What are the different ways sustained partnerships get started?

Research-practice partnerships begin in a variety of ways. A mutual commitment to a longer-term partnership provides the catalyst for getting started. Often, partnerships begin with each party agreeing to work together on an initial project in which they can garner a “quick win” as they establish ways of working together—for example, a synthesis of relevant existing research. Structurally, there are several ways to get started. These include:

  • Researcher-initiated partnership with a single practitioner or consortium of partners that share interest in a set of research questions
  • Agency-initiated partnership, usually initiated through an RFP process to evaluate a specific program intervention or to address a particular problem of practice
  • Research center collaboration with a government entity (e.g., state agency or county department) as part of an ongoing research agenda

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How do I find good partners?

RPPs are driven by relationships. The guide Developing and Sustaining Community-Based Participatory Research Partnerships: A Skill-Building Curriculum offers useful advice on identifying and selecting a partner, which is crucial to the health of the long-term relationship. At the beginning, both researchers and practitioners should consider these questions about the other side:

  • Are they willing and committed? Does the potential partner understand the time, energy, and resources required to establish and maintain this new relationship? Are they open to changing their current working protocols or environment?
  • Is there mutual respect? Do partners recognize that important expertise comes from both researchers and practitioners? Is there evidence that ideas and knowledge will be integrated across both sides of the partnership at every step of the process?
  • Can you trust each other? Or is there a possibility of trusting each other with time? Is there prior evidence that the potential partner is trustworthy (e.g., through earlier work together)?
  • Do they have the capacity to partner? Is there sufficient staff to support a new partnership? If key interpersonal skills are not present (e.g., effective negotiation, problem solving, conflict resolution, or fostering collaboration), are they willing to seek extra training in order to improve?
  • Are they committed to improving local conditions through the use of evidence? Do they have the same desire to attack local problems of practice with evidence? Is there a shared understanding of the importance of high-quality evidence in the decision making process?
  • Is there organizational support for the partnership? Are the appropriate and relevant leaders involved in the partnership? If decisions are made, will either organization provide support for implementation? Is there recognition of the underlying value of the partnership?

Start small: Trust is built over time.Early on, partners engage in important joint tasks, including identifying aligned interests, research efforts that are limited in scope and size, and addressing staffing and capacity challenges that the partnership will face. Finding early champions who have the position and authority to facilitate the partnership and provide leadership and support is essential. Sometimes these individuals will serve in a formal role, like a commissioner or director that leads the charge. Other times, a champion might be a trusted staff member who is empowered to advance the work or negotiate the terms of the partnership.

Early on, partners engage in important joint tasks, including identifying aligned interests and addressing staffing and capacity challenges that the partnership will face. Though partners bring different perspectives and needs to the table, persist. Trust is built over time.

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What questions should partners ask at the beginning?

PNew partnerships often confront a common set of questions that shape their structure, such as:

  • What is the size of the partnership?
  • How are stakeholders represented?
  • How broad and complex is our agenda?
  • What is our geographic reach?
  • What history precedes this partnership, and how can we deal with that from the beginning?
  • What does each institution need for the partnership to work?

The unique context of a given partnership also matters. An RPP with a broad geographic reach will have to think differently about communications and how often in-person meetings are convened. An expansive or complex research agenda may require multiple institutional partners (e.g., both public and charter education agencies). History may dictate that certain partners—for example, those with closer ties and credibility in communities—become central members.

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What are the considerations for selecting an institutional home for partnerships?

David Stevens, Director of Research Engagement at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, argues that “different types of institutional arrangements bring with them different benefits and challenges.” The question of where to house a partnership is dependent upon several variables:

  • Pre-existing institutional presence: For some RPPs, the institutional home is already determined. For example, a university agrees to house a consortium or has an established center in which the partnership can be housed.
  • Funding opportunities: Funding may be more readily available or administered on one side of the partnership, and may influence where the RPP is best established.
  • Infrastructure: Some partners report that bureaucratic and capacity barriers present a challenge to executing certain aspects of the work in a timely or efficient manner.
  • Indirect/administrative costs: University indirect costs, which tend to be high relative to non-university partners, can be prohibitive in obtaining funding from certain funding sources.
  • Staffing and human resource capacity: One partner may be better positioned to house or locate core staff in their institution. Staffing variables are dependent on the size, complexity, and core expertise needed to move the partnership forward.

