What qualities should partners possess?
An aptitude for collaboration and communication is critical to partnership building. Partners must be willing to negotiate when defining an agenda, communicate about the partnership’s work, engage and consider the needs of a range of stakeholders, and operate with flexibility and poise amid unpredictability.
Steve Fleishman of Education Northwest provides useful advice in determining whether an individual may be a good fit for partnership work: ask job candidates to describe interactions with individuals on similar research projects; invite them to talk about what matters to them most in terms of how they do their job; listen for an inclination toward collaboration, the ability to convey ideas in plain language, and a desire to pursue a joint research agenda to improve practice.
In general, good partners: validate each side’s expertise and authority in advancing collaborative work; cultivate an open and honest approach to communication that builds rapport and trust; demonstrate a commitment to addressing problems of practice and developing agency capacity; and are sensitive to timelines, contexts, and history as the research agenda is negotiated.
What might staffing look like on the research side?
RPPs are staffed in various ways. A modestly sized partnership may employ a lead researcher, one or two junior researchers, and an administrative person. Larger centers may hold several additional positions, including data specialists and communications staff.
For moderately-sized to large partnerships, a popular staffing consideration is for RPPs to consider whether to locate one or more research staff in the agency setting. Reasons for locating the researcher onsite with the agency partner include: streamlining access to the data and facilitating knowledge of the inner workings of partner agencies.
Some RPPs opt for an “embedded researcher” model, deciding not only to locate a researcher in the agency setting, but also to establish direct reporting lines with the senior administrator overseeing the joint work. Even further, some RPPs make such research staff official employees of the partnering agency, even if they originally came from the research side of the partnership. This arrangement can ease bureaucratic hurdles that may limit access that non-employees have to agency data and facilitates communication between partners by having a liaison that understands the environment, protocols and professional culture of each partnering institution.
For many RPPs, including those starting out, the most practical decision about staffing is budgetary. Many staffing models are quite lean. The researchers themselves are often unpaid for their partnership work. Lean staffing models present significant challenges to maintaining and growing partnerships, but are a reality that many partnerships are meeting creatively:
- Research staff in university settings often have access to various supports. For example, university communications offices can provide basic support and generate publicity for RPPs. “This work is well-aligned with the university’s community outreach mission, so I’ve gotten enthusiastic support from communications staff,” one researcher observed. Others have tapped small pockets of money, earmarked for community-based work, that provide just enough funding to do relationship maintenance, especially between larger funded projects.
- Graduate students can be a resource for extending staff. Partnership work can be compelling for many graduate students interested in doing research that improves policy or practice. Some partnerships are able to offer paid graduate research assistant positions or post-doctoral fellowships. A goal of employing graduate students is to provide opportunities for young researchers to develop the skills that allow them to enter a career pipeline for this growing field. Lack of resources, however, can limit the amount of time that students can spend on projects.
- Many leaner RPPs take a “do it yourself” approach. “We maintain our own website and schedule our own trainings. If there’s an opportunity to do a tag-along event in conjunction with something that is paid for, we take the opportunity,” reports Megan Bair-Merritt of Boston’s Domestic Violence Program Evaluation and Research Collaborative.
What might staffing look like on the practice side?
Partnerships require time for coordinating the work and communicating with internal and external stakeholders—key functions that should not be overlooked. Staff such as data manager, communications manager, and community outreach specialist can increase the partnership’s capacity and reach, and ultimately help RPPs produce research that is practical and accessible. Staff in these roles often serve as critical bridges between research and practice. But allocating resources for those activities can be challenging. Below are some ideas for partnering on lean staffing.
For partnerships centered in state-level work involving government agencies, the state liaison role appears to be essential. While liaison work may not be a full-time position, it is an essential task in maintaining the partnership. A senior level researcher often fills this role, building relationships with state agencies and representing research to their agency counterparts. Given the necessity of understanding the nuances of policy and politics, it is appropriate to have a policy savvy researcher serving in this role.
The liaison/coordination role is instrumental in community-based settings as well. One researcher used her limited funds not to extend research capacity, but rather to hire a community-based outreach worker. The nature of her action research allowed her to leverage funding for community development work. Employing a community leader, Deanna Wilkinson, a researcher at the Ohio State University, sought out someone who “got” the community, could recruit participants, build relationships, and coordinate research tasks in an environment where trust-building between the university and the community was of critical importance. “She has also gained some of the skills of a research assistant over time,” Wilkerson explained, “It was more important for this work for me to invest those modest dollars in a job in this community, especially given the focus of our research, and invest in an individual from the community, than to use them elsewhere. She has been an invaluable asset to the work, and, for her, she has a real forward-facing position to add to her resume.”
Another important role is that of data manager. No written agreement can replace a good data manager, a role that is essential to smooth data-sharing. The data to be shared are often organized in smaller, disparate parcels across units, partners, and systems, many of which are not well-coordinated or do not talk with each other. Data managers ensure that these many and varied data pieces are organized for analysis.