Tips and tools: 20 February 2017.

When it comes to gathering evidence to inform policy, getting the research question right at the start is key to producing a rapid review that can successfully answer a policy question.

This piece of advice is one of 10 top tips outlined by Gai Moore, Principal Analyst in the Sax Institute’s Knowledge Exchange division in a recent international webinar on knowledge synthesis hosted by the Canadian McMaster Health Forum.

ask the right questions on blackboard

If you want the right answer, ask the right question

Ms Moore outlined some key learnings from the Institute’s Evidence Check rapid review program, launched a decade ago to provide concise summaries of research that answer specific policy questions in a “policy-friendly” format.

The Institute has since produced more than 200 Evidence Check rapid reviews, commissioned by a wide range of agencies and conducted by independent researchers, on a vast array of topics ranging from social care to e-health and from drug and alcohol use to chronic disease management.

Here are 10 tips on knowledge synthesis for policy and practice gleaned from the program.

  1. Policy makers value research

Research undertaken by CIPHER (Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research) shows that 95% of policy makers believe research is valuable for deciding about the content or direction of a policy or program.

  1. Agencies use research in different ways

Agencies’ planned use of rapid reviews varies depending on mandate and role of the agency, according to recently published research on the intended use of Evidence Check reviews. Some agencies were trying to set priorities for future investment, while others were aiming to identify and evaluate alternative actions or solutions to problems.

  1. The right evidence isn’t always available

Timely, relevant research isn’t always available for decision making. What policy makers are seeking is syntheses and summaries, in user-friendly formats and messages that prompt action.

  1. Getting the question right is key

To get the right answers, you need to start with the right question that truly reflects the agency’s needs. It can however, be surprisingly difficult to turn a policy question into a rapid review question.

  1. Knowledge brokering makes a difference

Don’t underestimate the value of knowledge brokering to ensure you get the question right as demonstrated in a recent research paper: a knowledge-brokering session involving the reviewers, the policy makers, and those involved in the design and delivery of programs and services, helps to clarify and refine the questions so that the rapid review meets the stated need.

  1. You need the right team

The research team commissioned to conduct the rapid review must have expertise in the specific content area, experience in conducting literature reviews, the ability to synthesise multiple types of evidence, and an understanding of policy environments and needs. Last but not least, they must be skilled in writing for the policy audience.

  1. You need the right supports in place

Behind the scenes, you need to have good systems for managing a rapid review. The liaison team must facilitate interaction at key decision points, review the quality of the work and be able to coach the researchers in how to write in a “policy-friendly” way. They must also be on top of issues around contracting, intellectual property and publication.

  1. You can increase uptake of rapid reviews

There are various ways you can increase the uptake of a rapid review that centre on interaction between policymakers and reviewers. These include presentations to stakeholders, conducting policy dialogues or holding workshops and forums to explore how the findings might best inform the work of the agency.

  1. Impact is hard to measure

Measuring the impact of a rapid review isn’t easy. The review is usually one of many factors that influence policy, along with the economic climate, public opinion, media, legislation, stakeholder interests and political ideology and priorities. Change is incremental, and it’s hard to ascertain a review’s exact influence.

  1. Trust is the essential ingredient

Knowledge synthesis doesn’t work unless there is open communication between the policy and review teams, a shared commitment to the policy goal, and credible and trusted intermediaries such as knowledge brokers.

Other knowledge synthesis tools

At the McMaster Health Forum webinar, Dr Jo-An Atkinson, Lead, Synthesis Capacity and Senior Research Fellow at The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre, also outlined how the Prevention Centre was using dynamic simulation modelling as an evidence synthesis and decision support tool for policy.

She said the Centre was working in partnership with health departments to develop a series of “what if” tools to test likely impacts of policies and interventions before they are implemented in the real world.

Models were being developed for areas including investigating effective approaches to alcohol harm reduction, childhood overweight and obesity, and the prevention of gestational diabetes.

Stakeholder engagement, participation and consensus building processes were also being embedded into the development of these tools to ensure they support knowledge exchange, Dr Atkinson said.

Watch the webinar

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