Democratic theory research inspiring students to reform public services

The Department of Politics is encouraging masters students to think critically about the ways in which public services – such as health, education and environment – can be more effective, by identifying problems and finding solutions.

The Hallamshire Hospital.

Dr Matthew Wood’s research focuses on democratic governance and theory, investigating how democratic innovations are implemented through things such as citizen’s assemblies.

He’s interested in how public and private-sector services are integrated into society and how they’re improved.

Taking this research into the classroom, he references one particular democratic innovation that he’s worked with closely - where he helped the European Medicines Agency think of ways to engage their public stakeholders - to give students an understanding of how to improve essential services; in the hopes that his students will make these services more effective and democratic.

That’s what a research-intensive environment is: it’s not constraining you in a particular body of knowledge, it’s taking that knowledge and allowing you to master it and move on to new terrain.

Dr Matthew Wood

Lecturer in Politics

Global relevance

Matthew encourages his students to build on this work and identify their own areas of interest, where many students go on to choose democratic innovations around the world – identifying public service areas that require improvements in places such as San Francisco, Sydney and Madrid; as well as examining innovations in places as diverse as Ireland, China, and the Dominican Republic.

“What I want my students to be able to do once they graduate is to see themselves as public sector reformers; people who want to drive improvement in public services, deliver better and more equitable, more democratic outcomes,” Matthew says.

Students are required to write an essay as their main research project, comparing two democratic innovations and explaining why these innovations are either working or failing.

This lays the groundwork for successful research skills, that will prove invaluable in practice.

Matthew says: “In the classroom, I use the European Medicines Agency as a case because it’s good for structuring the teaching and it’s where I have particular expertise, but for the assessment we treat it as if the students are independent researchers.”

Co-researcher approach

Working in this way, Matthew says that he almost becomes a co-researcher to his students, instead of their lecturer, as he’s helping them to develop their own ideas and advising them against sticking to a strict textbook case.

“That’s what I think is most important in research-based teaching, by the end of it the students have the confidence to debate and deliberate on what they’re doing with you,” Matthew says.

“Often you have to offer specific advice or you might offer suggestions about which cases might be best for them but ultimately, because they’ve been taught in a research-driven environment, they’re the ones who are doing the research,” he adds.

Matthew strongly believes in having students move beyond the “core body of knowledge,” to use the cases that lay the groundwork for a subject as a springboard, in order to identify new evidence, cases and information that can build on what’s already known.

“That’s what a research-intensive environment is: it’s not constraining you in a particular body of knowledge, it’s taking that knowledge and allowing you to master it and move on to new terrain, which is something you won’t get in a non-research-intensive environment,” he concludes.

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