Strengthening Research Use through Technical Assistance

I have spent my career working with the researcher and practitioner (and policymaker) communities. The frustration expressed by each of these communities about the other is palpable. Practitioners complain that researchers are unrealistic in their expectations of what it takes to run a program and unable to provide research that fits within their real-world constraints. Researchers remain frustrated that research evidence is not used. What would it take to mitigate these complaints and help ensure that research evidence was making its way into programs or policies?

An exciting development in the use of research evidence is the increased attention being paid to technical assistance (TA.) TA is the provision of support and resources to practitioners or policymakers in order to improve a specific set of practices. TA providers assist practitioners or policymakers with everything from articulating their theory of change to implementing specific policies or procedures. Most TA providers have prior experience in the role of practitioner or policymaker, but researchers are increasingly getting involved in the provision of TA.

Researchers can offer TA in one of two models: push and co-creation. The push model offers practitioners a pre-defined and tested solution to a problem that is typically developed outside of the local context. These responses—often in the form of packaged programs and practices—are then made available for use. While co-creating involves practitioners and researchers working hand in hand to diagnose problems and tailor solutions to fit the practitioners’ specific needs. To truly improve the use of research evidence in programs for children and families, researchers will need to expand beyond the more traditional “push” model of TA to one that involves greater engagement from both parties.

What does technical assistance to improve research use look like?

1. Understand where the practitioner is coming from

A co-creation approach to technical assistance will require researchers to spend more time understanding what it is like to sit in the practitioner’s shoes. Practitioners must make decisions that address their real-world constraints – whether those are funding, timelines, staffing and capital resources, or even just their need to maintain a positive reputation with their funders or the public. Whereas in push models, researchers tended to offer advice and guidance and then fret about why it wasn’t taken up in practice. In co-creation, researchers actively seek out answers as to why certain choices are made and figure out how to bring the greatest evidence to bear on those choices given the real-world constraints.

2. Make sure practitioners understand where you are coming from

Technical assistance providers have real-world constraints too, including limited budgets and staffing. They also have needs and priorities that don’t align perfectly with those of the practitioner. For instance, when researchers serve as TA providers, they may need to publish in peer-reviewed journals, whereas the practitioner would rather keep the information internal to avoid reputational risk or promote open problem solving. Research suggests maintaining open lines of communication throughout, and if you have lines in the sand, to make them clear at the outset.

3. Begin with a careful diagnosis of the problem

The “push” model of delivering a tested program or practice can feel a bit like having solutions in search of problems. Before you take on technical assistance work, make sure that you fully understand what is causing the problem, what is known about the target population, and what “business as usual” looks like. You may be surprised by how little data your partner has, so you will need to be willing to gather descriptive data and report on current populations, processes, and practices. Better yet, if you are willing to help them build better data systems, the practitioners may find that their assumptions about the scope or source of their problems are incorrect.

4. Be flexible and willing to prioritize

Given the constraints, it may be difficult for practitioners to implement entire interventions all at once, exactly as they were originally designed. So, be willing to work with practitioners to identify the most important elements of an intervention and to sequence the introduction of elements in a way that works for their situation. In a push model, a community that is not fully ready to carry out the intervention may be deemed “not ready,” and technical assistance is subsequently withdrawn. In co-creation, however, technical assistance providers think about the challenges of implementation as opportunities to understand the primary mechanisms that drive an intervention’s effectiveness. In this way, these challenges can reveal ways to reshape the intervention so that it is more sustainable and scalable in real-world contexts.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of the co-creation process

Co-creation offers an opportunity to improve what is happening in practice and how decisions are made by practitioners. In this way, it provides an opportunity to improve the relevance of the research being produced. By working closely with technical assistance providers, practitioners may take more time to think carefully about their programs; they may exercise the muscles of scientific reasoning that can sometimes take a back seat to putting out the fire of the day. The technical assistance provider, then, is a valuable resource for the practitioner to look to when challenges arise in the future. When the TA providers are researchers, the intensity and sustained working relationships that characterize co-creation can inform the questions they ask, the ways they work in local settings, and how they communicate findings and lessons learned.

Don’t forget to study this process

The principles described above are informed by what we know about how and under what conditions research evidence is used. We now need to build a research base to test whether and under what conditions the co-creation model of technical assistance lives up to its promise. For instance, research questions might include:
• Does co-creation improve the use of research evidence and, in turn, improve practice at scale? How does this compare to traditional push models?
• Does co-creation enhance the practitioners’ capacity for using data and research evidence?
• What features of co-creation help to shape its effectiveness over the long-term?

In sum

Moving from “push” to “co-creation” models of TA will not be easy. It will require more time and effort to build trusting relationships between the technical assistance provider and the practitioner, as well as stronger structures and processes to facilitate these relationships.

Most importantly, though: the benefits of this way of working could be substantial. I am optimistic that a research base that represents the real-world experiences of practitioners and is relevant to their needs will lead us to better sustained and scaled uses of research in practice.

Jennifer Brooks is a Senior Program Officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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