Connecting evidence, policy and practice in an era of austerity, complexity and decentralised decision making Maps, routes and shoes

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Connecting evidence, policy and practice in an era of austerity, complexity and decentralised decision making Maps, routes and shoes

  • Sandra Nutley


The inspiration

  • ‘Arguably the role of social research becomes more important to guide practice in an era of austerity than one of affluence’ (SRA, UK, 2010)

  • ‘There seems to be broad [bipartisan] agreement: We need an evidence-based system to guide future budget decisions that assesses the relative performance and impact of all government programs’ (Center for American Progress, USA, July 2011)

Familiar concerns

Possibly not so familiar concerns

  • ‘There is actually very little evidence that can adequately inform what KTE strategies work in what contexts’ (p 756)

  • ‘KTE, at least as conceptualised to date, simply does not fit with the underlying politics of health policymaking’ (p 757)

Policy and practice context

1. Policy and practice context

Financial austerity

  • Concurrent huge increase in demand for public services due to demographic and social pressures

  • Conclusion: Radical reform required. Continuing to deliver services using current models won’t work

Austerity: more a threat than opportunity?

  • Job cuts for researchers in government

  • Research and evaluation budgets slashed

  • Researchers & evaluators having to do more with less

Complexity: ‘wicked’ nature of many social problems

  • Social problems often interdependent with complex causal relationships

  • Knowledge base for understanding problems and possible solutions often uncertain, fragmented and contested

  • Stakeholders may hold divergent and extreme views, and be unfamiliar with and resist other perspectives

  • Head, 2008

Complexity: public service systems

  • Various combinations of hierarchy, market, community and network approaches to service delivery

  • Greater decentralisation of decision making, service commissioning and procurement in many countries

  • E.g. Growing complexity of education systems due to:

    • Diversity of stakeholder preferences and expectations
    • More decentralised and flexible governance structures
    • Additional layers of governance at international and transnational levels
    • Rapidly changing and spreading ICTs
    • OECD/CERI, 2007

2. KTA thinking, models and initiatives

Forms of research use

  • Direct (instrumental)

    • Knowledge-driven
    • Problem-solving (or engineering)
  • Indirect (conceptual)

    • Social interaction
    • Enlightenment (or percolation)
  • Symbolic

    • Political
    • Tactical
  • Source: Weiss 1979

Three generations of knowledge to action (KTA) thinking

  • Knowledge transfer

  • Knowledge exchange

  • Knowledge integration

The importance of context, networks & systems;

  • The importance of context, networks & systems;

  • Social and collective learning, and unlearning;

  • Interaction with other types of knowledge (tacit; experiential; political awareness);

  • ‘Use’ as an adaptive process - not an event;

  • Non-individualised embedded uses of research;

  • Inherent non-linearity of systems.

Knowledge required for effective policies and services

  • Know-about problems: the nature and formation of social problems.

  • Know-what works: what policies, strategies or interventions will bring about desired outcomes

  • Know-how (to put into practice): e.g. knowledge about effective programme implementation.

  • Know-who (to involve): e.g. getting stakeholder buy-in and building alliances for action.

  • Know-why (requirements of action): relationship between values & policy/practice.

  • Know-whether having any impact: monitoring, evaluation and accountability

Knowledge-to-action (KTA) models

  • A bewildering array of models, frameworks and theories (63 models identified by Ward et al 2009)

  • Drawn from wide range of disciplines - very varied levels of evidential support

  • Most models reflect first or second generation thinking

  • Models focused on a spectrum of concerns (Davies et al 2011):

Knowledge-to-action initiatives

3. Implications for connecting evidence, policy and practice

Context matters: factors explaining use/non-use

  • Political culture factors – e.g. shared or conflicting values, adversarial or consensual political frameworks, extent of deference to technical expertise

  • Policy domain factors – e.g. settled or contentious problems, actors, structures and issue histories

  • Coordination and integration capacities – e.g. extent of central control, system capacities for policy development and implementation

  • Organisational capacities and processes – e.g. supply of analytical skills, receptivity to outside information, routine requirements and procedures

  • Cross-sectoral relationships – institutionalisation of cross-sectoral processes such as bridging organisations and networks

The consensual approach – working with the grain of current policy/practice.

  • The consensual approach – working with the grain of current policy/practice.

  • The critical and contentious approach – “keeping the system honest”.

  • Paradigm challenging subverting current thinking and perhaps proposing new principles for action.

Contandriopoulos et al 2010

Fazekas & Burns 2011

Generic features of effective practices to increase research use

  • Research must be translated - adaptation of findings to specific policy and practice contexts

  • Ownership is key – though there are exceptions where implementation is received or perceived as coercive

  • Need for enthusiasts - champions - personal contact is most effective

  • Contextual analysis - understanding and targeting specific barriers to, and enablers of, change

  • Credibility - strong evidence from trusted source, inc. endorsement from opinion leaders

  • Leadership - within research impact settings

  • Support - ongoing financial, technical & emotional support

  • Integration - of new activities with existing systems and activities Research Unit for Research Utilisation ( – new website coming soon!)

Key references

  • Best A, Terpstra JL, Moor G, Riley B, Norman CD, Glasgow RE, (2009) "Building knowledge integration systems for evidence-informed decisions", Journal of Health Organization and Management, 23(6): 627 - 641

  • Contandriopoulos, D., Lemire, M., Denis, J-L. & Tremblay, E. (2010) “Knowledge Exchange Processes in Organizations and Policy Arenas: A Narrative Systematic Review of the Literature” The Milbank Quarterly 88(4): 444-83.

  • Davies HTO, Powell A, Ward V and Smith S (2011) Supporting NHS Scotland in developing a new Knowledge-to-Action Model, Unpublished report available from University of St Andrews

  • Fazekas M & Burns T (2011) Exploring the complex interaction between governance and knowledge, A draft EDU/CERI paper, OECD

  • Head B (2008) “Assessing network-based collaborations” Public Management Review, 10(6): 733-749

  • Head B (2011) “Comparative Analysis of Research/Policy Relationships – challenges and agendas”, presentation to panel on the comparative study of EBPP, IRSPM conference, Dublin, 12 April

References (cont.)

  • Jones et al (2009) Knowledge, policy and power: six dimensions of the knowledge-development policy interface, London: ODI

  • Mitton et al (2007) “Knowledge transfer and exchange: Review and synthesis of the literature”, The Milbank Quarterly 85(4):729-768

  • Nutley, S.M., Walter, I., & Davies, H.T.O. (2007) Using evidence: how research can inform public services. Policy Press. Bristol.

  • Puttick R ed (2011) Using evidence to improve social policy and practice: perspectives on how research and evidence can influence decision-making, London: Alliance for Useful Evidence/NESTA

  • Ward, V., House, A., & Hamer, S. (2009) “Developing a framework for transferring knowledge into action: a thematic analysis of the literature” Journal of Health Services Research and Policy 14: 156-164.

  • Weiss CH (1999) “The interface between evaluation and public policy”, Evaluation 5(4): 468-486

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