Making better use of evidence in policymaking is a preoccupation of many in the public service and of many researchers. Although it is well understood that good policy and effective programs should be guided by evidence, this is not always a simple task. For those of us in academia, ‘evidence’ is defined as the findings from our research (i.e. our results). Researchers believe (and sometimes rightly so) that their evidence is important, that it can improve the way we live, and they want to tell people about it so that they can use it to guide policy or program decisions. Policy makers have their own drivers, pressures and priorities and, as we know, evidence from research is only part of the picture.
There are a lot of things that can get in the way of translating what is known into practice, but one of the barriers most often cited is the relationship — or lack thereof — between researchers and policymakers. We researchers operate in an entirely different world to policymakers ‒ from the work we do, how we write, evaluate and analyse, and how we get paid. It sometimes feels like researchers and policymakers are not speaking the same language; that researchers are from Mars and policymakers are from Venus. In our research paper published this week we explore the potential of secondments between government and university departments as one way of overcoming these barriers between research and policy. Secondments have received little research attention to date but may show promise as a way to help each party to understand what the other is saying and why it’s so important.
Secondments are not one-size-fits-all arrangements. They could be reciprocal (e.g. one person from each organisation transferring to the other temporarily) or they could just be one way (e.g. a researcher spending time in a government department). They could be short- or long-term, full-time or part-time. The best arrangement for each secondment, and what will achieve the best outcomes, will depend on the organisations and people involved.
Familiarising the unknown unknowns
The best lesson I learned from my own reciprocal secondment, to ACT Health from the Australian National University (ANU), was how the public service operates. To give a simple, but illustrative example, researchers at the university were attempting to find public servants to participate in a survey. They approached me and asked, “Can you ask someone in the department to distribute an email with the survey to all policymakers?” After spending nine months in the department, I had to reply: “No, there is a particular process you have to follow. You have to go top-down, first seeking approval from senior executives and then senior managers before approaching junior staff.” Knowing this information meant that as researchers, we could approach the right person, with the right information and save both organisations a lot of time, without stepping on toes.
During my secondment, I helped collect evidence for several projects and provided feedback on research commissioned by the department. Both my fellow secondee, on loan to the ANU from ACT Health, and I learnt many other skills during this time. For example, I learnt how decisions were made (quickly and sometimes informally), how academics were viewed (not always favourably) and the impact of political priorities and election promises. My fellow secondee learnt about how to write a paper for an academic journal, the importance of publishing to academics’ careers, the long research process and all the different ways to statistically analyse data.
Although we found the reciprocal secondment to be of strong benefit to our organisations, as well as to our individual skill development, this type of reciprocal arrangement does not seem to be common. Several university courses (e.g. medicine, education, psychology, environmental science) require their students to undergo internships to build their skills and knowledge. Government staff also undergo secondments in other departments for the same purpose. So why not use secondments between government and university departments to improve knowledge translation?
Gaining experience of the unfamiliar could change the way both parties operate, the work they produce and how they interact with each other. Secondments can help to make research more relevant and accessible to government staff and help researchers to understand that their research isn’t the be all and end all.
For managers considering if a reciprocal secondment would be of benefit to their work, my answer would be yes. But I would also recommend that they plan for the following:
1) Preventing the communication and relationship post-secondment “dropping off” post-secondment and planning to follow up projects or meetings
2) Staff turnover and leave arrangements, which can impact on the secondment and delay project outcomes
3) Keeping in-depth notes on all activities and discussions, as this will help in the event of staff turnover and also to show how successful the secondment was.
This way everyone can benefit from the process and we can improve the use of research in decisions to improve the population’s health.
This opinion piece is based on an article published today in The Sax Institute’s peer reviewed quarterly journal – Public Health Research & Practice. More information about different ways of using research and working with researchers is available on the Sax Institute website.