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Perspectives on Practitioner-Researcher Partnerships

Breaking Down Practitioner-Researcher Partnerships

A practitioner-researcher partnership is a practical, collaborative, and mutually beneficial relationship between an agency or a program and a research partner. The purpose of the partnership is to conduct strategic problem solving to develop, implement, and assess the use, impact, and cost of practices, programs, treatment, and policies. Practitioner-researcher partnerships seek to foster long-term collaboration between researchers and practitioners. Researchers, who may be affiliated with academia or research institutes or be unaffiliated, have the training to conduct rigorous evaluations and primary or secondary data collection and analysis, and the research skillset to answer complex questions that practitioners lack the time or resources to investigate on their own. They offer an outside perspective for practitioners as they seek to understand and address social problems. They may also provide practitioners with guidance on how to leverage data to tell stories about their programs and services, which strengthens the overall sustainability of their program. Practitioners are immersed in programs and practices and work with people who are impacted by social problems they seek to address. They are specialists in the administration of treatment and services, providing detailed and nuanced explanations of their work and clients. They have knowledge of their agency or organization’s administrative records and operational systems, what can and cannot be investigated (given the information they collect), political and institutional pressures, and staff bandwidth. 

Researchers may assist practitioners in planning for program implementation; collecting and reporting key information that is critical to the project; and designing evaluations that can assess (1) whether a program or practice is used with fidelity and implemented as initially intended, (2) whether a program has an impact on important outcomes (e.g., recidivism, opioid overdoses), and (3) whether a program is a cost-effective solution to a social problem. They might aid practitioners in pretesting and piloting instruments that will be deployed for use by other staff members in an agency or organization. Practitioners may provide research partners with information about the background, history, services, and individuals they are investigating. This task may involve regular communication with the research partner in the form of email, phone calls, and meetings. They may also be asked to provide research partners with administrative data from their internal record management system and help acquire information from relevant agencies and organizations that might be needed for a research study. Roles and expectations of each partner should be incorporated in a memorandum of understanding or similar agreement early in a partnership.  

The Benefits of the Partnership

These partnerships are mutually beneficial for several reasons. On the one hand, practitioners have (1) a need for quality empirical research to guide and inform their policies and practices; (2) unparalleled knowledge about the inner workings of their programs, practices, and systems; (3) data that they track for operational purposes; (4) knowledge about the data systems; and (5) awareness of issues that are important to them. In addition, practitioners are a conduit to disseminating research to other practitioners in the field as well as policymakers. On the other hand, researchers have the time and expertise to conduct rigorous research and serve as an independent entity to evaluate or conduct research of the agency’s programs, policies, or practices. This is particularly advantageous to criminal justice agencies that may not be adequately funded to conduct time-consuming research on various topics.

Initiating the Partnership

One challenge that practitioners commonly face is how identify a compatible research partner. Potential partners can often be identified in the community or through local professional networks. Beyond local sources, practitioner-focused conferences and journals offer an opportunity for practitioners and researchers to connect on areas of mutual interest. Local, state, federal, and foundation funded opportunities can also seed partnerships. In responding to such opportunities, researchers who understand the needs and perspectives of practitioners may be better prepared to engage a practitioner partner and propose a compelling practice or policy-relevant research project. 

Keys to Success

To ensure success, partners must take critical actions at the outset of the partnership, which include establishing a formal research agreement, engaging in a collaborative planning and goal-setting process, providing ongoing feedback to each other, and being attentive to the relationship. More specifically, the literature suggests that partners should understand the degree of goal alignment they share, effectively communicate, actively listen and ask questions, and hold regular meetings with practitioner leadership. Additionally, researchers should seek to understand the substantive and procedural legal aspects of the program or practice the practitioners are operationalizing, whereas practitioners should prepare for potential changes to the program or practice as a result of the study.

Partnership Challenges

General challenges in facilitating the partnerships include having inadequate resources or funding opportunities to do research; having limited data access, completeness, or quality; establishing trust, shared goals, and expectations; and planning the appropriate budget and amount of time needed to complete the research. The literature suggests that these obstacles can be overcome by establishing mutual trust and understanding each other’s perspective, having open communication that occurs regularly, and obtaining buy-in from key stakeholders within the practitioner agency.

Tips for Successful Partnerships

  • Initial conversations and planning activities that actively involve both partners are important for setting the stage for the project and the partnership.
  • Learning the needs of the other partner is critical in the planning stage of the project.
  • Practitioners’ concerns about how their data or information will be used by the researcher should be discussed early in the project, to promote trust and inform the work of each partner.
  • Researchers and practitioners may have competing needs and perspectives to be considered by the other party.
  • Effective and routine communication between researchers and practitioners can ensure the success of the partnership and project.
  • The establishment of the partnership may be a capacity-building experience for each partner. Such partnerships may help increase practitioners’ readiness and preparedness to participate in future evaluation and researchers’ readiness and preparedness to engage in applied research in the field.
  • To promote sustainability of the project and reinforce the partnership, researchers should share research findings throughout the project and allow practitioners to provide input, perspective, and context.
RTI’s Role in Practitioner-Researcher Partnerships

RTI has cultivated and sustained partnerships with numerous practitioners around the country. We have more than 100 experts who support the criminal justice field, and many of these are former practitioners who can apply that critical lens to our work. Learn more about our research experts across RTI on projects related to courts, corrections, law enforcement investigations and public safety, forensics, juvenile justice, and national security and extremism.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Samuel Scaggs (Research Criminologist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.