Triangulation is a key technique for anyone involved in a public scrutiny role. If you are not familiar with the concept here is a short introduction that I hope you will find helpful.
As a councillor, school governor or member of any other type of public body, you will no doubt have found yourself looking at management and performance reports as part of your scrutiny role. What you are being asked to do is to provide assurance that things are as they should be and to provide ‘challenge’ to those making the decisions. This is important – not just because you are acting the interests of citizens and service users – but because you want to see things continuously improving.
Sometimes, however, the report being presented by the senior officer, headteacher or chief executive, is the only source of information you have. Given that they are the expert in their field, have helped produce the report and have all the background information at their fingertips, how then do you seek assurance and challenge? Of course you may trust them implicitly and you no doubt have good reason to do so. But is this enough?
That’s where triangulation comes in.
Triangulation in the social sciences
In social science triangulation is a technique used to provide greater credibility and confidence for research results. In essence it borrows from the navigational idea that, given the mathematics of triangles, it’s possible to locate something when you view it from two or more points.
Often triangulation refers to the use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods in a single piece of research. This highlights the need to look at more than just the numbers when we are trying to assess something – it’s always good to get a richer picture.
Types of triangulation
Norman Denzin identified four varieties of triangulation; theoretical, data, methodological and investigator. It is the last three of these that are particularly useful for those involved in scrutiny roles:
Data triangulation: Time comparisons are always useful. Have you been provided with the historical data for a particular measure? Similarly have you got comparisons with similar councils, schools, public bodies? You don’t always need to rely on your own organisation for this data. You will often find that national data sets are published by government or others. You should have already had these pointed out to you – if not you should ask.
Methodological triangulation: Performance reporting is only one way to assess how well a service or project is doing. Observations of the service in action (perhaps as a ‘mystery customer’), interviews and focus groups with those providing or receiving the service, looking at examples of the paperwork, anonymised case files or, in schools, book scrutiny, are some alternative ways of getting a feel for a service. Finally, and critically, the conversations you have with citizens and service users are a really valuable source of information. The stories you year on the street, at the school gate and on the doorstep may be anecdotal but they are a legitimate method of evidence gathering. At the very least these types of story can start helpful conversations at committee or board meetings.
Investigator triangulation: It’s always helpful to have more than one set of eyes on a problem. As a scrutineer you already provide an valuable extra perspective – even if it’s simply asking the right questions. Other external perspectives can also be useful. Inspectors and auditors may have produced reports for your particular service or public body. They may even be willing to come and talk to you. Other people with a useful perspective include those from national government, professional bodies, community groups, organisations representing service users and academics. Remember, good governance needs good conversations.
Denzin uses the term multiple triangulation to describe a mix of all of the above – as a good scrutineer this is what you should be aiming for. Of course you will need to be selective in what you look at and how you triangulate – better to do a few things well than try and do too much.
While you will know best what works best for you in your circumstances there is always room to experiment with something new. If it works you can do more of it. If not then try something else.
It’s also worth talking to your fellow scrutineers in other councils, schools and public bodies to find out what they do. There is also no reason to stick to your own sector – the triangulation technique is one that works across all aspects of public governance.
And of course the aim here is not to catch people out or undermine them – as well as making a difference for those on the receiving end, good scrutiny should be welcomed by those who are being scrutinised as something that helps them do their job better. Everybody wins.
Photo credit here.