Housing the partnership can be as simple as determining which entity is best positioned to receive and administer funds, or it can be more complicated. However the institutional home is determined, it is important to understand how the institutional context will affect the structure of the partnership.

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What kinds of agreements do partners develop as they start out and build for the long term?

MOUs, charters, and documents outlining operating principles help articulate shared goals, stakeholder roles and responsibilities, and governance and operational issues. These documents typically answer the following questions:

  • Goals: What research areas will the partnership focus on, and toward what end?
  • Roles: Who needs to be engaged as a partner to develop, maintain, and advance the work of the partnership? What are our expectations for members of the partnership? How will each partner’s expectations be addressed in agreements?
  • Board composition: How large should an advisory or executive board be? Which stakeholders should be represented to ensure that the board’s diversity and reach supports the partnership’s goals and research agenda?
  • Governance: How will we make decisions within the partnership? What authority, accountability, and lines of communication will support joint work?
  • Operating principles: What do we need to articulate about the way we will work together? How do our operating principles inform our governance structure and decision making process?
  • Timeframes: How long will these agreements remain in effect? When should we revisit them?

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How can partners address issues of equity and power from the beginning?

Partnership work is situated in contexts where power shapes outcomes. Issues related to equity and power are critically important for all partnersto acknowledge and address. Many partnerships engage in an intentional co-design process to explore and address issues of equity and power within the partnership over time. Other strategies acknowledge that various stakeholder groups have an investment in the work, and seek to engage those stakeholders both early and throughout the process. John Landsverk, former director of the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center at UC-San Diego, recalled a project in which the early engagement and collaboration with the local Association of Black Social Workers was essential to getting the aims of their partnership and research agenda right. According to Landsverk, this engagement proved invaluable to advancing the work and engaging with stakeholders.

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How do we structure the partnership to be responsive to the interests and pressures of partners on all sides?

Research and practice partners have different needs, organizational cultures, incentives, accountability, and resources. For the practice partner, there may be pressure to meet a need or produce a policy response on a tight schedule. Research often proceeds slowly, however, and researchers are trained to be cautious in recommending action in the absence of strong evidence. An additional challenge on the research side is that researchers often conduct their work within institutions that do not recognize or credit much of the work that occurs within research-practice partnerships.

Finding ways to reconcile needs and expectations on all sides requires creativity, strategy, and some give-and-take. Some partner needs can be addressed through written agreements that specify who owns the research products and when and how agency or district partners will be able to respond to research findings. As the partnership develops, partners may structure the research agenda so that agency or district partners have the final say on the research question, while researchers determine the best methods for studying the questions.

Research partners should be flexible and sensitive to the political and fiscal contexts in which partners operate. Many partners, including the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center at UC-San Diego, have established “no surprises” policies under which key reports are shared with their agency partners before they are made public. This allows the partner to prepare a thoughtful response rather than be caught off-guard by how media might report findings.

Both sides of the partnership must invest time and effort in getting the collaboration to cohere. Most RPPs suggest that researchers spend much more time on the practitioners’ turf—sitting in on meetings, visiting sites, and, sometimes, co-locating staff from the research side onsite. The latter, among other strategies, can ease researchers’ access to data and key decision makers, thereby speeding up the research process and ensuring that key messages are delivered to the right people. Some partnerships utilize video-conferencing technology so that partners can hold more meetings, with partners joining by video when in-person meetings aren’t possible.

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What challenges should multi-agency partnerships consider in the development of a partnership?

In some systems, multi-agency partnerships are common. Child welfare systems often involve a lead public agency that contracts with several community-based agencies that are responsible for service implementation. Mental health and juvenile justice partnerships also often engage multiple youth-serving agencies, and agreements must be negotiated with each entity.

Buy-in must occur with each partnering entity and at each level of the partnership. Relationships and trust-building should be especially prioritized within multi-agency partnerships because existing histories can complicate the process of building trust and establishing communication between all partners. Roles should be negotiated and each partner should have a clear understanding of the partnership’s benefits to them.

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