Top research resources for social care and social services

The news in June that the Government’s Green Paper on social care will now be delayed until the autumn (having already been deferred since 2017) brought sighs of weariness rather than real surprise from the sector.

The recent focus on NHS funding, and the NHS’s 70th birthday, has also highlighted ongoing concerns that the funding crisis in other areas, including social care, mental health services and public health is being pushed to the sidelines.

What is clear, is that the need for evidence-based interventions, and proven value for money, is only getting stronger as budgets continue to be stretched.

The value of research

So, what’s the role of research knowledge within social work and social care? The Social Care Institute for Excellence has suggested that research can help practitioners and decision-makers to understand:

  • the social world in which those who use services live
  • why positive and negative events occur in the lives of some and not others
  • the relative success of interventions and their impact on these events
  • the role of the social care practitioner in relationships and interventions with service users
  • how social policies impact on the lives of people using services.

Studies such as cost-benefit analyses or randomised controlled trials are also part of the evidence base although they are less common in social care/social services than in health contexts.

Research takes place in different ways, with different aims. And the outcomes of research can be communicated in different ways. Blogs such as our own at the Knowledge Exchange aim to signpost readers to recent research on particular topics. Other good sources of accessible discussion of research findings include The Conversation blog and Community Care.

Meanwhile, database services such as the Idox Information Service or Social Policy and Practice will provide more comprehensive coverage of issues, bringing together research studies from other parts of the world which are transferable.

Social Policy and Practice

Many NHS Trusts and councils subscribe to the Social Policy and Practice database as part of their package of support for learning and development.

Recent feedback from users has highlighted its strong coverage of many current priority issues in public health, such as:

  • dementia care
  • delayed discharge
  • funding of long term care
  • safeguarding of both children and adults
  • supporting resilience and well-being
  • tackling obesity
  • asset-based approaches

As a UK-produced database, Social Policy and Practice also includes information on topical policy issues such as minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes, and the possible impact on the health and social care workforce of Brexit.

The database is produced by a consortium of four organisations: Social Care Institute for Excellence, Centre for Policy on Ageing, Idox Information Service and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Idox Information Service

With a wider range of topics covered, the Idox Information Service has been identified as a key database by the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Cross-cutting issues which impact on health and social services, such as poverty, housing, and social exclusion are covered in depth. It also covers management and performance topics.

The Idox Information Service also offers a range of current awareness services and access to a team of expert researchers, in addition to the database. The aim is to support the continuing professional development of hard-pressed frontline staff while also supporting the sharing of research and evidence across the sector.

Meeting the needs of the social care sector

Both Social Policy and Practice, and the Idox Information Service aim to increase the social care sector’s capacity for evidence-informed practice.

As battle lines are drawn over government funding, it’s clear that these will continue to be financially challenging times for public services and that demand for services will carry on growing. Investing in learning and development is one way to ensure that staff are equipped with the skills and tools to be the best that they can be. This in turn will ultimately improve performance and outcomes for the most vulnerable in our society.


To find out more about the history of the Social Policy and Practice database and the consortium of publishers behind it, read this article from 2016 which we have been given permission to share. Trials of the database can be requested here.

Read more about the unique support offered by the Idox Information Service. More information on subscriptions can be requested via the online contact form.

A world of evidence … but can we trust that it is any good?

What is good evidence? And how can policymakers and decisionmakers decide what is working and what isn’t, when it comes to deciding where public money is spent and how?

These are the kinds of questions that models and tools such as randomised controlled trials and cost-benefit analysis attempt to answer. The government has also supported the development over the last five years of the What Works Network, which now consists of 10 independent What Works Centres. When talking about impact there’s also been a move to capturing and recognising the value of qualitative data.

As one of our key aims is to support and facilitate the sharing and use of evidence in the public sector, we were interested to read a new publication ‘Mapping the standards of evidence used in UK social policy’.

Standards of evidence

Produced by the Alliance for Useful Evidence, the research has found 18 different Standards of Evidence currently in use across UK social policy.

The report notes that over the last decade there has been increasing interest in grading effectiveness or impact against a level or scale. Typically, the higher up the scale, the more evidence is available. Theoretically this means that decision-makers can have higher confidence in deciding whether a policy or intervention is working.

