By Mary Gogarty
Mary Gogarty writes about her experience working as an Embedded Researcher for SIPHER in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. This blog post (first published on the Social Research Association website) outlines ‘a day in the life’ of an embedded researcher, the challenges for integrating complex systems science in policy organisations and the opportunities for policy organisations involved in this kind of project.
From public health policy to healthy public policy
Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) is a policy partner in SIPHER – a major investment by the UK Prevention Research Partnership which brings together a consortium of scientists across seven universities, three government partners at the local, regional and national levels and ten practice partners. GMCA are working with academic partners to understand the health and wellbeing impacts of interventions in two policy areas: interventions to deliver inclusive growth, and to improve housing stock. The consortium is making use of novel complex systems approaches. Central to this collaboration is the role of the Embedded Researcher (ER), a researcher employed in the policy organisation (in my case GMCA) working to embed research learning throughout the policy making process, and embed policy-making knowledge throughout the research process.
‘A Day in the life’ of the Embedded Researcher
‘A day in the life’ is in quotations for the simple reason that (as is the case in many research roles), I’ve found that no two days as an Embedded Researcher on SIPHER are ever quite the same. However, there are some key responsibilities of the role that are vital for the success of SIPHER and to make research relevant to GMCA.
Building relationships: The core purpose of the embedded researcher in SIPHER is to build relationships – both with external academic colleagues, and with key stakeholders within my policy organisation, GMCA, and Greater Manchester more widely, to ensure research lands well within the organisation, and is shaped to meet the needs of Greater Manchester residents.
Good project initiation: it is important to build relationships with academic partners across the consortium, to help shape and support them to deliver their work plans. A basic example of this were the ‘kick off’ meetings that ERs held with academic workstream leads in early 2020, to build the ER work plan and identify key tasks for the year ahead.
Developing shared goals in order to increase ‘relevance’: It is particularly important as an ER that I build relationships with those academic colleagues who may not have worked with ERs or policy organisations before; it’s vital to give them a better understanding of who GMCA are and what we are trying to achieve, so that the research will be relevant and useful to us.
Understanding each other’s organisations: As such, a major part of my role is giving policy partner insight into day-to-day SIPHER work – identifying which colleagues or teams in GMCA and partner organisation need to be involved in conversations, how tools or outputs from SIPHER will be disseminated to colleagues, and how the SIPHER research will fit with other priorities and work in the GMCA and in the Greater Manchester system as a whole.
Facilitating joint working: An example of this was the Greater Manchester Systems Mapping workshops. The purpose of the workshops was to look at how policies and strategies interact to support or hinder inclusive growth in Greater Manchester. This meant identifying key drivers of inclusive growth, and developing an understanding of the connections between those drivers, in terms of their strength and direction. Although these sessions were facilitated by colleagues at the University of Sheffield, I had a key role in effectively making the process relevant and appropriate for a policy audience; this meant inviting the right varied groups of colleagues from GMCA to the session, and practical support such as preparing detailed notes for facilitators and ensuring the sessions weren’t too long and included plenty of breaks. This is a clear example of how having me as an Embedded Researcher added value to academic research activity, by bringing practical organisational knowledge to the fore to ensure the success of the session.
Achieving ‘buy in’ to research: This organisational understanding is key to my role as Embedded Researcher, as it is how we achieve buy-in to the research from the policy organisation. Being directly employed by GMCA helps me with this, because not only does it represent GMCA’s investment into the project, but it demonstrates that GMCA is an equal partner in the research, jointly responsible for the success of the project. This project is truly in house, not being completed by a remote academic team without experience of the system they are hoping to influence.
Knowledge transfer: my experience so far is that working as an Embedded Researcher is more of a brokerage or liaison role than a research role. Although knowledge of data and tools that are used in GMCA have been very useful to the role, data analysis and writing research reports haven’t been core to working as an ER on SIPHER as yet. There is definitely scope for this to change as the workstreams progress, hopefully enabling knowledge transfer and building skills within the GMCA.
Policy ethnography: Part of my role is to provide policy ethnography. For SIPHER, the benefits are that the Embedded Researcher is able to provide unique insights and information about the policy system, more recent and relevant than can be seen elsewhere. For GMCA, ethnography gives us space to reflect on organisational developments and practice, as well as insight into how the organisation appears to an external audience.
Particularly given the events of 2020, there have been some challenges with working in this way:
- Navigating organisations and changing priorities during Covid-19: naturally, the pandemic response was the highest priority for much of the public sector during 2020.
- Embedding SIPHER within policy organisations: working from home has meant that keeping an eye on day-to-day activity has been difficult, making SIPHER less visible and relevant, and making it a challenge to keep it on people’s radar.
- Cultural differences and challenges around thinking and delivery expectations/norms: a five year research project is long-term and this naturally means that outputs are gradual, which is a challenge for public sector organisations which are used to ‘quick wins’.
Opportunities for policy partners
- This is a large project but there are many transferable outputs and learning opportunities: public sector organisations don’t need to join a huge consortium to utilise some of the learning and ways of working from SIPHER.
- It is unusual for local authorities to benefit from resources from such a diverse range of experts: this is a great opportunity to directly benefit from cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research.
- The wealth of experience, disciplines and innovative techniques could lead to genuine change. We are hopeful that this will be a truly impactful project which will change lives in Greater Manchester.
Research design for collaboration: In short, the deep collaboration described above isn’t a nice coincidence or happy accident – the design of the research with the central role of Embedded Researcher gives the policy organisation the ability to steer the research in the direction which will best achieve their ambitions, while providing academic researchers with direct evidence of how research influences policy.