Title: Research for Action: Cross-national perspectives on connecting knowledge, policy and practice for children
Editors: Robert Chaskin and Jona Rosenfeld
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York, 2008, ISBN 978-0-19-531408-3
This book takes six research case studies from Northern Ireland, South Africa, the US, Israel, England and Ireland to explore how new knowledge can bring about useful change for policy and practice in childcare. The fieldwork referred to covered:
● The refocusing of services from child protection to better family support.
● Reducing the number of child deaths as a result of gun crime.
● The development and utilisation of large-scale datasets.
● The implementation of a quality control instrument to improve residential care.
● A practice tool to help practitioners enhance the chances of children returning home from care.
● The development of a handbook by children in care to help others who face similar experiences.
What binds these disparate pieces of work are some core questions. What impact have these studies had on the policy and practice contexts for which they were intended? And what can we learn about the key factors for success? The authors focus on the processes by which knowledge developed in one place can be transferred and made useful in another.
In their opening chapter, Chaskin and Rosenfeld summarise their target questions:
● Who are the potential stakeholders for whom research knowledge will be useful?
● What are the opportunities for alliance-building between the different parties?
● What constraints, opportunities and pressures are in operation?
● What are the relevant processes, products, tools and forums that will help effective knowledge transfer?
● What are the skills, bases of knowledge, supports and resources required?
● What are the broader contextual issues – social, political, economic – that need to be considered?
This makes for a large canvas and some untidy answers but in my view is a better reflection of the complexity that is an essential characteristic of this area of work.
As indicated above, Chaskin and Rosenfeld drew on six case studies. Three were targeted on policy: Northern Ireland (refocusing), South Africa (gun crime) and the US (development of large-scale datasets from childcare agency records). The South African study had an explicit advocacy emphasis. The aim was to reduce the number of child deaths the study provided the “ammunition” to present the need for change.
The other three studies were directed at practice. The Israeli study sought to develop a tool to improve residential childcare. The English work focused on helping practitioners make better decisions about children in care “going home”. And the Irish study was a small-scale work driven by those with direct experience of residential care.
The editors then reflect on that empirical base in the light of a range of sources. These are, first, the literature on using knowledge in social welfare and social work practice. Next is the material on organisational learning. Third is what is known about programme evaluation. And the fourth area is that of dissemination and knowledge utilisation. Some of the language is off-putting for an English reader and all this may sound esoteric, but in simple terms the book seeks to apply the “what works?” question to research dissemination.
Three cross-cutting themes emerge from the six studies and their cultural contexts.
The first theme is research roles, relationships and styles of engagement. How much of any individual project is a genuine partnership between researcher and the operational workers? Is the researcher an independent outsider with his or her own agenda? Is the researcher a hired hand for some external agenda that has not been shared with the people on the ground? One thing that struck me in this section was the obvious point about the time that it takes for relationships to grow. Sometimes, as the editors point out, these relations develop over long periods and “through multiple, mutually reinforcing interactions”. If I think as a practitioner of my more productive relationships with external agencies, time to learn about and trust each other is fundamental. The second theme is what the editors call capacity. They see this playing out at three levels: that of the individual researcher, policymaker and practitioner in terms of the sets of skills that they have to offer each other that of the organisation and its managerial and technical capacities and lastly at the system level – the resources and constraints that create the environment for what the project can achieve.
These levels are interconnected. If they are not, the project and its potential impact are in trouble. It is easy for management, having agreed to a project going ahead and even contributing to its funding, to move on to the next thing and forget its maintenance role. Chaskin refers to the stresses of “living and working in the interstices between research and its application.
This is sometimes a difficult place to be, and is often undervalued by the academy, whose incentives and requirements (eg for specific kinds of publication and basic research) often push researchers in the opposite direction.”
The third theme identified is “the policy and socio-political context”. However worthy a particular project is, it will miss the mark if there is not a sufficient level of political receptivity. Political priorities, local and national, often appear fickle. We live in a world of constant “initiatives”. What was a pressing issue when the project was commissioned may not be at the forefront of political minds when the report is produced. Perhaps the findings are embarrassing or simply equivocal.
We all tend to like simple headlines when we know that reality is not always so straightforward. So research issues need to line up politically and organisationally as well as with those at the frontline.
All of the above may seem arcane – a debate to be conducted in some obscure commonroom rather than at the duty desk, trying to cope with the daily bombardment or looking at the back pages of this journal. But I would argue that, given the now too-familiar words about value for money, best value, joined-up working and, indeed, evidence-informed practice, looking at the outcomes of research, its impact on policy and practice is vital.
In the final chapter Chaskin and Rosenfeld seek to chart a course for fuller engagement and they build on the themes outlined above.
They refer to the divisions between the “two communities” of research and policy and research and practice: “Bridging this divide can be facilitated by action at several levels. The first level concerns the roles and activities of individuals – researchers, practitioners and policymakers – and their interactions with one another. The second focuses on organisations and the aspects of administrative structure, process and organisational culture that can be shaped to provide more fertile ground for fruitful partnerships between research, practice and policy. The third level concerns the broader contexts and systems in which both organisations and individuals work.”
When in 1985 the then Department of Health and Social Security introduced what was to become a series of “pink books” that distilled the latest childcare research, the task of dissemination was perceived in simpler terms. That 20-year programme, sustained under different administrations, has unquestionably enriched our knowledge base. Dissemination strategies have become more sophisticated and, certainly for those who are prepared to spend the time, there is a far richer literature from which to draw out “what works”. Access to the internet has immeasurably increased our capacity to search for and find information. But we realise now that “knowledge transfer” and “knowledge utilisation” are more complicated than we had thought.
As social workers, we are told not to promise what we cannot deliver. That goes for governments and researchers too if they are to retain their credibility. What I like about this book is that it takes seriously the dilemmas of making the connections between research, policy and practice. There are no easy recipes but there is confirmation from the six countries represented here that people are still trying.
Commitment to learning: The organisation’s leaders should have a clear, concrete and explicit commitment to learning and action.
Creation of structures: The creation of organisational space, structures, and processes for learning to take place and be translated into action.
Joint learning: A deliberate fostering of joint learning opportunities that encourage trust, exchange and collective enquiry.
Investments: Investments at the organisational level to develop the capacity of researchers, practitioners and policymakers to work with each other and with the tools of each other’s trade.
Reciprocal relationships: Applying knowledge, generating new questions and new approaches to action, as the book says, “requires reciprocal relationships between and among researchers, policymakers, managers and practitioners”. These relationships are complex, as are the relations among evidence, information and action.
Interaction: But the authors add: “This complexity can be seen as an opportunity, not just a problem. The work in this volume provides examples of how it is possible to chart a course through it in ways that can reconcile the contributions, constraints and intricacies under which researchers, policymakers and practitioners work and interact with one another, and to suggest ways of negotiating among them.”
Links and Resources
● Firm Foundations: a practical guide to organisational support for the use of research evidence, 2006, Research in Practice
● Leading Evidence-Informed Practice: a handbook, 2007, Research in Practice
● Working Together on the Front Line: How to make multiprofessional teams and partnerships work – An Action Pack for Piloting, 2008, Research in Practice
John Randall is a post-adoption social worker with Families for Children, a voluntary adoption agency. He writes monthly reviews of recently published research articles for Research in Practice Research and Policy Update
This article is published in the 17 July edition of Community Care magazine under the headline “Childcare knowledge that transcends national borders”