partnership with Wells for India and to highlight these effective methods, Everard is shortly publishing a guide in Hindi and English documenting over 30 ‘water wise’ water harvesting techniques in the region.

For example, monsoon run-off can be harvested using a ‘Johad’ (semi-circular mound of earth) that is adapted to drainage lines on sloping land with a permeable surface. The water is detained and able to recharge soil moisture and shallow groundwater, accessible year-round using open wells. Other solutions are adapted to where the land is sloped or flat, permeable or impermeable.

Mark_Kesar_village
Meeting with villagers in Rajasthan

Using this evidence, Everard communicates with highly placed officials in the Rajasthan government to remind them of such water resource recharge practices that have kept communities in the region viable over centuries. The academic says that authorities are beginning to recognise the need to rebuild ecosystem vitality from the bottom up.  “The Additional Chief Conservator of Forests in the Government of Rajasthan has recognised that the work we have published at UWE Bristol contains jigsaw pieces useful in converting high-level aspirations into practical reality.” Everard has already published three papers on this topic with three more in the pipeline.

 

 

Collaborating with creatives to make history more interactive

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SPProfessor Steve Poole wanted to redefine what it means to be a historian. Rather than only publish his work in print or make himself available for interviews from the press about his findings, the Director of UWE Bristol’s Regional History Centre felt a need to work with people from other disciplines to present history in a more interactive way. This desire led him to begin collaborating with experienced design specialists Splash and Ripple, who are residents at the Pervasive Media Studio, based in the Watershed (Bristol), a cross-artform venue and producer, sharing, developing and showcasing exemplary cultural ideas and talent..

Ghosts in the Garden

In 2012, together they created Ghosts in the Garden, a project for visitors to the Sydney Gardens in Bath to bring part of its history alive. The site, which makes up the grounds of the Holburne Museum, used to be a pleasure garden 200 years ago and, although few of the original features are still standing, the site once bustled with stall owners, entertainers, musicians – even pickpockets.

“We wanted give the public a flavour of what it must have felt like to wander around the garden,” says Poole. After he explored the archives to identify some of the more ordinary people who took part in the gala events, the team worked with storytellers and scriptwriters to develop characters and scenarios and design an interactive visit set in the early 1820s. “We didn’t want it to be a one-way authoritative guide book for audiences in heritage sites,” says Poole. “We wanted people to make discoveries by following clues and be part of a dialogue.”ghosts9

Splash and Ripple therefore created a GPS-driven hardware prop called the Time Radio, a ‘listening device’ that enables visitors to tune in to the conversations of people from the past, triggered in certain areas of the ground. These sound bytes provide clues to follow, allowing audiences to piece the story together and even change the ending.

Bodiam Castle

Their experience working on the pleasure garden led the team to their next project: the visitor experience at a National Trust property: Bodiam Castle. The moated 14th century fort in East Sussex wanted to involve its visitors more in the castle’s history. Poole and his team, including UWE Bristol colleague Professor Peter Fleming, therefore built a visitor experience involving a device similar to the sound radio: a drinking horn that houses a speaker and electronics to enable visitors to hear stories of historical goings-on in the fortress.

Romancing the gibbet

Steve Poole’s next project took him in a different direction. With knowledge of incidents in the 18th century when people were hanged at the scene of their crimes, he wanted to create a situated visitor experience at these sites, creating a project called Romancing the Gibbet.

A gibbet is an iron cage, used occasionally in the 18th century to contain a body after hanging to prevent the corpse rotting and display it as a deterrent. “Gibbeting was about creating a lasting memory on a community that the authorities felt should be taught a lesson,” says Poole. “We were interested in the ways narratives may have been passed down through generations.”