While all the evidence frameworks generally aim to improve the use of evidence, the different goals of the organisations responsible can shape the frameworks in different ways. They can be used to inform funding decisions, to make recommendations to the wider sector about what works and what doesn’t, or as a resource to help providers to evaluate. And unfortunately this means that the same intervention can be assessed differently depending on which framework is used.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence concludes that while a focus on evidence use is positive, the diversity of evidence standards risks creating confusion. Suggested options for improving the situation include introducing an independent accreditation system, or having a one-stop shop which would make it easier to compare ratings of interventions.

Dissemination and wider engagement

The question of standardising evidence frameworks is just one part of a wider effort to increase transparency. As well as collecting evidence, it’s important that when public money has been invested in carrying out evaluations and impact assessments, that this evidence remain accessible over the longer term and that lessons are learned. It can often seem that government departments have very short organisational memories – especially if they’ve suffered a high churn of staff.

Two projects which we support in Scotland are focused on increasing the dissemination and awareness of evaluation and research evidence. Research Online is Scotland’s labour market information hub. Produced by ourselves and Skills Development Scotland, the portal brings together a range of statistics and research and acts as the centre of a community of practice for labour market researchers, practitioners and policy-makers.

Meanwhile Evaluations Online is a publicly accessible collection of evaluation and research reports from Scottish Enterprise. The reports cover all aspects of Scottish Enterprise’s economic development activities – some of the latest added to the site cover megatrends affecting Scottish tourism, innovation systems and the gender gap, and the commercial flower-growing sector in Scotland.

When working within the policy world it can be easy to suffer from fatigue as ideas appear to be continually recycled, rejected and then revisited as policy fashions change and political parties or factions go in and out of power. The spotlight, often driven by the media, will shine on one hot policy issue – for example, moped crime, cannabis legislation or health spending – and then move on.

Online libraries of evaluations and research reports are one tool which can help support a longer-term culture of learning and improvement within the public sector.

Evidence Week 2018

Inspired by similar objectives, Evidence Week runs from 25th to 28th June 2018 and aims to explore the work of parliamentarians in seeking and scrutinising evidence. It will bring together MPs, peers, parliamentary services and the public to talk about why evidence matters, and how to use and improve research evidence.

This may be the start of wider knowledge sharing about standards of evidence, to help those using them to improve their practice.


The Knowledge Exchange is a member of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Our databases are used by government and the public sector, as well as private-sector consultancies, to keep abreast of policy news and research in social and public policy.

The Idox Information Service database: factual, accessible and essential

At a time when finding up-to-date and accurate information has never been more important, organisations and individuals in the public, private and third sectors need to know where the best resources are.

All members of the Idox Information Service have access to the Idox database, which contains thousands of reports and journal articles on public and social policy.

The subjects range from planning and infrastructure to housing, health, education and culture. Each entry provides full bibliographic details, as well as an abstract summarising the key information contained in the original item.

Keywords and subject headings are allocated to each record, making it more likely to appear when searching for relevant items. Often, the abstract is enough to provide a searcher with the information they need. But if the full document is required, this is available, either online or by download.

The database is a highly respected library of high quality information, and brings together a wealth of articles and reports that are not available in a single source elsewhere.

To provide a flavour of what the database contains, here’s just a selection of the hundreds of items that have been added since the beginning of 2018.

End rough sleeping: what works
Published by Crisis

This report explores effective ways of tackling rough sleeping, drawing on a review of international evidence. The authors discuss key findings, impacts and barriers in relation to nine key interventions: hostels and shelters; Housing First; Common Ground; social impact bonds; residential communities; ‘no second night out’; reconnection; personalised budgets; and street outreach services. The report also highlights opportunities to improve the evidence base.

Fostering (House of Commons Education Committee report)
Published by The Stationery Office

In 2017, the Commons Education Committee conducted an enquiry into the foster care of children in England. The resulting report focuses on valuing young people and foster carers. As well as looking at the support for young people, including placements, engagement and transition to adulthood, the report considers the working conditions of foster carers, including financial support, employment status and training. The report concludes that foster care provides an invaluable service to society, but notes that England’s foster care system is under pressure. The Committee makes several recommendations for government, including the establishment of a national college for foster carers.

