The long-lasting impact of community engaged research
28 April 2021
In this blog Aradhna Kaushal and Anne Laybourne discuss the lasting impact of taking part in the UCL Evaluation Exchange – an organisation bringing together voluntary and community groups hoping to improve their evaluation skills.
This blog post has been written by Aradhna Kaushal & Anne Laybourne, from UCL, following an event exploring the value of student and voluntary sector collaborations to mark the (re)launching of the UCL Evaluation Exchange (EvEx). In 2017 UCL Innovation and Enterprise Knowledge Exchange Innovation Fund (KEIF) funded the pilot Evaluation Exchange. Four years on, still firm friends since meeting at EvEx, Aradhna and Anne sit down to reflect on what they think has been the long-lasting impact of taking part.
Q – Why did you decide to take part in the Evaluation Exchange?
Aradhna: When I found out about the Evaluation Exchange, I signed up straight away: I was in the final year of my PhD and was pushing myself to try new things and take part in activities outside of my research work. I have always enjoyed volunteering, and this seemed like a really good use of my skills.
Anne: The context of me noticing the advert in the UCL newsletter - which you didn’t see, Aradhna! - was a quiet patch during my research role and, to be honest, a need for something different - research is quite monotonous in many ways and this was my 8th year as a research associate since my PhD. I was attracted to the advert to ‘develop and apply my research skills’ with voluntary sector organisations because I had always felt the patient & public involvement on research projects could be improved – they often had little meaningful influence. I wanted to be part of something driven by the organisation.
Q – What did you do?
Aradhna: After registering, we were matched to an organisation based on our interests – I remember listing homelessness as a particular area of interest for me so I was very happy when I found out I was matched with Caritas Anchor House, a residential housing charity based in the London Borough of Newham (which has the highest homelessness rate in the UK). They provide more than just accommodation; they also provide education and guidance to support people towards leading independent lives.
Anne: Our job as researchers was to co-produce an evaluation tool to evaluate Caritas Anchor Houses’ services and then incorporate the voices of residents into decision making at the charity. We did this using a consensus building method called Nominal Group Technique which was very successful in allowing everyone to voice their opinion, and have their vote count towards a list of priorities Caritas Anchor House could address straight away.
Q – What did you learn about yourself as a researcher?
Aradhna: For me, I learnt a lot about how I work and communicate in a diverse team. Doing a PhD can be a very solitary experience so when you get a group of researchers who have just met, from different backgrounds, with their own set of experiences, it is very easy for the project to derail. I found the key to keeping us on-track, was patience and really taking the time to listen and understand each other. Having those long conversations was challenging, but so important to making sure we all on the same page and ultimately ensure the success of the project.
The Evaluation Exchange also gave me the opportunity to develop my leadership skills. In, this project, Anne naturally took the role of project manager, and was brilliant at making sure we were always on track. I was able to take the lead on organising the data collection and analysis. It was rewarding to have a specific part of the project I was responsible for but also to have team members I could rely on.
Anne: Thinking about it, you’re right - I did naturally take on the project manager role – it's what I was doing at the time in my job. I think this was a bit lazy on my part – it was second nature! But I did learn heaps - by far the longest-lasting learning point from this experience is the idea that there are other experts besides academic researchers. I realised I was so bought into the very western scientific model of creating new knowledge and considered academics as the gold standard in expertise or knowledge. I mean, my growing dissatisfaction with patient & public involvement in research probably indicates sub-conscious changes were afoot! So the Evaluation Exchange was my first, very practical, experience of different epistemologies, or ways of knowing.
A related point is learning that with research there are different types of impact and actually, who reads peer-reviewed papers? Only other people ‘like’ us, with the same system of knowledge. So I really learned that I wanted to be a researcher producing more broadly useful or used outputs and that this was an important motivator for me.
Q – What did you learn about ways of working?
Aradhna: The timescales for these kinds of projects are quite short (only 6 months!) and so one of the important skills I developed was project planning and setting realistic goals. We had to be very organised to make sure that we had enough time to complete each stage of the process and make sure that we delivered on-time. An example of this is at the beginning of the project we were keen to complete a series of focus groups, transcribe them and complete a formal qualitative analysis, but we quickly realised that we just did not have enough time or resources to be able to do that.
Anne: I learned that I didn’t like the way I was working as a fixed-term researcher! Or maybe more accurately, I learned that there were other ways of working that suited me better, that are not exactly commonplace in research! I only was able to articulate this during the celebration event of Evaluation Exchange – I remember sitting in the lovely venue, surrounded by a diverse and exciting group of people, in a lovely atmosphere carefully planned by team EvEx and it hit me – I craved a more collegiate and creative way of working. Being a fixed-term researcher, you join projects far beyond the decision-making and creative phases – you are taken on to do a prescribed, fixed role. I was beginning to find it really reductive and then I discovered this hyper-creative, dialogue-based environment and something clicked. I even said to a couple of the Evaluation Exchange team “how can I work with you guys?”! (spoiler alert: I now am. Read on...).
Q – What are the challenges in doing community engaged research?
Aradhna: There was a definite pressure on time and resources, but it was very helpful to have a contract in the beginning which was explicit about the roles and responsibilities of each person. It was also good to have an end-date to avoid the project becoming larger than it could have been.
As the Evaluation Exchange is in essence a service evaluation, you don’t need to apply for ethical approval, but I think it is still very important to consider the same ethical issues you would with a typical research project. In our case we were asking people in a vulnerable situation to tell us about their experiences of a service – that was the roof over their heads. We had to be very careful to make sure that everything was kept confidential and that nothing they said would affect the service they were receiving.
Anne: I would say one of the challenges was working out what your organisation wants and what is possible. So managing expectations – including around what we were capable of doing! There can be a bit of a ‘aura’ around researchers and what’s possible. As well as bringing down our status as the experts, it was also challenging to get our partners to see themselves as experts. Maybe there was a lot of imposter syndrome going about from both sides!
Another challenge was getting used to the fast-paced and really reactive way of working compared to the considerably more pedestrian research world. You don’t have time to read, think and ponder or redraft in the same way! This is so refreshing but takes a bit of getting used to.
Q – Has taking part had any long-lasting impact?
Aradhna: The Evaluation Exchange has had a big impact on me. I’ve made long-term friends and collaborators and we are planning to write a paper about the evaluation we did. It is also a fantastic case-study to building your case for promotion and demonstrating impact. Research impact can be so much more than presenting at conferences and writing papers in peer-reviewed journals. A good tip I came away with is to always record what you are doing: take plenty of photos and videos and keep a diary of your reflections. These can always be used to share your experiences and learnings with other people by writing a blogpost (like we are doing now!) or posting on social media.
Taking part in the Evaluation Exchange led to me seriously consider research consultancy as a career option. As a result, I have since co-founded Kohlrabi Consulting and we definitely make use of the skills and experiences we gained on the Evaluation Exchange to inform our work.
Anne: Well, for me it’s been pretty seismic. I left academia really, although I remain within the higher education setting. After EvEx, I put things in motion to change careers: I went to the Public Engagement training and I think through these contacts I learned about the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement and applied for one of their community-university partnership initiative days. Then I started applying for jobs! After a few goes, I applied for my current position in 2018, community research manager in the Students’ Union where I am leading the developing of the community research initiative for master’s students to collaborate with a voluntary sector organisation as part of the student's dissertation – huge overlap with EvEx. I am now great colleagues with EvEx. And eternally grateful.
Q – What would you say to someone considering community engaged research?
Aradhna: We would both highly recommend taking part in community engaged research, especially for expanding your horizons whilst doing something beneficial for the community. You never know what doors it might open-up!