27 November 2017

Digging deep and getting dirty hands! Doing collaborative action research with public services

Photos of Dr Hayley Bennett and Dr Richard Brunner outside the Scottish Government building at Victoria Quay
Since 2015 Dr Hayley Bennett and Dr Richard Brunner have been creating, adapting and co-producing collaborative action research activities with various public service professionals across Scotland. 

Here they share insights on the role of professional researchers in collaborative, participatory and action research approaches. 

Collaborative working to improve evidence use is an increasingly popular expectation within academia and across public services. But what’s really involved when researchers engage in intensive collaborative initiatives, and need to ‘dig deep’ in their work with practitioners from public and third sector organisations to co-produce research and evidence? We reflect on our experiences and activities to help shape future research design and collaborative programmes.

Researchers in the What Works Scotland project have been active in four case sites - piloting, co-producing, and developing collaborative action research (CAR) inquiries and participatory or collaborative activities with a wide range of public service practitioners and partners. A CAR approach responds to context, so the research in each case site has varied, and the approaches or 'models' for working collaboratively in each site have also been diverse. In short, there's no single model of CAR within What Works Scotland.

 Conceptualising and sharing our experiences 

Early in 2017 we presented some early findings to Scottish Government civil servants. We focused on the processes involved in 'getting in', 'getting on' and 'getting out' when university researchers carry out CAR with public services partners and co-producers. See the presentation (PDF)

On 15 November we presented further research findings (PDF) to Scottish Government civil servants as part of their annual Evidence in Policy fortnight. This time we focused on the insights gained, and tensions experienced, when co-producing evidence using a CAR approach with public service practitioners. Whilst CAR involves a reworking of traditional researcher-participant power relations, and takes longer to set up and work through, it allows public service workers involved to learn-about-research-by-doing-it, so upskilling public service capacities for conducting, commissioning and evaluating research. Alongside this, it enables university researchers to develop deeper relationships than more traditional research approaches, allowing 'under the bonnet' insights into the mechanics of public service worker relationships and public service reform contexts. In this way it complements other research approaches.

In terms of doing CAR with public services, we argued that:

  1. Context matters. CAR can be a radically new prospect for public service practitioners, who, when operating as researchers in CAR groups such as those we have offered, will spend some of their working weeks thinking and working in new ways, with the possibility of generating evidence and learning that questions the 'way that things are done'. How open are the senior professionals - who act as gatekeepers for CAR - to supporting CAR as a potentially new way for groups of their staff to spend some of their work time; and to responding positively to evidence that may be generated through the CAR groups which may question the way that public services currently operate? 
  2. If the door is opened for CAR, CAR can, in one swoop, offer both capacity-building and evidence-generating capabilities to groups of staff. The gains of CAR are in the processes of groups of practitioners learning and collaborating together – not only in the formal outputs from CAR groups, such as research reports.
  3. Facilitating CAR programmes allows researchers to develop deeper relationships with public service practitioners than is possible in many other research approaches. Understanding processes (not just achieving an "output moment") can be gained from CAR inquiries - a shift from hierarchical models of knowledge transfer and exchange. We found that CAR could offer insights into practitioners' experiences and how they actually view, generate, comprehend, and work with evidence in practice and in different contexts. It also offered us insights into the 'software' of public service reform, including the pressures on public service workers due to service reorganisation and the 'soft skills' required to perform effectively in CAR groups. 
  4. For researchers contemplating initiating CAR processes, engaging in CAR involves wearing many extra 'hats' than in traditional research approaches, combining multiple roles: formal research, knowledge exchange, programme management, group facilitation, mentoring, expert advice and more.
  5. Correspondingly, existing "evidence use models" or knowledge exchange approaches could be improved by incorporating researchers as leaders, brokers, critical friends or mentors. This enables practitioners to communicate and build relationships with research scientists which can help develop research skills and build knowledge on how to generate evidence. This can improve the existing community of knowledge that is developing in Scotland around cross-professional working and improve understanding of evidence limitations, gaps, and strengths. 
We recommend the following to researchers contemplating initiating CAR processes with public service practitioners and partners:

  • Ensure there is enough time in the research design for significant relationship building at the start of the work (in our experience it took 12 months for some CAR groups to become functional and develop the capacity for inquiry work), and to understand the organisational contexts so that CAR has a reasonable chance of gaining traction, salience, and impact. 
  • Because of the contexts of austerity and public service reform, but also because CAR group members are learning as part of the CAR process, CAR facilitators should expect to perform nurturing and 'buffering' roles in order to maintain enthusiasm and space for CAR groups to see their inquiries through. 
  • Don’t over rely on pre-determined 'tools' or processes that may prioritise one professional perspective; within public services there are a multitude of professional discourses and practices which require the co-production of activities and on-going dialogue throughout the process.
  • All CAR group members benefit from developing and applying facilitation skills in CAR inquiry contexts. This includes researchers, knowledge exchange workers, and public service workers. It may be useful to identify existing skills or invest in facilitation training during the early stages of establishing CAR inquiry groups to make sure that the co-production of evidence through the group works well. 

We are continuing to identify and share our research experience and insights into undertaking CAR and collaborative approaches to understanding evidence. This includes relational and political aspects of the CAR work. Throughout the next 12 months we will be sharing these research findings with audiences across Scotland and beyond.

We are currently writing up this work. We will be presenting on some findings for an academic journal article at a seminar at University of Glasgow on 10 January 2018

If you would like to learn more about collaborative action research or any of the public service reform information discussed in this blog or on the associated case site pages, please add a comment or contact Hayley Bennett or Richard Brunner.

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