The purpose of this paper is to outline the current state of political and administrative ethnography in political science and public administration before suggesting that focus groups are a useful tool in the study of governing elites. They provide an alternative way of “being there” when the rules about secrecy and access prevent participant observation. Briefly, it describes the job of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff before explaining the research design, the preparations for the focus group sessions, and the strategies used to manage the dynamics of a diverse group that included former political enemies and factional rivals.
It outlines the approach to analysis and interpretation before reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of focus groups for research into political and administrative elites.
It concludes that focus groups are a valuable tool for making tacit knowledge explicit, especially when all participants work in a shared governmental tradition.
It is the first project to use focus groups to study the political elites of Westminster systems, let alone Australian government.
The authors acknowledge funding support for their research from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). The authors are also grateful to Professor Patrick Weller, AO, who helped facilitate both sessions and commented on the various manuscripts and to the participants at the Workshop on “Administrative Ethnography”, Copenhagen Business School, 10-12 April 2014, especially Bagga Bjerge and Sanne Frandsen, for their constructive criticism. The authors also acknowledge helpful comments from Guest Editor, Karen Boll and two anonymous reviewers.
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