Still planning for the wrong future?
Published in Town and Country Planning, Vol 86 No 12 Dec 2017

Inactivity is one of the main factors impacting on health, and this article considers how planning may be a cause of, and a solution to, inactivity. The article discusses the health consequences of mass motoring in urban areas and the need to develop healthy communities through planning. The author calls for planning to develop more walkable, cyclable and public transport-based places, and recommends that places should be designed to make active and public transport more convenient than driving in order to increase physical activity and improve health.

Preparing for Brexit
Published by the Greater London Authority (GLA)

Brexit is, of course, a significant issue, and is likely to affect many different areas of public policy, from trade and the economy to public spending and devolution. The Idox database is collecting a growing library of reports and articles covering this important topic. This GLA report, for example, considers different scenarios to model five possible outcomes for the UK and London of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) Customs Union and Single Market. The report draws on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the macro-sectoral model, E3ME, and suggests that the more severe the type of Brexit, the greater the negative impact will be on London and the UK. It predicts that Brexit will not only reduce the size of the UK economy, but also put it on a slower long-term growth trajectory.

Work harder (or else)
Published in People Management, Mar 2018

Poor productivity is one of the most acute problems affecting the UK economy. This article suggests that the key to improving productivity lies with developing a happy, engaged and well-motivated workforce. And to reinforce the argument, the author provides evidence from a crystal glass products company in Cumbria. The article explains that since the company introduced a collective bonus for all employees based on turnover and margin improvement, turnover has almost doubled and gross margins have more than tripled.  The article attributes this success to the company’s staff working together to make small, continuous improvements.

Plastic not so fantastic
Published in Envirotec Mar/Apr 2018
Increasing concerns about the scale of plastic waste, particularly in the world’s oceans, has pushed this issue to the top of the political agenda. This article reviews government and industry responses to the problem, including the benefits and drawbacks of deposit return schemes.

These are just a few examples, but there are many more reports and articles in the Idox database. For most of these items, full text access is also available, either via website links or through our document supply service.

Access to the Idox database is just one of the services provided to members of the Idox Information Service. Other benefits of membership include our enquiries service, a weekly current awareness bulletin and fortnightly topic updates.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of Idox Information Service membership,  please get in touch with our customer development team today.


You can read more about the Idox Information Service in these recent blog posts:

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Focus on: Evaluations Online

 

Evaluations Online is a public portal providing access to a collection of evaluation and economic development research reports commissioned by Scottish Enterprise, Scotland’s main economic development agency.

Ensuring that public investment generates economic and social benefits, and long-term inclusive growth for Scotland is core to Scottish Enterprise’s remit. Making evaluation and research reports publicly available, supports this aim as well as ensuring transparency.

Some of the most popular recent reports added to the site have focused on:

Working in partnership

Since 2007, Idox has been working with Scottish Enterprise to deliver Evaluations Online using a publishing platform designed specifically to deal with research material. Users can easily navigate to and assess the relevance of material thanks to specially-written abstracts and structured search functions based on a bespoke classification and record structure.

The site now contains over 600 evaluation and research reports commissioned by Scottish Enterprise, dealing with different aspects of economic development activity such as business support, investment, sector growth and improving skills. All of the reports are publicly accessible and free to access.

Since the site launched we have continued to refresh and improve the site, ensuring it better meets the needs of key user groups, including economic development policy-makers and practitioners across Scotland. In the last quarter of 2016, the reports hosted on the site were accessed over 30,000 times.

The importance of evaluation

We’ve highlighted the importance of evidence and evaluation and assessment of information quality on the blog several times before. It’s worth repeating that repositories of evidence can help bring about better policy in a number of ways:

  • improving accountability by making it easier for people to scrutinise the activities and spending of public sector organisations – this helps organisations meet Freedom of Information responsibilities;
  • improving the visibility and therefore the impact of evidence;
  • helping identify gaps in evidence by making it easier to compare research findings; and
  • increasing our understanding of what works (‘good practice’), not only in the activities covered, but also in evaluation and research methods.

