24 May 2018

Knowing how: Putting research into practice

cardboard figures piece together a jigsaw What Works Scotland and community planning partners in Fife have worked together on collaborative action research projects for the past three years.

Here, Coryn Barclay, Research Consultant at Fife Council, blogs about how research is the 'secret weapon in public service reform'.


Research is more than data and profiling: it is the secret weapon in public sector reform, particularly around prevention, the Fife case site area found.

We need to support people to move from firefighting by creating space to shift to prevention. Research gives us a way to create that space, to frame the questions that can guide our enquiry and help to develop learning and understanding of the situation.

To showcase what research can offer and help build capacity we have been drawing on learning from What Works Scotland to update and develop new KnowHows providing guidance on different areas of research. This is part of wider evidence to action activity in Fife, including the Fife Researchers’ Alliance: connecting researchers, sharing practice, building capacity, and the KnowFife Partnership Hub: moving beyond the KnowFife Dataset to greater sharing of research and evidence to inform and shape public services in Fife.

Facilitation skills

Through the Fife case site, we learned that in working across agencies, the issue is less about not wanting to work with others, and more about the facilitation skills needed to manage diverse and sometimes conflicting agendas. To get under the skin of supporting people with welfare reform changes we developed and used vignettes as a method to explore/understand sensitive and complex problems in a non-threatening way. 

cartoon demonstrating the importance of understanding data sharing
Cartoon from the Fife welfare sanctions inquiry report 
In the case of the Welfare Reform PIT, using vignettes helped us to create space for dialogue to change preconceptions, and develop a better understanding of the ‘big picture’ in which we are working. It also helped to identify shared barriers, for example, around data protection and the limits to information sharing. Fundamentally, it helped to improve how people work together on the frontline by strengthening relationships between organisations. 
  
Although a relatively new addition to the Fife toolkit, there is clear potential for vignettes to be used more widely to help us get beneath the surface and better understand what we might do to address some of the wicked problems local public services are facing.

International comparisons

To better understand and shape our own local context, sometimes we need to look outwards, including being open to learning from international comparisons. The What Works Scotland international study visit to learn about Participatory Budgeting in Paris has played an instrumental role in shaping how both Fife and Glasgow plan to move from a small grants model to identifying opportunities for greater participation in mainstream budgets.

Getting evidence into action to improve public services requires us to know what works, knowing who to involve and why, as well as knowing how to put this into practice. People need time and permission to take a step back from the day job, to explore and discuss what isn’t working and why, and to take steps to do things differently. We need to empower people to act to do things differently, to be an agent of change in their own organisation, and to work with others to co-produce research and evidence. 

We need to both equip people with the necessary tools to do this, and recognise the active role that researchers have to play in working collaboratively with others to reform and shape our local public services.

Views expressed by guest bloggers may not reflect the views of What Works Scotland

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