I recently published a guest blog post for the Alliance for Useful Evidence, where I mentioned the Discovering Desistance project as a good example of research-practitioner-service user engagement. Thought some of you who follow this blog might be interested.
At an event today about community empowerment in Scotland someone approached me to discuss his less than empowering experience of research. He had been contacted by a group of, in his words, “no doubt eminent academics”, who had told him they had just been awarded funding to research his community and were seeking to meet him to find out about his experience of community ownership. There had been no prior engagement, no discussion with the community about what research they would like, and the research funders clearly hadn’t seriously considered the level of engagement between researched and researchers. The irony of all this when the topic of research is community ownership didn’t escape either of us!
Now, lets hope that despite this inauspicious start, the evidence emerging from this process will eventually be useful to the community being studied and also that wider lessons are shared for others to reflect and learn. However, it’s a helpful reminder of one reason (there are others) why useless evidence is produced.
In this example, there is a strong likelihood that the people being researched will feel disconnected from the research process, they won’t necessarily think the questions being asked are the ‘right’ ones, will have no ownership over the findings emerging, may not know what the research means to them or how to actually use it. So the quality of the research is likely to be poorer and the potential for it to be useful to policy, practice and people outside academia likely to be less than if there had been greater engagement and co-operation at an earlier stage.
As luck would have it only last week a colleague, Cathy Sharp (from Research for Real), shared with me a book chapter by John Heron and Peter Reason on this very topic – “The practice of co-operative inquiry: Research with rather than on people”. For them, and for me too, “good research is research conducted with people rather than on people” (Heron and Reason, 2001: 179). Not a bad starting point of principle for the creation of useful evidence.
How people translate this principle will differ. For some this may lead them to think about action research or co-operative inquiry approaches (for a useful exploration of what this is see the chapter referred to above or this storyboard). For others it may start with some relatively basic changes to their research approach. For instance, last night my partner, who works as an academic, was asking me how he could ensure his research project about child protection and joint working across housing and social services was really “with people”. When I suggested he spoke to housing and social work practitioners about the issues they faced before he developed a potential research question, he genuinely hadn’t considered this. “Could I talk to them at this stage?” he asked, immediately relieved of the pressure of coming up with a research question in isolation from this engagement. A really simple suggestion, but potentially transformative in terms of ensuring useful evidence emerges.
Of course, sometimes this practitioner-research monologue is not enough either! After all, we are often focusing on people and their lives, and so a more appropriate aspiration might be to support genuine dialogue between a much wider group of stakeholders. This is one of the aspirations of a project I’m involved in at the moment which aims to share knowledge about how and why people stop offending from crime, and to recommend changes in policy and practice to better support people to stop offending (a process known as desistance). In this project knowledge is shared and co-created between people who have offended, families and supporters of people who have offended, academics, policymakers, managers, practitioners, employers and service providers. The project activities have included the production of a documentary film (called ‘The road from crime‘), the creation of a blog site and facilitated workshops where this group of stakeholders co-produce clear recommendations about how to improve processes, policies and practice to better support desistance from crime.
I’m really struck here by the parallels between the ownership of research (agendas, questions and data) and the issues around community ownership of physical assets I’ve just been involved in discussing (and where this post started). One of the parallels is nicely summed up by one of the panel experts at the community empowerment event (Milind Kolhatkar, from Edinburgh voluntary organisation’s council) who argued that communities need:
“Experts on tap rather than experts on top”
So, to all of us involved in producing research can we stop thinking of ourselves as experts on high who know it all and need to know it all?
Obviously, I’m simplifying things for effect here: there are many researchers who do not fit this overly simplified caricature and there are a range of issues and difficulties associated with the approach I’m advocating. However, as a research community, perhaps there is value in reflecting on what research production would look like if there was greater acknowledgement of the different forms of expertise other people can bring to the creation of research, and so really free researchers from being the experts on top. Could this reflection help us to focus on making our research expertise available “on tap”, to help people understand the issues they face and the world in which they live, and to help us all collectively learn how to change and improve.
Not only will the evidence we produce be more useful as a result, but it is highly likely that it will be more accurate, our theories will be better informed, our publications of higher quality and our endeavours could just also be better recognised by (some) research funders too. It’s not an either or – useful evidence is better evidence!
Claire Lightowler is programme manager of Evidence-informed practice at IRISS (Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services).
IRISS promotes positive outcomes for people supported by social services in Scotland by enhancing the capacity and capability of social service stakeholders to access and make use of knowledge and evidence for service innovation and improvement.
You can contact Claire at email@example.com or find out more about IRISS at www.iriss.org.uk.
Heron, J. and Reason, P. (2001) ‘The Practice of Co-operative Inquiry: Research with rather than on people ‘ in P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (pp. 179-188). London: Sage 2001. Download here – http://www.peterreason.eu/Papers_list.html
IRISS (2012) How action research can help deliver better services: Creative Storyboard,
Discovering desistance blog, http://blogs.iriss.org.uk/discoveringdesistance/
The road from crime film (2012) http://www.iriss.org.uk/resources/the-road-from-crime