Partnerships to Improve Equity and Actionability in Research

Hands holding gears together


Policymakers, administrators, and other decision makers need high quality evidence about the effects – both positive and negative – of policy and programming options to make well-informed decisions about how to target resources aimed at advancing health and racial equity.

Research teams benefit greatly from the integration of multiple, complementary perspectives.

For example, practitionersadvocates, and community members are close to the issues impacting people’s lives; they are embedded in policy or program landscapes, and they can best define the research questions and data that are most pertinent. Researchers are adept at generating rigorous evidence, but they often lack the relationships with the intended “beneficiaries” of research to be able to involve them early in the process. Moreover, the research questions they pursue are sometimes motivated by gaps in the scientific literature and the presence of research-ready conditions – important but insufficient criteria when it comes to action-oriented research, which should be influenced by what would have the biggest impact in practice.

Partnerships can stimulate research that is highly actionable to answer questions driven by what is needed for decision-making. Moreover, the call for evaluative work to reflect multi-cultural validity and participant ownership – a core principle of equitable evaluation – is better achieved through partnerships.

For the past two years, E4A has worked with a team at Johns Hopkins University to pilot a matching service called Accelerating Collaboration for Evaluation (ACE), which connects community practitioners with researchers to help them develop a rigorous evaluation of their programs, policies, or practices. The resulting teams benefit from the complementary expertise of each partner—the intimate knowledge of the community intervention or program, and the rigorous methodological expertise of the researcher.

Example Research Scenarios

Partnerships better enable research teams to:

  • Collect baseline data before a new policy or program begins, because relevant changes can be anticipated with greater lead time;
  • Explore various implementation options that enable testing of different versions of a program, or combinations of services, to determine optimal efficacy;
  • Determine what types of data will be most persuasive to policymakers in a given political climate or moment, by leveraging the expertise of advocates and other stakeholders; and/or
  • Ensure that research is respectful of and meaningful to communities.

Possible Approaches

Researchers can improve equity of their studies by collaborating with others at various stages of research. For example:

  • Before establishing research questions: Investigators should first identify the impacted communities, key stakeholders, and end users of the research and engage individuals from these groups in deciding what questions to ask;
  • In designing the research approach: Program implementers, community groups, and advocates should be involved in determining the data and metrics that are most meaningful, feasible to collect, and appropriate;
  • Throughout the research process: Community and practice partners should be valued as co-investigators in the research; power should be shared equitably between those bringing research and implementation expertise.

Members of community, non-profit, and advocacy groups often face financial barriers to devoting time on a research team. Their vital contributions to the research should be acknowledged through equitable compensation. E4A supports the inclusion of salary or contractor fees in project budgets to enable meaningful and sustainable engagement of stakeholders.

Putting Evidence into Practice

Two recent partnerships formed through ACE highlight what these dynamics look like in real life:

Example 1: A transit agency is implementing a new fare subsidy for a subset of riders with low incomes and wants to better understand the benefits of this investment relative to alternative services. To do so, they need a way to compare the health outcomes of subsidized riders with those of similar, but unsubsidized, riders. The transit agency specifies the outcomes and populations of importance for their decision-making, while the research partners identify suitable measures and indicators of impact. Together, the partners design a study that will enable them to measure causal relationships as the fare subsidy program is rolled out in real time.

Example 2: Bilingual and bicultural health educators have designed a healthy lifestyle app specifically tailored to the needs of Mexican American women. They have partnered with a researcher who has expertise in designing and implementing community-based randomized clinical trials and with health care providers who serve this population. The team is now developing a research trial that will rigorously measure the effectiveness of the app when used on its own and when paired with community health worker (Promotora) support.

Keys to success

Through the pilot service, the ACE team has learned that, in addition to complementary roles and expertise, successful partnerships also exhibit:

  • Interpersonal harmony – e.g., partners share a positive attitude and drive to be successful, a belief in and commitment to the project, and a mutual respect for each other’s knowledge and contributions.
  • Compatible work habits and structure – e.g., partners engage in frequent communication (both planned and ad hoc), set clear timelines and milestones, and are geographically near each other (and/or have the ability to meet in person as needed).

Given these multiple logistical and interpersonal factors, it can take time to form cohesive cross-sector relationships. Periods of trial and error are not uncommon. However, organizations and researchers who make concerted and sustained efforts to work together in partnership find that these efforts make it possible to conduct more equitable and actionable research.

In alignment with E4A’s mandate to support action-oriented research, we highly value partnerships among researchers, community members, practitioners and policymakers. If you are implementing a program or policy in your community and are interested in forming a partnership with researchers, you may request a referral to the ACE matching service.

Tools & Resources

Organizations that support partnerships:

Resources for establishing partnerships:

Blog posts

About the author(s)

May Lynn Tan, DrPH, is Assistant Deputy Director for E4A. Dr. Tan manages E4A’s applicant technical assistance services, which help applicants and grantees optimize their research designs and the use of research findings in program and policy decision-making.

Christine Weston, PhD, is an Assistant Scientist in the department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a member of the ACE matching team.

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