We’re proud to support Scottish Enterprise in the dissemination of their evaluation and research output, through a portal which they believe increases the return on these activities.


You can find out more about the projects The Knowledge Exchange team has been involved in, and the consultancy services we offer, here.

Social Policy and Practice …. an essential resource for anyone working in public health

We’re proud to be part of the publishing consortium which creates Social Policy and Practice, the only UK-produced social science database focused on social care, social services, public health, social policy and public policy.

So we’re thrilled that during October anyone can get free access to the database via Ovid and Wolters Kluwers’ Health, the internationally-recognised leader in medical information services.

There’s still a few days left of the special offer, so why not test drive it for free!

Addressing priorities in public health

Over the last few years there have been major changes in the public health landscape in the UK. Responsibility for commissioning many public health services moved from the NHS to local authorities, as a result of government reforms.

The King’s Fund has suggested that one challenge of this shift has been bridging the cultures of the NHS and local authorities. In particular there were clear differences in the understanding, value and use of evidence to determine decision-making and policy.

The continuing pressure on local authority budgets has also threatened the focus on prevention and joined up service delivery which is essential for tackling many public health issues.

Recent feedback on Social Policy and Practice has highlighted its strong coverage of many current priority issues in public health, such as:

  • dementia care
  • delayed discharge
  • funding of long term care
  • safeguarding of both children and adults
  • supporting resilience and well-being
  • tackling obesity
  • asset-based approaches

As a UK-produced database you will also find information on topical policy issues such as minimum alcohol pricing, sugar taxes, and the possible impact on the health and social care workforce of Brexit.

A valued resource

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.

Social Policy and Practice was also identified by the Alliance for Useful Evidence in a major mapping exercise in 2015, as a key resource supporting evidence use in government and the public sector.

Social Policy and Practice boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature, which is hard to find elsewhere.

The focus is on research and evidence that is relevant to those in the UK. A large proportion of material relates to delivery and policy within the UK and the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the database also contains resources of interest from Europe and across the world.


To see for yourself why so many UK universities, local authorities and NHS bodies rely on Social Policy and Practice as a resource, visit Ovid Resource of the Month for instant access.

To find out more about the history of the database and the consortium of publishers behind it, read this article from 2016 which we have been given permission to share.

Free access to Social Policy and Practice … this month only!

Social Policy and Practice is the UK’s only national social science database embracing social care, social services, public health, social policy and public policy. And Ovid – the internationally-recognised leader in medical information services – is celebrating its unique benefits by offering the chance for librarians and researchers to test drive it for free, throughout October!

UK-focused evidence and research

Social Policy and Practice is produced by a consortium of key organisations within the UK. Currently these are:

  • Centre for Policy on Ageing
  • Idox Information Service
  • National Children’s Bureau
  • National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
  • Social Care Institute for Excellence

The focus is on research and evidence that is relevant to those in the UK. So although a large proportion of material relates to delivery and policy within the UK and the devolved nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the database also covers material that is transferable from Europe and across the world.

Unrivalled scope

Social Policy and Practice covers all aspects of public health and social care. It is a must-have resource for anyone interested in the following topic areas:

  • Social work and social care services
  • Children and young people
  • Adults and older people
  • Families and parenting
  • Safeguarding
  • Health promotion
  • Health inequalities
  • Community development
  • Physical and mental health
  • Education and special educational needs

It also offers a holistic view of wider policy areas that impact on health, such as homelessness, housing and deprivation.

Social Policy and Practice boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature.

The importance of geographical focus

Research studies have shown that people searching for social science evidence tend to neglect the question of geographical and coverage bias within research sources. And that the geographical focus of databases is a potential source of bias on the findings of a research review.

In the last ten years many UK-produced databases have ceased – funding has stopped, publishers have closed or databases have been taken over by international publishers (which reduces the balance of UK content).

So as a UK-produced database, Social Policy and Practice is uniquely placed to provide relevant results for UK-based researchers.

A valued resource

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.

Social Policy and Practice was also identified by the Alliance for Useful Evidence in a major mapping exercise in 2015, as a key resource supporting evidence use in government and the public sector.


