how hard can it be? – Evidence & Policy Blog

Peter van der Graaf, Ien van de Goor and Amanda Drake Purington

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article, ‘Learning from failures in knowledge exchange and turning them into successes, which introduces the Special Issue: ‘Learning from Failures in Knowledge Exchange.

We don’t like talking about failures, as it signals loss of time, resources and reputation, but failures present opportunities for learning in knowledge exchange. However, this requires a ‘failure culture’ in academia and policy, in which failures are no longer avoided but actively encouraged. To learn how to turn failures into successes, we need to share and publish our failures, have early engagement with all stakeholders in the knowledge exchange process, and make more use of boundary spanners.

There are plenty of papers celebrating successes in knowledge exchange, but not many researchers and policy makers talk openly about their failures. However, learning from failures is just as important, if not more crucial, than celebrating successes. Allowing partners to reflect in a safe space on knowledge exchange practices and research projects gone wrong, in which communication broke down, partners did not engage or dropped out, and evidence was not taken up or ignored, will provide important lessons on how knowledge exchange practices and research can be improved.

At the 5th Fuse conference on knowledge exchange in public health, held in Newcastle, UK on 15-16 June 2022, we created such a space by bringing together over 100 academic researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and community members to share and reflect on thier failures and how to turn them into success. Our special issue brings together selected papers from the conference and papers that were submitted in response to an open call afterwards. From 23 original submissions from 14 different countries (including the UK, USA, Cananda, Norway, Switzerland, Kenya, Chile, South Korea, Canada and Portugal) and from a range of disciplines and areas of focus (Public Health, Primary Care, Oral Health, Sociology, Anthropology, Public Management, Policy-Making, and Community and Voluntary Sector), we invited four research papers and three practice papers for full submissions.

Alex Dopp and colleagues present mis-implementation cases from three pragmatic trials of behavioural health EBPs in U.S. Federally Qualified Health Centers. They use the CFIR framework to identify mis-implementation outcomes, and associated determinants, and argue for more stakeholder engagement at trial outset.

Magnus Gulbrandsen and Silje Tellmann look in more detail at stakeholders’ engagement and particularly when engagement doesn’t work by applying stakeholder and co-production theory. They present a longitudinal case study (six year of collaborative working) of an interdisciplinary group of researchers trying to improve oral healthcare for the elderly in Norway.

Steven MacGregor looks in particular at the role and failure of knowledge brokers by analysing different kinds (a spectrum of reasons) of failure that knowledge brokers experience in the various dimensions of their work. He reports on findings from a developmental evaluation of a network of knowledge brokers that are collectively building institutional capacity for knowledge mobilisation.

Mandy Cheetham and her practice colleagues expand further on co-production challenges. They reflects on the failed performance of a theatre play to mobilise the research findings of a qualitative study into the health and wellbeing effect of major social security reforms (Universal Credit) in the North East of England. They argues that academics fail to appreciate emotional engagement of stakeholders in knowledge exchange.

The point about emotional labour in knowledge exchange and research is further developed (and flipped) by Louise Warwick-Booth, Ruth Cross and James Woodall. They reflect on data generated from three evaluation studies across different VCSE interventions in the North of England. In their paper, they expose the conflict between the research teams and evaluation partners, structured around five key features of co-production to highlight the emotional costs and labour involved for researchers.

Katherine Boyd, Brian Rappert and Dreolin Fleischer explore failures in public sector partnerships. They examine a ‘failed’ project between a university and a police agency, and how the partners pivoted to successfully complete the project. They focus on the everyday logistical, technical and buy-in considerations associated with knowledge exchange projects and examine how these projects are complicated by the networked, multidimensionality of organisations, which require the navigation skills of knowledge brokers.

Finally, the need for boundary spanners is also discussed by Kristine Mourits, Koos van der Velden and Gerard Molleman. As boundary spanners themselves, they reflect on establishing and implementing a four year national policy on integrated health in Dutch municipalities to promote healthy living environment. They highlight a failure in the use of scientific knowledge within the regional network and the need for boundary spanners (and embedded posts) to combine different types of knowledge in the short cycles and horizons of political decision-making processes.

The seven papers highlight different ways of defining and conceptualising failures in knowledge exchange, ranging from mis-implementations, to setbacks, pitfalls, unproductive interactions between stakeholders, conflicts in co-production, and deviations from expected and desired results. Using different theories and frameworks, the papers in this special issue demonstrate that failures are complex problems, involving many actors at different levels across various organisations and networks. These organisations and networks are in turn influenced by a range of determinants, from workforce instability, leadership challenges, and lack of adequate funding to practical, everyday issues, such as logistical, technical, and buy-in considerations.

Each paper offers a different perspective on relational barriers and structural stressors contributing to failures, but all authors agree that failures offer opportunities for learning, particularly small failures. We tend to focus on large catastrophic failures, but small failures are often the early warning signs, which can help to avoid larger failure in the future. To support this learning, we need to talk more openly about failures and create a culture where talking about and sharing of failures is more accepted and, even better, actively encouraged. Therefore, we argues for more deliberate experimentation in organisations and partnerships to allow for failures that provide rich insight and learning. How can we fail more intelligently? And how do we create spaces and time for reflection on failures between evidence producers, brokers and users to share this learning and support them in turning failures into successes?

Image credit: Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

Peter van der Graaf is an Associate Professor in Public Health at Northumbria University in the UK and an Associate Editor for Evidence and Policy. Peter is interested in the interface between research, practice and policy making and how this interface facilitates (or hinders) social improvement processes at local, regional, national and international levels. He conducts research on knowledge mobilisation in public health, with a focus on the wider determinants of health (e.g. housing, health landscapes, urban regeneration) and how they affect people’s health and wellbeing.

Amanda Purington Drake, PhD, is the Director of the ACT for Youth Center for Community Action at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research and a research collaborator with the Social Media Lab, both at Cornell University, USA. Amanda has a passion for using research and evaluation to help communities to promote and support the health and wellbeing of youth. Her work in the Bronfenbrenner Center has focused on promoting positive youth development, investigating non-suicidal self-injury in general populations of adolescents and young adults, and evaluating the effectiveness of large-scale adolescent sexual health initiatives. She has co-developed and evaluated interventions to develop youth social media literacy and to promote parent-teen communication about sexual health. Amanda works to bridge research and evaluation with practice and policymaking to prevent youth risk-behavior and promote healthy development.

Ien van de Goor (MSc, PhD) works as endowed professor and program leader in Public Health and Prevention at Tranzo, Faculty of Social and Behavioral sciences, Tilburg University, in the Netherlands. She has a background in health sciences with many years of research experience in evidence-informed public health. Central areas of interest are healthy behaviour in relation to the environment, poverty and vulnerable groups, and monitoring and public health policy.

Read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

van der Graaf, P. van de Goor, I. & Drake, A.P. (2024). Learning from failures in knowledge exchange and turning them into successes. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/17442648Y2023D000000018.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested in reading:

Theorising a spectrum of reasons for failure in knowledge brokering: a developmental evaluation

Practical points of failure in police-university collaboration: reconceiving knowledge exchange

Obstacles to co-producing evaluation knowledge: power, control and voluntary sector dynamics

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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