What does the literature tell us about brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners?

Jennifer Watling Neal, Brian Brutzman and Stephen Posner

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article ‘Understanding brokers, intermediaries, and boundary spanners: a multi-sectoral review of strategies, skills, and outcomes

Research evidence can help policymakers make decisions about society’s biggest challenges such as combating climate change, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and seeking racial justice. However, exchanges between policymakers and researchers are complex and often require the help of individuals and organisations serving in broker, intermediary or boundary spanner roles.

Although brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners are recognised across the environment, health and education sectors, there have been limited opportunities to explore how literature across sectors characterises what these individuals and organisations do, what skills they need and what outcomes they produce. Therefore, in a recently published Evidence & Policy article, we reviewed 185 conceptual and review papers across the environment, health and education sectors with the goal of understanding the strategies, skills and expected outcomes of brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners.

Figure 1

We found that papers included in our review described five main strategies used by brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners. First, 79.5% of the papers included in our review described how brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners facilitate relationships by building and strengthening ties between policymakers and researchers. This strategy requires unique competencies, including networking, interpersonal and matchmaking skills. Facilitating relationships is expected to result in relational outcomes like increased trust, collaboration and inclusion of diverse perspectives as well as more balanced power dynamics.

Second, 75.7% of the papers included in our review described how brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners disseminate evidence by translating and communicating research to relevant audiences. This strategy requires the ability to scan the horizon for relevant knowledge to disseminate as well as skills in synthesising, translating, tailoring and packaging research evidence. Disseminating evidence is expected to increase packaged products like literature reviews for policymakers, shift policymakers’ agendas and lead to a more responsive research process that considers input from policymakers.

Third, 56.8% of the papers described how brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners find alignment by creating common ground between stakeholders with different opinions, values, interests and cultures. This strategy requires skills in mediating differences between stakeholders, understanding the different stakeholder roles and navigating social networks. It also requires flexibility toward stakeholders’ needs. Finding alignment is expected to help increase shared agendas and consensus among policymakers and researchers.

Fourth, 48.6% of the papers described how brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners build capacity by bolstering skills, understanding or self-reliance of policymakers and researchers. Building capacity requires domain specific skills related to research and decision-making processes as well as teaching and mentoring skills and interdisciplinary and cross-cultural comfort. This strategy can help build policymakers’ skills and confidence in using research, and spark shifts in the worldviews of both policymakers and researchers that can lead to behaviour change.

Fifth, 37.3% of the papers included in our review described how brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners advise decisions by using research evidence to directly inform decision making. This strategy requires the ability to promote balanced perspectives, map stakeholders’ values and accept responsibility for accurately presenting research evidence. Advising decisions can improve policy outcomes and facilitate more equitable access to research evidence.

Across strategies, the literature suggests that brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners benefit from clear communication and expertise in research, policy and change processes. Additionally, expected outcomes that span these strategies include increased research uptake, awareness of policymakers’ needs and knowledge exchange between policymakers and researchers.

It’s important to understand how multi-sectoral literature characterises brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners. These findings can inform efforts to facilitate the use of research evidence in critical policy decisions and identify ways to create institutional infrastructure to professionalise these roles.


Jennifer Watling Neal is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University. Brian Brutzman is a PhD student in Psychology at Michigan State University. Stephen Posner is Director of Policy with the Gund Institute for Environment at the University of Vermont. All have broad interests in understanding how brokers, intermediaries and boundary spanners function to improve exchange between knowledge producers and users.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Neal, J. W. Posner, S. and Brutzman, B. (2021) Understanding brokers, intermediaries, and boundary spanners: a multi-sectoral review of strategies, skills, and outcomes. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16328416007542.


Image credit: Photo by Rafał Naczyński on Unsplash


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

Using knowledge brokering to produce community-generated evidence [Open Access]

Understanding knowledge brokerage and its transformative potential: a Bourdieusian perspective

A comparative ethnographic study of collective knowledge brokering across the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic knowledge boundaries in applied health research

‘Maybe we can turn the tide’: an explanatory mixed-methods study to understand how knowledge brokers mobilise health evidence in low- and middle-income countries [Open Access]

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