We know that local authorities value research evidence to improve their decision-making about public services in times of austerity; however, making evidence fit for purpose and getting it actively used in local government remains challenging.
So, we decided to test a potential new approach to knowledge mobilisation by convening and supporting action learning sets (ALS) across three local authorities (Hertfordshire, Gateshead and Doncaster Councils). This was supported by the NIHR Centre for Engagement and Dissemination (NCED), which not only aims to share knowledge and outputs from NIHR-funded research, but to develop the evidence base about “what works” in knowledge mobilisation.
The ALS would bring together a group of approximately 15 stakeholders in each local authority, including public health and social care commissioners, front-line practitioners, third-sector representatives, service users and local academics to reflect on research related to a priority topic of their choice. Using deliberative dialogue, including structured questioning and reflection, participants explored different types of knowledge and relationships between knowledge producers, users and mobilisers. By applying this approach, the ALS aimed to help mobilise research and other forms of knowledge on wellbeing and equity in local government into collectively agreed action plans.
As we started discussions with our local authority partners in Spring 2020, the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Despite various attempts to start the ALS we regrettably had to decide to abandon the project in its current form. In this blog, we share our lessons from working with the local authorities on the development of ALS during a pandemic and what this means for future knowledge mobilisation activities from NCED when engaging with public health and social care. Our reflections focus on the when, what and how of knowledge mobilisation with local authorities.
Research capacity during a pandemic: unethical conversations? (When)
What the pandemic taught us is that when public health and social care research is most needed (e.g. to inform the response to COVID-19), capacity for using this research is very limited. With local authority staff being spread thin and reassigned to other parts of their councils, it was not feasible and even borderline unethical to ask them to join and prepare for action learning set (ALS) meetings. In particular senior staff within local government, who are key participants for the ALS, were in some cases absent from our early conversations. A serious question was posed:
We tried to make the process more accessible by moving the ALS meetings online, involving smaller groups to optimise interaction (five instead of 15 participants) and shorter sessions, with individual activities and reflection time between sessions. This helped to some extent to engage with local authority partners, but the capacity problem remained and even short online meetings where often not feasible for senior staff. However, it illustrated the value of a blended approach to ALS with a potential combination of online and face-to-face sessions to allow stakeholders to engage differently at various times in the process. We also urged them to consider topics that were immediately relevant to their current situation, e.g. working virtually through the pandemic."How could we mobilise research evidence to help local government in their response to COVID-19, when they hadn’t got the time or mind space to even look at a one-page summary brief?"
The Hertfordshire County Council Social Work team chose to reflect on how to interpret the Mental Capacity Act and apply strengths-based approaches when discharging patients from hospitals into the care of local authorities (discharge to assess pathways). Strengths-based approaches are a collaborative process between service users and providers to determine an outcome that draws on the person’s strengths and assets. We found a small number of NIHR funded studies but also identified useful knowledge from other sources, such as a Health Services and Delivery Research (HS&DR) Evidence Synthesis Centre Topic Report, which provided a systematic review of evidence on different strengths-based approaches within adult social work, and guidance documents produced by a law firm.
|Knowledge Mobilisers Assemble!|
Localising and tailoring of evidence: the value of dialogue (How)
Thirdly, our conversations with partners about the planning of the action learning sets (ALS) demonstrated that local authority staff value conversations with academic researchers about the meaning of research and how-to tailor evidence to their local needs. Evidence is made fit for local commissioning and planning purposes by localising it (relating evidence to local context and needs) and tailoring it (presenting actionable messages). ALS provide a mechanism for this translational activity and a collaborative space for local authority staff to take time out from their busy jobs and reflect on research evidence (and other types of knowledge).
|Constructive dialogue was seen as most useful in supporting decision|
making, instead of researchers parachuting in with findings
Being humble and open to challenge and dialogue are key components of any knowledge mobilisation strategy for engaging with local authorities and dissemination of health research findings.
More commentary on action learning sets and engaging with local authorities in knowledge mobilisation below:
- Escobar O, Faulkner W, Rea HJ. Building capacity for dialogue facilitation in public engagement around research. Journal of Dialogue Studies. 2014;2(1):87-111. http://www.dialoguesociety.org/publications/Journal-of-Dialogue-Studies_Volume-2_Number-1.pdf#page=89
- Pounder T. Using action learning to drive organizational learning and performance. Strategic HR Review. 2009 Apr 17. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/14754390910946530/full/html
- Van der Graaf P, Cheetham M, Redgate S, Clare H, Adamson A. Co-production in local government: process, codification and capacity building of new knowledge in collective reflection spaces. Workshops findings from a UK mixed methods study. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2021 Jan;19(12). https://rdcu.be/cesKm
- Van der Graaf P, Blank L, Holding E, Goyder E. What makes a ‘successful’ collaborative research project between public health practitioners and academics? A mixed-methods review of funding applications submitted to a local intervention evaluation scheme. Health Research Policy and Systems. 2021 Jan;19(1):1-3. https://rdcu.be/cdWGC
- "… of Mice And Men …" by Kristian Bjornard via Flickr.com, copyright © 2010: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bjornmeansbear/4294131461 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
- Pat Loika, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons