What should partners keep in mind when developing a joint research agenda?

Whether a research agenda emerges formally or more organically, there are a few principles that help guide its development:

  • Root the research agenda in the real-world priorities and challenges that practitioners face. The research that RPPs take on must be useful for responding to practical problems that are informed by multiple stakeholders’ perspectives. They may be wide-ranging, and could include specific practices, leadership decisions, or agency-wide policy changes.
  • Collaborate from the beginning and integrate ongoing communication throughout your projects. Practitioners and researchers are co-designers of a research agenda. An iterative, collaborative approach continues as specific projects are developed and launched. Equal contribution is less important than frequent, consistent, authentic opportunities for informing and contributing to the research agenda. All parties’ ongoing ownership of the agenda is essential if the research is to matter.
  • Develop an agenda that is likely to be used. There is often an incongruence between the availability of research and an agency’s capacity to use research, even research generated by a partnership. To avoid this, consider a diversified portfolio of projects and anticipate the supports necessary to encourage the use of the research. Although additional activities are needed to ensure use, some partnerships, like the Domestic Violence Program Evaluation and Research Collaborative in Boston, emphasize the development of practitioner-informed research products. “These tools have increased value and usefulness for practitioners. They trust these tools because practitioners have informed the process along the way,” says Megan Bair-Merritt, a researcher at Boston Medical Center.
  • Attend to the political realities that partners face and evolving priorities as the agenda gets refined. The research agenda needs to be in tune with the emergent and complex political and community realities that agencies and practice partners navigate. A research project that comes on the heels of news that a foster care child died while in care or when an agency must operate under court-ordered state oversight requires special sensitivity to how the research agenda forms and evolves. In some partnership contexts, the research agenda may require sign off from multiple entities that engage stakeholders from many different departments and organizations.

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How do you stay on target once a research agenda has been established?

RPPs can do several things to ensure that the partnership maintains its focus over time. Keep the research agenda grounded in the basics—focused on practical problems, supported by relationships, and reinforced by regular communication. Partners can also use MOUs to clarify their key agreements and principles as they begin projects. Later on, regular check-ins help partners monitor whether they are staying on course.

Partners should regularly revisit the research agenda. A research agenda provides a useful overview of the RPP’s work, but it needs to be sufficiently current to inform ongoing discussions about what projects to pursue and which lines of work to develop. Many experienced RPPs regularly review the research agenda during joint partner meetings and maintain strong lines of communication at all steps along the way.

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How important is flexibility in the ongoing development of a research agenda?

Political, administrative, and fiscal realities significantly influence timing, working arrangements, and when and how research is used. Maintaining some flexibility in how the work unfolds supports a healthy give-and-take among partners. In some contexts, lean funding environments can further shape partnership priorities and how the research agenda proceeds.

Flexibility also requires consideration of relationship dynamics within the partnership. While it is important to “stay in your lane,” researchers are also often called on to be implementation advisors, reviewers, and technical assistants on projects. Partners on both sides must operate in multiple modes, balancing responsiveness with core roles and responsibilities.

Agency partners can demonstrate flexibility by integrating research partners into day-to-day operations as much as possible. This level of engagement takes time—orientation, scheduling, and, sometimes, and supervision of research associates, but such steps are critically important to ensure that the research agenda is aligned to on-the-ground realities.

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