Monday, 7 November 2016

Getting evidence into action: how can we understand what we already know?

Our Co-director, Dr Sarah Morton writes about the processes involved in setting up an Evidence Bank to support public and voluntary sector partners in accessing existing research evidence to help to inform decision making.

At the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships we have always valued working closely with non-academic partners. At the end of one particular research partnership with national family organisations (Cool with Change) we started a conversation about what other research the partnership might do together. Many of the topics our partners were interested in were areas where there was already a lot of research, but it was very difficult for these non-academic agencies to get a sense of what that research was. So we set out together to develop ways to make existing research more useful.

We explain the reviewing process we developed to address that issue in an article just published by the journal Evidence and Policy (Evidence synthesis for knowledge exchange: balancing responsiveness and quality in providing evidence for policy and practice). The process focussed on making sure that evidence was useful, timely and relevant, and could be put into action by people working in children and family services.

Why is evidence reviewing important?

Often people need to understand what we already know from research in order to develop services. Traditional systematic reviewing is time consuming and often doesn’t offer very accessible summaries. Our evidence bank process sought to address these issues.

What kinds of topics were reviewed?

We developed a range of ways of interrogating what partners wanted to know from research in order to define review topics. This involved visiting and revisiting questions like:
  • What is the general topic area you are interested in? 
  • What is the issue or problem you are trying to address? 
  • What do you want to know about this issue? 
But we also explored the potential uses of the evidence through questions like:
  • What do you plan to do with the data/report? 
  • Who will the data/report be relevant to within and out with your organisation? 
  • What difference do you hope that using the data/report will make?

In addition to spending time exploring what people wanted, we also created a scoping stage, where we would look at the literature in general terms, get a sense of its size and scope, and return back to a discussion of what the specific focus should be.

Through the process we looked at: Parenting Teenagers; Transitions to Primary school; How families have changed; and other topics.

What was different about the reviews?

As well as being tailored very specifically to real world practice issues, the reviews have a number of distinctive features:
  • They explain how the topic review fits in with the wider literature and which subjects and disciplines it comes from, to give a sense of the ‘evidence landscape’ in which it sits.
  • The scoping and final reports are peer reviewed by an academic and a user reviewer who has practical experience and knowledge of the field.
  • The reports are edited by a knowledge exchange expert, written in plain language with a short summary. 
  • Reviews contain ‘talking points’ that focus on the practical implications of the evidence presented, and aim to move thinking away from the idea that research can tell you what to do, towards the idea that research provides a framework to help decision-making. 
  • They are conducted in a shorter time frame with involvement from partners throughout.

How have the reviews been used?

We worked closely with partners to explore how to make the reviews useful. We tried and tested a number of approaches, from large forums, communities of practice, and linking with improvement approaches. They have led to some specific actions, for example:
  • In West Lothian a review of transitions to primary school was used to test and embed new approaches to supporting children and families.
  • One of the partners from the About Families programme used the evidence to develop new ways of including parents in the design and delivery of services. 
  • In What Works Scotland a review of partnership working has been used by local authorities to reflect on and improve the effectiveness of partnerships for public service delivery.

What next?

The Evidence Bank review process has been taken into What Works Scotland and is being used there for a number of reviews

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