To see for yourself why so many UK universities and NHS bodies rely on Social Policy and Practice as a resource, visit Ovid Resource of the Month for instant access.

To find out more about the history of the database and the consortium of publishers behind it, read this article from 2016 which we have been given permission to share.

Introducing the Idox Information Service … supporting evidence use for over 40 years

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

Exterior of the Idox Information Service office in Glasgow

As a team who work every day to supply evidence and good practice to our clients in the public sector and consultancies, it would be easy to feel a bit down about the ease with which the idea of a post-truth world has taken grip.

In fact however, it’s heartening that so many organisations continue to recognise the value that our service brings. Not only does it offer a continuing professional development resource for staff, it also acts as a channel for knowledge sharing between organisations – helping them when they have to review services, look for efficiencies, or transform what they do in light of changing government policy or priorities.

We know that much of what we do can remain hidden, even to our own members. So let’s go under the bonnet of our unique service …

Who we are

The Idox Information Service is a membership library service, which was established over forty years ago – originally under the name of the Planning Exchange. At the outset, the emphasis was on the provision of resources to support professionals working in planning and the built environment in Scotland, but over the years we’ve expanded our subject coverage to cover the whole spectrum of public sector information, and across the UK.

Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Our work

Our team is made up of a mix of researchers, public policy specialists and qualified librarians, along with support staff. They have professional memberships, including chartered membership of CILIP and the Social Research Association. This picture shows the typical range of activities in a year:

2014 statsPublic policy is an ever-evolving subject and so current awareness services are a big part of what we do. Members can set up their own subject alerts on anything that interests them, and we also have a set of weekly and fortnightly updates on common topics. Last year we added three new current awareness updates on Devolution, Smart Cities and of course, Brexit!

UK grey literature is a particular strength of our collection. We spend a lot of time sourcing documents such as technical reports from government agencies, and research reports produced by think tanks, university departments, charities and consultancies which are often overlooked by other databases. Recent research has highlighted the value of grey literature for public policy and practice.

We also write our own research briefings for members on different topics, with more detailed analysis of research and policy developments, and including case studies and good practice. Some of these briefings are publicly available on our publications page.

The interest from members in using our Ask a Researcher service has been increasing, due to the time pressures and other challenges that people face in sourcing and reviewing information. An example looking at the links between employee wellbeing and productivity is on our website. Members regularly comment on the usefulness of the results, and it’s satisfying to be able to make a direct contribution to their work in this way.

Keeping it personal

While our online database allows our members to search for and access resources themselves, there is a strong personal element to our work.

Our members know that we’re always available at the end of the phone or via email to provide them with dedicated support when they need it. It’s important to us that we provide a quality service which keeps pace with the changing needs and expectations of a varied membership base.

Hopefully, this article has provided some insight into the way that the Knowledge Exchange supports staff and organisations across a variety of fields. More information about the service can be found here.


In 2015, the Idox Information Service was recognised as a key organisation supporting evidence use in government and the public sector. It was named by NESTA / Alliance for Useful Evidence / Social Innovation Partnership in their mapping of the UK evidence ecosystem.

We also contribute data to the Social Policy and Practice database, which focuses on health and social care evidence, and is a resource recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

The Men’s Sheds revolution spreading around the world

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by Stacey Dingwall

Last week I attended ‘Men’s Sheds: the movement in Scotland and the big picture internationally’, an event, organised by the Centre for Research & Development in Adult and Lifelong Learning (CR&DALL) at the University of Glasgow.

Our blog on the Men’s Sheds movement was one of our most popular last year. The movement originated in Victoria, Australia in the 1990s, as a place for men to socialise and take part in practical activities. 23 years later, there are now close to 1,000 such spaces in Australia. Sheds have also proven popular in Ireland (350 Sheds and counting) and Scotland (at least 38 up and running, with 30 in the start-up phase).

Research has indicated that loneliness and isolation are a particular issue for certain groups of men, which is reflected in higher suicide rates. Evaluations of Men’s Sheds have found participation to have a range of positive effects for these groups of men, predominantly in terms of their mental health and wellbeing.

