What I learned from leading my first research project in the public service

By Marie Gabrielle Gagnon

September 1, 2020


I began my career as a public servant immediately after I finished my internship as a student-at-law.

I remember being really excited about the opportunity to work in the field of gender equality and I was determined to make a difference in New Brunswick, Canada. After one year, my Director asked me to lead and develop a report on services available for children exposed to intimate partner violence. This report was a way for me to not only show my abilities and strengths, but to also share my passion for social justice through my work.

Expectations meet reality

There is a stereotype that when governments initiate relations with nonprofits, the interaction is to mainly focus on the non-profits’ role as service providers.

However, nonprofits sometimes play an important role in their communities and have the ability to address specialised needs and fill the gaps, so to speak. This was true here, where nonprofits are working on the front line with children who have been exposed to intimate partner violence. My goal was basically to create a form of engagement and develop relationships between these front-line workers and myself, being the liaison for government. Over several months, I interviewed about 70 individuals who work in that field. Based on the qualitative data I gathered, I was able to demonstrate the gaps, barriers and highlights of the services offered in my province.

I knew that I needed to create opportunities for these organisations to see how their feedback would help me to build this report and in return would eventually help them in the long run. My initial thought was that, in order for me to obtain the crucial information that I needed, I had to first establish a relationship with them and ultimately I could move into deeper discussions around specific policies and programs. I would tell participants that I was there mainly to learn, to listen and to bring back their concerns and suggestions to government.

As is often the case, there is a difference between what we think might happen and what actually happens in practice.

My case was no different and as soon as I did my first interviews, I quickly realised that the approach that I initially envisioned was not optimal. While I had built an interview questionnaire, which I thought encompassed all the relevant topics for the purposes of my report, I had to adapt the way that I was asking questions to each participant. Even in a small province in Canada, regional differences made it almost impossible to do interviews in a “one-size-fits-all” fashion.

After every interview, I would ask for honest feedback and I was able to adapt my questionnaire to capture regional particularities and different realities. Looking back, it was unrealistic on my part to expect these individuals to have confidence in me while I did not fully understand or acknowledge the dissimilarities between organisations and communities. Once I earned the trust of the individuals I was consulting and was able to dig deeper into the contextual realities of these front-line workers and their organisations, the data that I obtained was much more accurate and relevant for the purposes of my report.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Unfortunately, what I also learned is that interactions between government and nonprofits do not always result in systemic or long-term change.

However, I found that the most effective way to share the results of my report was to simply present it directly to the government, almost in an informal way. What I did was highlight relevant quotes from the interviews that were captured and used the exact words of the participants. As I did not work on the front lines with children exposed to violence, my role was more of a facilitator, a person who was articulating the opinions, concerns and suggestions of the participants.

One of the most important lessons I learned was that these relationships I had built during the consultations eventually became almost like partnerships over time and that maintaining these relationships was incredibly valuable, even after the report was finalised. As the saying goes, the process is often more important than the outcome.

This article is curated from Apolitical.

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