This project involved collaborative live public performances at the crime scene locations in the South West, including Over Stowey in Somerset, beginning with a brief historical background presentation from Professor Poole, followed by a poem by Ralph Hoyte with an audio representation by sound artist Michael Fairfax. In July 2017, this team also launched a series of locative audio apps for use at the sites of four of the hangings.

gibbet
Romancing the gibbet

Heritage Empath

Poole’s most recent project – still in development – is Heritage Empath, an immersive audio experience delivered via smartphone comparing the life of migrants living in Bristol with those that moved to the city in the 19th century. The 18-month project, which again sees the University working with Splash and Ripple, has been awarded £200,000 from the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

Heritage Empath looks at the challenges migrants have often faced when moving to a new city or country, such as a language barrier, or adapting to new surroundings. Poole and colleagues will conduct and record interviews with modern-day migrants and compare those with witness accounts from past migrants who arrived in Bristol in the 1800s. By using a digital technology – most probably an app – visitors will be able to walk in designated areas around the city, such as the harbourside, and put themselves in the shoes of migrants from two different ages. “The challenge is to move the locative heritage experience from one in which we feel sympathy for historical characters to one where we may feel empathy,” says Poole. “The extent to which this is either possible or desirable – and then scalable in terms of outputs – is what this research is really about.”

 

Laying foundations for a solid client-agency relationship

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In an increasingly competitive world in which marketing agencies are prolific, how best should they retain clients, and how can a relationship between client and agency be set up in the first place to ensure longevity? Two academics at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) are researching this relationship with a view to advising both parties how to lay solid foundations from the start.

For the last four years, Professor Tim Hughes and Dr Mario Vafeas have endeavoured to find out what makes a successful and long-lasting relationship between agencies (creative and digital), and their clients (usually marketers).

Beginning in 2013, their research project initially involved interviewing 25 people on both sides of existing business relationships, to ascertain what their common issues were. Since then, the researchers have also used a combination of one-to-one interviews, focus groups, workshops and survey questionnaires to gather more data from clients and agency account managers.

Mario-round-tables
Mario Vafeas has experience working both on the client and agency side

The results reveal some of the typical challenges both sides face. “You tend to find that agencies have common complaints about their clients, and vice versa,” says Vafeas. “However things are not getting better and in fact are getting worse,” he adds.

 

The first challenge that has emerged from the research is the power imbalance between both sides. The client controls the purse strings and, because the agency is trying to hold on to the account, their creatives may not always tell them what needs to be said through fear of negatively affecting the relationship.

To counter this imbalance, one of the first things for agencies to think about is whether they are compatible with the company commissioning them, explains Vafeas. “Working with clients where there is a good fit helps the subsequent relationship,” he says.

Establishing a modus operandi on how the two will interact from the beginning is also extremely important. “Explaining to the client at the outset that they don’t intend to impose their way of working on them, but instead want them to get the best possible work out of the agency is key,” says Vafeas. “That investment needs to be made upfront,” he adds, suggesting this is more important than a detailed contract, which can sometimes be off-putting for both parties.

Tim-buzzer
Tim Hughes in one of the team’s workshops

Says Hughes: “A lot of it is about agencies understanding what clients want, and clients understanding what they need to do to get the best out of agencies.” He adds: “This is very much a co-creative process.”

It is also vital that agencies fully understand the clients’ business and that they do not tell them what they already know, say the researchers. “Making sure the creative output is exceptional is key, as many clients can get work done in-house, so if they go to an agency they want something that stands out,” says Vafeas.

Hughes and Vafeas have also observed that there is sometimes a disconnect in the way the two parties want to communicate. They have noticed that agency staff are invariably aged under 30 while brand managers are often in their 50s. The former tend to prefer email, according to the academics, while the latter prefer direct contact. “In the past, a face-to-face interaction was fundamental to building a relationship, but we are now finding this doesn’t happen so much anymore,” says Vafeas. Despite occasional geographical constraints, agencies might therefore consider a more personal approach, he suggests, in order to nurture a stronger relationship.

With a view to sharing their findings and helping practitioners, Vafeas and Hughes work with business networks such as Bristol Media and the Chartered Institute of Marketing, hosting workshops to share results and asking participants to talk about implications for their businesses. They also host seminars, including with the Design Business Association in London. They also organise workshops with individual agencies.