The movement in Scotland …

The first speaker of the day was Willie Whitelaw, Secretary of the Scottish Men’s Sheds Association (SMSA). Willie highlighted two key points, which were themes throughout the rest of the afternoon:

  • The importance of Sheds not being regulated by outside agencies, e.g. government – this was something that those involved in Sheds felt particularly strong about. As noted by Professor Mike Osborne, the Director of CR&DALL, at the start of the afternoon, the reduction in government support for adult education has created a need for people to organise themselves in order to access lifelong learning opportunities. Thus, those who attend Sheds feel strongly about preserving the independence of the space, as well as its democratic dynamic.
  • How to ensure the sustainability of Sheds, and community projects in general – Willie described how the SMSA can support Sheds across Scotland by offering advice on applying for funding, how to keep things like rental costs low, and using mechanisms such as the Community Empowerment Bill and Community Asset Transfers to their advantage. Noting the difficulty that many community projects face in sustaining themselves long-term, Willie highlighted the Clydebank Independent Resource Centre (CIRC), which has been running for over 40 years, as a rare but good example of how sustainability can be achieved.

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…and the big picture internationally

The second speaker of the day was Professor Barry Golding from Federation University Australia. Barry is the most prolific researcher in the area of Men’s Sheds, and published The Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men last year. Barry described the origins of the movement in Australia, and suggested it took off due to its provision of the three key things that men need: somewhere to go, something to do, and someone to talk to.

Barry also emphasised the importance of not formalising Men’s Sheds, and particularly not promoting the spaces as somewhere where men with health issues go (not a very attractive prospect to an outsider!) This point was also picked up by David Helmers, CEO of the Australian Men’s Shed’s Association. David described the experience of one Australian Shed who had a busload of patients arrive after being referred by health services. The point of the Shed is to create a third space for men (other than home or work) where they can relax and socialise with their peers. Any learning or health improvements that arise from this is coincidental and not forced.

Barry and David were followed by John Evoy of the International Men’s Shed Organisation (IMSO). John focused on the experience of Sheds in Ireland, noting the impact of the recession as a particular reason why the movement has taken off in Ireland. The IMSO’s aim is to support a million men through Sheds by 2022.

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Strengthening the movement and using evidence

To finish the afternoon, two panels comprising Shed members and researchers considered the questions of how to strengthen and sustain the Men’s Sheds movement, and how research might be beneficial to this.

Shed members on the panel and in the audience suggested that changing the stereotype of Sheds as spaces for older men with health (particularly mental) issues is important. In fact, men of any age are welcome to attend their local Shed, and current members are particularly keen to encourage this in order to support the intergenerational transmission of practical skills that are otherwise at risk of being lost.

In terms of available evidence, it was noted that research on Men’s Sheds is still scarce, and focused on the Australian experience. Catherine Lido, a lecturer in psychology in the university’s School of Education, discussed the pros and cons of carrying out a systematic evaluation of the movement in the UK. Again, the importance of the democratic nature of Sheds was raised – allowing outside agencies, particularly government, to come in and carry out research would involve the loss of some control. Any research conducted would have to be participatory, in order that Shed members did not feel like they were the subject of an ‘experiment’. Barry Golding highlighted, however, that there is currently almost no data on UK Sheds available; rectifying this could strengthen Sheds’ chances of being successful in applications for funding to support their running costs.

If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on ‘makerspaces‘, which have drawn comparisons with the Men’s Sheds movement.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

In support of qualitative research: the value of qualitative insight for policy formation

For many people, working in the tangible, measurable area of hard figures provides an element of certainty to decision making processes. It is perhaps for this reason that quantitative research was, for many years, the largely uncontested preference for decision makers and people looking for research to evidence their decisions.research

Some criticisms that are often made of qualitative research are that it:

  • can be limited in scope and size and have a longer turnaround time than quantitative studies;
  • can be difficult to replicate and scale to achieve multiple results across multiple test sites
  • can be too reliant on researcher interpretation, perception and experience, and therefore too exposed to bias and unreliability.

In contrast, quantitative research is stereotypically presented as producing results that are consistent and replicable; and therefore ‘higher quality’ and ‘more valid’.

