When do public-academic partnerships lead to evidence use in policymaking?

Amy Preston Page and Christina Kang-Yi

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article ‘Public-academic partnerships to foster use of research evidence in improving youth outcomes: findings from document analysis

Child welfare and youth mental health services in the United States are complex and often disjointed. Government policies and funders increasingly require evidence-based care from these agencies. To meet this demand, partnerships between public care agencies and academic researchers have become popular in recent years. While these public-academic partnerships or ‘PAPs’ have demonstrated a positive impact on improving use of research evidence by public care agency leaders, we still have limited knowledge about how these partnerships work and which partnership characteristics may contribute to evidence use.

In our Evidence and Policy article, ‘Public-academic partnerships to foster use of research evidence in improving youth outcomes: findings from document analysis’, we analysed documents from 23 US PAPs aiming to improve mental health and promote well-being of youth aged 12–25 years. We found that the PAPs had diverse partnership goals including implementation and dissemination of research/evaluation evidence, information sharing, and prioritising and streamlining research processes. PAPs sustained longer than 10 years had more focused goals while PAPs 10 years or newer were engaged in more diverse goals. The majority of PAPs used journal articles, presentations and multimedia as dissemination strategies. Several PAPs had a large volume of material available online while others had very little.

We also found that it was difficult to thoroughly identify public care agency leaders’ use of PAP-generated research evidence through our document analysis. Fewer than half of the PAPs reported on use of PAP-generated evidence in subsequent decision making by public care agency leaders. Documentation was also lacking in two other key areas: reporting on youth outcomes and reporting on staff training outcomes.

However, we did observe some patterns related to reporting on evidence use. Half of PAPs with 10 or fewer years in partnership had publications reporting evidence use by PAP leaders while only 14% of PAPs older than 10 years did. The mental health domain was the most common focus among PAPs reporting on evidence use. More than half of the PAPs reporting on evidence use also reported on improved youth outcomes while the others either did not evaluate youth outcomes directly or did not report improvement in outcomes measured.

Our article also introduces a conceptual framework that guided how we analysed the documents reviewed. We built our conceptual framework around three perspectives:

  • The realist evaluation perspective, which suggests that the context in which a PAP exists, its operating mechanisms and its outcomes may help us understand what leads to public care agency leaders’ evidence use
  • The social partnerships perspective, which describes partnership processes (for example, identifying the key issue, coalition building and setting the PAP agenda) that occur simultaneously so that PAPs can start, form and mature
  • The organisational life cycle perspective, which suggests that an organisation’s goals, priorities and definition of effectiveness will differ at various points in its existence.

Applying the conceptual framework, we analysed dissemination products to assess for items such as partnership length, geographic region of the PAP, focus and goals of the PAP, funding mechanisms, youth outcomes assessed and descriptions of the PAP leading to evidence use by public care agency leaders.

Given the unbalanced volume of dissemination products between PAPs and the relative scarcity of reports on youth outcomes and staff training outcomes, we recommend more direct attention be given during early stages of PAP formation to the importance of data sharing, data licensing agreements, environmental scanning, clear purpose formulation and consensus on what information may be publicly disseminated. Additionally, we recommend that evaluation and research processes be designed in advance. To promote mutual benefits for each partner, public care agencies should establish clear research and evaluation guidelines to inform researchers of expectations when initiating and forming PAPs. Each of these tasks involves clear leadership representation and roles for each member to play in the PAP.

We hope our findings and recommendations may serve as a guide in evaluating PAP context, mechanisms and outcomes that lead to improvement of evidence-based policymaking and service delivery.


Amy Preston Page is an Instructor for the Online MSW Program at the Graduate School of Social Service at Fordham University.

Christina Kang-Yi is a Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Mental Health, University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Page, A. P. Olubiyi, O. B. Wong, Y-L. I. and Kang-Yi, C. D. (2021) Public-academic partnerships to foster use of research evidence in improving youth outcomes: findings from document analysis. Evidence & Policy, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16210115966623.


Image credit: Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Bridging the research-policy gap: the importance of effective identitiy leadership and shared commitment

Principles and related strategies for spinal cord injury research partnership approaches: a qualitative study

Research assessment in a National Health Service organisation: a process for learning and accountability

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