Finally, their findings have also led the academics to incorporate sessions on how to optimise business relationships into the University’s Business and Management degree, as they see this as a vital skill for graduates.

(This article is also published on the Small Business Charter website)

Public inquiries: a way to draw a line in the sand, or avoid accountability?

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When gross negligence occurs in a hospital or a public organisation is suspected of acting inappropriately in a murder investigation, the victims’ families often want to hold someone accountable. For them, public inquiries are a chance for those responsible to apologise. Dr James Murphy from the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) researches the language used in public inquiries and the role blame plays in them. He has discovered that the victims’ loved ones do not always get the outcome they expected.

Over a six-month period in 2007 and 2008, more than 30 people died in three hospitals in an area of Northern Ireland as a result of an outbreak of the hospital-acquired infection Clostridium difficile. The bacterium also infected several other patients, making them severely ill. It later emerged that poor hygiene and lack of information for patients and their families meant the infection was not contained in one part of the hospital. A subsequent public inquiry was set up to find out why this happened.

James_Murphy1.png

Dr James Murphy, who is senior lecturer in English language and linguistics at UWE Bristol, researches how such public inquiries are conducted, how blame is attributed, and how apologies are expressed. He has examined the C. difficile case, and other public inquiries such as the Bichard Report (which asked why the necessary background checks were not made before a school employed Ian Huntley as a caretaker – he later murdered two 10-year-old girls).

In the case of the hospital-acquired infection, the inquiry invited two distinct groups of witnesses: the blameless family members of the victims, and a second group of hospital staff who were potentially blameable for the spread of the infection. Murphy assessed the linguistic aspect of the questioning. Although he expected that the hospital employees would be interrogated in the same way as defendants in a criminal court, and that family members would be treated like friendly witnesses, he found the opposite happened.

Instead, family members (often still in trauma) were questioned with closed, leading questions, similar to prosecution questioning in court. This, says Murphy, was simply so that the inquiry could confirm facts in the case. Meanwhile investigators asked hospital staff open, less-restricted questions. Murphy says this was to gather more evidence to help the inquiry identify who was responsible.

The academic has also learned that public inquiries are framed in a way that shies away from blaming anybody. “A lot of families expect someone to take responsibility for what they have suffered,” explains Murphy. “However public inquiries are not necessarily allowed to blame anyone.” He explains that blame is often more implicit in inquiries, which by highlighting lessons learned, imply that someone did something wrong and is potentially to blame.

Apologies are also invariably avoided in such investigations, finds Murphy. “When people are asked to apologise, they often have a carefully crafted statement demonstrating sympathy or regret, without taking responsibility,” he explains. “On the whole in inquiries, people don’t apologise because they fear that, in doing so, they risk public litigation,” says the linguistics expert.

Murphy also found that those who could be blamed, usually do a lot of preparation work on how to deliver their answers before attending a public inquiry. “There is a lot of rehearsal beforehand,” he says. Families, on the other hand, are often less clear about what to expect.

In fact, Murphy’s most striking discovery is the disconnect between family members’ expectations from a public inquiry and what they get at the end. “They see it as a line in the sand whereby they can discover who was responsible and can then move on,” says the academic. However, the reports they receive after the process are too often legalistic, hard to read, and careful about how they frame the findings. “The families want a direct and straightforward result, but what they get is something indirect and implicit,” he explains. This can sometimes leave them feeling like there has been a cover-up, says Murphy.

To address the issues in public inquiries, James Murphy is writing a book, due out in 2018, called, ‘The Discursive Construction of Blame: Language at Public Inquiries.’ The academic hopes it will influence policy and positively impact how public inquiry reporting can be improved and how victims and their families can better prepare for their involvement in proceedings.

Says Murphy: “Public inquiries are a strong representation of our democracy. Historically we might have lynched somebody we thought was to blame, but public inquiries represent the rational end of blame and is the endpoint of how we’ve developed as a society.”