Seven lessons on driving evidence-informed practice

By Melinda Polimeni

Friday July 6, 2018

Shot of a father holding his little girl’s hand as they walk on the beach at sunset

As any good policymaker knows, evidence-informed decision making is all well and good in theory. But reality is somewhat messier, writes Dr Melinda Polimeni. Many competing pressures can derail the noblest intentions.

If using what we know to better inform what we do is a goal worth pursuing, how do we reach the destination? What tools might we need to help us along the way? And how might we overcome some of the challenges that we will inevitably face?

While we promise no magic bullet, we do have the benefit of seeing first-hand, the great results that come from co-designed solutions.

Our recent paper, published in Developing Practice: The Child, Youth and Family Work Journal, outlines seven key lessons learned from a decade of working with Wanslea Family Services, an NGO providing family support, out-of-home care, early years support and community capacity building to families in WA. Wanslea wanted to match its current practice with the evidence available on what works in delivering child and family services. So, they engaged us as an intermediary organisation to help them do it.

At the beginning of our 10-year partnership to embed evidence-informed parenting support into the fabric of Wanslea’s day-to-day operations, we put a different frame on the issue at hand.

Rather than focussing solely on what practitioners did with families and what they might do differently in order to use evidence more effectively in their work, we shifted the spotlight to the organisational whole.

We asked: What do managers and supervisors need to do to support staff in using evidence-informed practices? What policies need to be adjusted? How will the organisation support and sustain the practice change? And how will we know if these practices are making a difference for families?

So what did we learn?

Here are seven key take-outs from our decade of taking a co-designed approach to evidence-informed practice with Wanslea.

  1. Focus on the actions: clearly document the decisions made and next steps and adopt strategies to keep things moving. It’s easy to lose momentum if you don’t create accountabilities for implementing the change.
  2. Take a breath: Accept from the outset that change won’t happen overnight and work together to set realistic expectations of what’s possible.
  3. Get ‘implementation ready’: A lack of preparation can derail things fast, so spend the time required preparing the organisation for change.
  4. Have a shared understanding of context: if using an intermediary organisation, it helps immensely if they understand the practice challenges of those at the coal face. We embedded a staff member at Wanslea so we could fully understand their context. It made all the difference.
  5. Build something that lasts: Sustainability was a key priority, so we worked to build capacity and establish structures that would keep things moving after we were no longer in the picture.
  6. Give relentless support: At the heart or any organisational change is changing the behaviour of its people – and we all know that change is hard. So we saw our role as building motivation for change, celebrating success, helping people manage through uncertainty and giving practical support to overcome hurdles.
  7. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate: We know and accept that implementing evidence informed practice is messy. Plans change, barriers arise. But taking an open approach that is flexible, focussed on problem solving and based on mutual respect, will get you through to the finish line.

One final factor underpinned our successful co-design approach to enhancing practice at Wanslea: the fact that we both were fully aligned in our purpose of better outcomes for children and families. Keeping line of sight on why you embarked upon change in the first place helps you stay the course. And this means everyone wins.

Dr Melinda Polimeni, Senior Practice Design Specialist, Parenting Research Centre

The Parenting Research Centre is a non-profit organisation that helps children thrive by driving new and better ways to support families in their parenting. We work with governments and community agencies to put the best scientific evidence on parenting support into action.

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