How is research used in agency and practice settings?

It is important for partnerships to anticipate the various ways research can be used. Some include:

  • Instrumental Uses: Research findings support specific decisions—for instance, adoption of a new program, policy, or practice.
  • Conceptual Uses: Research helps leaders understand and frame the issues they are confronting. More indirect than instrumental uses of research, conceptual uses shape how decision makers orient themselves to a problem or potential solutions.
  • Administrative Uses: Research highlights inefficiencies and gaps in system performance, and therefore influences administrative decisions about where to direct resources or update procedures to improve overall performance. Many RPPs examine interventions within child welfare, juvenile justice, and mental health settings for the purpose of assessing and improving performance.
  • Political Uses: The research that RPPs undertake is conducted in a political environment in which decisions have public consequences. It shouldn’t be a surprise that stakeholders use research findings to support their positions. See: Using Evidence: How Research Can Inform Public Services.

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What can a partnership do to position its research to be used?

Trusted research is more likely to be used. Partners who are able to build trusting relationships are more likely to be called upon by their colleagues when they need help with a problem. Trust is established by demonstrating consistency, responsiveness, and an understanding of the challenging contexts in which their counterparts.

Keeping that context in mind, Cynthia Coburn, professor at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, has summarized ways that partnerships can position research to be used in decision making. This guidance applies across youth serving systems:

  • Be explicit about best guesses and assumptions about how the research will be used.
  • Provide resources (e.g., fact sheets, workshops, briefings, and trainings) to practice partners that support them in interpreting findings and making connections to actionable items.
  • Understand that political circumstances trump research. Be open to supporting research use in ways that may not have a direct or immediate system impact.
  • Alternately, recognize that political circumstances may raise the profile of research. Be ready with key, concise messages.
  • Create structures and routines that strengthen the culture of evidence use and enable interpretation of findings. Devote resources to supporting these structures.
  • Build capacity within partnerships for analyzing, interpreting, and communicating findings. Build the research literacy of practitioners. Strengthen research partners’ policy and political literacy.
  • Invest in conceptual use: it is often easier to get broad agreement on concepts than specific policies. Conceptual use of research can go a long way.
  • Strategize ways to get the right people to the table.

Additionally, committees, work groups, learning groups, and training cohorts all present opportunities for encouraging research use. Beginning with end users and potential end uses, such as policy changes, resource allocation, staff training, public awareness campaigns, or management practices, all provide viable avenues for meaningful research use. Consider partnership members as a primary network for research use and engage them at many points along the way. When they can inform and envision how research might be used, uptake is more likely. They are closest to the issues and communities most affected by the research, and manage the interventions under study.

Where possible, tie research efforts to existing system incentives and levers. These existing system mechanisms provide a specific opportunity to connect research findings to a “moving train.” Many projects lend themselves to direct and immediate uses. Implementation of research-based programs, practices, and tools offer something tangible to agencies (e.g., free training or other incentives for participants). Evaluations of interventions can aid the use of research. Many interventions include a coaching component. Lay coaches are trained to train others in delivering the intervention. This strategy can be effective in embedding certain kinds of research. It is important, however, to manage issues of fidelity: how and when training is delivered, accessibility of materials, and the development and cultivation of lay trainers.

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What do researchers need to know about the timing issues that practice partners face?

Many agencies have a history of seeing interventions come and go, and research partners who are sensitive to this history and are able to respond to current needs and contexts are more poised to succeed than those who are not.

Researchers also need to be sensitive to timing and shifting prioritiess. Timing of research use is often linked to funding priorities. This can lead to some unpredictability. For instance, an agency may have the funding to support work in a given area “right now,” or they may lack the funding to act even when strong evidence exists. Action and inaction may also be shaped by how much political capital is required to make a change, the reallocation of resources, and shifting priorities in response to tightened budgets or fiscal crises.

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