Naomi Nichols, Kaitlin Schwan and Jayne Malenfant
We have spent much of our academic and professional careers participating in and leading initiatives that are trying to change how organisations, institutions and systems function. The relentless demands of this work mean there is often little opportunity to reflect on the efficacy of our efforts. To address this gap, we conducted more than two years of ethnographic research to learn how community-university-policy partnerships use research and strategic communication to change how youth homelessness is addressed on a pan-Canadian scale. Our intention was to improve our own tactical efforts to ensure our research contributes to the types of changes we want to see (e.g. an end to youth poverty and homelessness).
We learned that networked knowledge exchange is central to ensuring research-to-policy impact.
In this blog post, we suggest three things researchers can do to produce research that addresses persistent social problems.
1. Cultivate a range of multi-directional knowledge and information sharing channels to improve research engagement within a network
Lots has been written about the role of networks in facilitating evidence use (see, for example, the 2018 Evidence & Policy Special Issue on Networks).
Our findings indicate that Oliver and Faul’s (2018) suggestion that the relational aspects of evidence use is worthy of investigation. Our study offers insights to affirm the importance of inter-personal and inter-organisational relationships and specify a range of mechanisms that sustain people’s engagement with research across an issue-area network. First, in a network composed of people with a range of knowledge needs, we need to employ a multi-pronged approach to knowledge mobilisation, including: annual or semi-annual issue-based conferences and the regular production of open-access reports, toolkits, research summaries, policy briefs, webinars and other web-based, open-access evidence-based content. To improve accessibility and trustworthiness, longevity (more than ten years) and continuous curation of a range of dissemination channels is important. We also found that more relational and less formalised knowledge sharing activities were as important as these overt knowledge mobilisation efforts – in some cases directly contributing to policy agenda-setting and shifts in understandings.
We identified a range of informal mechanisms that supported the co-production of knowledge in these informal contexts: participation on issue-area advisory councils, boards of directors, partnered research initiatives, demonstration projects, consultation with local communities, and facilitated practitioner-driven sharing and learning sessions. Regular, structured opportunities to exchange local practice, policy and research knowledge as part of governance, research and learning efforts are as important as formal research translation efforts.
Finally, we discovered that strategic information was shared between network members and intermediary organisations during informal meetings, telephone calls and emails – particularly in order to improve government interest in an issue area and engagement with research. This was not about divulging institutional secrets; rather, people used informal professional channels (e.g. a quick email or phone call) to exchange information deemed pertinent to shared policy change goals.
2. Build strong and trustworthy professional relationships with government to improve access to research engagement with findings
Building strong professional relationships with issue-area champions within government – that is, bureaucrats who are tasked with informing government actions and policy with respect to a particular issue area – is essential to effectively navigate complex political and bureaucratic channels. These relationships also allow researchers and knowledge mobilisers to frame findings and recommendations so that they pique government interest and to learn how and where policy matters in government decision-making.
Our findings demonstrate that policy-oriented researchers would do well to learn as much as they can about how formal and informal political processes work in the government departments and ministries they want to influence. Without a sound understanding of how and where research matters in a political decision-making process, for example, researchers are likely to miss important policy windows, fail to utilise appropriate communication channels, or produce policy-oriented content without including key rhetorical devices to captivate government interest. On the other hand, without direct access to issue-area experts, policy analysts describe scrambling to find current relevant research evidence in a timely manner to address government priorities and concerns. Formal collaboration and informal information-sharing between researchers and bureaucrats supports the strategic flow of information across an issue-area network. Collaborations offer researchers opportunities to informally learn how particular political-institutional processes work, such that one’s policy advocacy efforts find greater purchase in government settings. For policy analysts and other government actors, collaborations offer direct access to knowledge producers and creates opportunities for the research community to produce cutting-edge research evidence that governments need to make sound decisions.
3. Designate (or create) an intermediary organisation to maintain multi-directional flows of information
Our research aligns with other studies that suggest it takes time and energy to maintain active and multi-directional channels for knowledge exchange (Smith and Stewart, 2016), and that intermediary organisations are thus key to coordinating the multiple communication channels that make a national systems-change effort possible (Gagnon, Mailhot and Ziam, 2019). It takes years to become the most reputable source of issue-area research evidence and maintaining this status requires one to continuously produce, find and curate new content. Furthermore, other forms of knowledge are just as important as research knowledge, and other intermediary organisations are important to build and sustain communicative bridges across diversely positioned network actors (e.g. people with lived experience knowledge, policy knowledge, practice knowledge and research knowledge). Coordinating multiple communicative and knowledge-sharing channels takes constant effort. Accessible and passionate thought leaders, and well-maintained professional and social relationships, were named by research participants as important relational dimensions of this networked knowledge mobilisation effort. Importantly, opportunities to co-produce and exchange knowledge resulted from, and went on to strengthen, existing social and professional relationships across the network.
We have learned that when it comes to an issue-area network that is composed of different stakeholder groups, it is important to cultivate multi-directional flows of knowledge and information and enable strategic (just in time) information exchange via meaningful collaboration. We also recognise the important role played by intermediary organisations that create and maintain these channels and opportunities.
You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:
Nichols, N. Malenfant, J. and Schwan, K. (2020). Networks and evidence-based advocacy: influencing a policy subsystem. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X15868720780747.
Naomi Nichols is the Canada Research Chair in Community Partnered Social Justice and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.
Kaitlin Schwan, PhD, is Director of Research at The Shift and Senior Researcher at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. She is appointed Assistant Professor, Status Only, at the University of Toronto.
Jayne Malenfant is from Kapuskasing, Ontario and is a PhD Candidate at McGill University’s Faculty of Education in Tio’tia:ke/Montréal. They are a Vanier and Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar.
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