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The secrets of successful partnership research

12 April 2017

We know that evidence is critical in policy and practice, but there is often a gap between the creation of this evidence and its use.

The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre was formed as part of a bold initiative by the NHMRC to increase the uptake of evidence in complex policy and practice issues through cross-sectoral multi-disciplinary research.

At a packed-out panel discussion at the World Congress on Public Health, key policy makers and academics involved in the Prevention Centre shared what they had learnt from the partnership.

Professor Adrian Bauman, Sesquicentenary Professor of Public Health and Director of the Prevention Research Collaboration at the University of Sydney

Professor Adrian Bauman

Some of the hypothetical “errors” or challenges that we have encountered in evaluation through the Prevention Centre are:

Making partnerships that don’t exist or cease to exist once you make them: The politics changed after we were set up so we had developed evaluation capacity for supporting programs that were no longer there, such as projects with the Australian National Preventive Health Agency and with Medicare Locals.

Not making partnerships that should exist: Forming cross-sectoral partnerships and working with all jurisdictions in Australia has been difficult. We need to make relationships work better across other sectors and agencies.

Not making true partnerships: It takes a long time to develop trust, reciprocity and mutual understanding of each other’s values, and to work in coproduction of research or evaluation. It’s difficult to form these partnerships instantly – it has to be a long-term investment.

Programs that cannot be evaluated: It can be difficult to evaluate complex programs that have already started or whose objectives are not clear.

Not understanding the policy maker’s context: Academics have to develop ways of being responsive in real time. We have to understand the pressures that policy makers are under, and that there is a need for a shared agenda.

Professor Billie Giles-Corti, Urban Futures Enabling Capability Platform Director at RMIT University

Professor Billie Giles-Corti

Relationships are key: It’s been important for us to involve policy makers and practitioners right from the start to help us understand the policy world. Our team already had long-term relationships at a state level, through our NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence, but the Prevention Centre brought in the Commonwealth.

Making them formal is important: A really big challenge for us has been the constant personnel changes in government departments. We developed relationships with individuals which need to be renegotiated after each person moved on. Where we could improve is to have a formal relationship with the organisation.

You need to build trust: The literature tells us that the academics policy makers regard as trustworthy are those … who are competent, have integrity and are benevolent. In other words, they are committed to the policy reform agenda, and understand when the policy outcomes are incremental rather than ideal. From the academic perspective, what makes a good policy maker is also someone who is competent, who has integrity and is benevolent. In our case it is someone who understands the pressures we are under and our need to publish, and who keeps us informed so we know what’s going on.

Communicate findings in a way that is relevant: Governments often pay consultants who use our evidence and turn it into advice. They have the courage to say ‘this is what you should do’. Through partnership, there’s an opportunity for academics, policy makers and practitioners to work together, and agree on the best way forward based on partnership research.

Dr Jo Mitchell, Executive Director of the Centre for Population Health at NSW Health

Dr Jo Mitchell

This work has been engaging and energising: The work is relevant to us in ways we couldn’t have anticipated, but it does take a lot of time.

Policy makers must be involved at an early stage: The policy window needs to be open. For example, NSW is currently looking at childhood overweight and obesity, so the Prevention Centre’s dynamic simulation modelling work has been relevant. There needs to be the right conditions for us to take on these learnings.

Researchers’ and policy makers’ priorities may not align: I have had researchers dismiss the questions I need to be answered as not being important.  Researchers need to understand that while research can be a really good lever for change, for us it is also about putting things into practice.

Enduring relationships and trust are important: The Prevention Centre has opened doors for us to meet new researchers who have different ways of thinking. There is a broader range of research experts you can call up and ask for really rapid advice.

Dr Paul Kelly, Deputy Director General of Population Health, and Chief Health Officer, ACT Health

Dr Paul Kelly

You can’t just add water and have a partnership: This has been a slow process. It is only in the past 12 months that we have seen a huge blossoming of work at the centre.

It is hard to measure success: It is risky for both funders and researchers, who may not publish as many papers or build their track record as quickly as they would normally expect.

Research doesn’t always have the answer: The Prevention Centre didn’t always have the silver bullet so we had to turn to coproduction to find an answer.

The Prevention Centre network has been positive: The Prevention Centre brings in lots of people on the ground and young people. There is a great hope that these will be the ones who will change the paradigm in the future. I have seen a paradigm shift in the relationship between researchers and policy makers. The Prevention Centre has been a key change agent in this development.