A question of quality

Qualitative research has always suffered from a reputatio of being less rigorous. Instead of dealing with empirical data, it deals with the more human side of research and the effects of a programme. It questions the reasoning of understanding, and the emotional implications of an intervention. As a result, qualitative researchers approach their subject from an entirely different epistemological standpoint (i.e. they have a different view of what ‘knowledge’ is, what should be judged as evidence, and what should not).

This challenges the understanding of what is meant by “research standards”. While quantitative researchers base their understanding on demonstrable results which can be proven and replicated to the same standard, qualitative research brings to the fore questions of researcher subjectivity, the concepts of validity and reliability of results and questions of ethics. It also stresses the importance not only of measuring information to gain results, but gaining results through examining and interpreting experiences and social contexts. It considers these social factors on policy outcomes rather than by categorical measurement using a predefined scale.

A mixed methods approach

While this traditional dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative research methods is convenient, in practice many organisations value the social dimension especially when looking at understanding the impact of policy interventions.

In fact many local authorities and public sector bodies, including the Greater London Authority (GLA), are increasingly looking to qualitative researchers to form part of their wider research teams. In a policy context, it is clear that qualitative research has its place alongside quantitative research as part of a mixed methods approach to evidence based policy making.

Some of the things that qualitative research brings to policy research are: a flexible research method (the methods of collection and analysis can easily be changed as the research is being conducted and the data emerges); and very rich data (if done correctly, one study could provide research data for a number of research tasks).

It allows for a deeper understanding of what lies behind results – not just that something has had an impact, but why. It also allows researchers to understand social phenomena from an individual perspective and consider the specific contexts and conditions which have contributed to it (for example, the experience of stigma or discrimination).group-discussion_unsplash

Giving a voice to marginalised groups

Qualitative research is also finding a role in evaluative research teams, looking at the meanings and constructions which made an intervention effective or ineffective and potential steps to make it more successful in the future.

One example is in engaging with hard-to-reach or marginalised people. While quantitative research would tell you that certain groups of people engage less frequently in community groups for example, qualitative research would help to explore what motivates people to engage, and therefore tease out potential methods to increase engagement. Qualitative research also allows for bespoke research questions on niche topics to be created and explored thoroughly. This can be useful for local authorities who wish to explore issues at a local level with specific communities which would not necessarily be distinct within wider national quantitative data sets and statistics.

Supporting the personalisation agenda with bespoke research

Qualitative research is also becoming more popular as a supplementary option to hard data and raw statistics because of the increased importance which is being placed on individual experience and personalisation in public services, particularly, but not exclusively within health and social care. Qualitative data allows researchers to get an in-depth view of how people experience services.

While it will never be a replacement for the empirical data produced by quantitative data, qualitative data brings its own benefits and enhances understanding around policies in a way that hard data often cannot. It encourages professionals to think beyond figures as a benchmark for outcomes. It also allows them to gain rich data on the experiences of marginalised groups in society, who often go unrepresented in large national quantitative data sets.


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Why a holistic approach to public health and social care needs a wider evidence base … and how Social Policy and Practice can help

SPP screenshot2016 has been described as “make or break time for the NHS”, and with pressures on finances increasing, social care and public health are in the spotlight. Around £1 in every £5 of NHS spending is estimated to be the result of ill health attributable to the big five risk factors of smoking, alcohol, poor diet, obesity and inactivity. Investing in prevention, and understanding the complex wider community and social factors that lead to poor health, is therefore important. In cash-strapped local authorities however, investment in preventative projects can be sidelined in the face of tackling acute issues.

Prevention and behaviour change are linked

Recent health policy has included an expectation that individuals should take greater responsibility for their own health. But where we are talking about behaviour change, there is no quick fix. Glib use of the term ‘nudge’ to promote change can suggest that laziness is the only issue. However, research such as that by the King’s Fund has highlighted that motivation and confidence are essential if people are to successfully modify their health behaviours.

Practitioners within the field of both public health and social care need help understanding what works – but as two great recent blogs from the Alliance for Useful Evidence noted, change can be achieved in multiple ways and evidence shouldn’t be used to prove a service works but as part of a journey of improvement and learning.

We talk about the “caring professions”, but it seems that it can be difficult to maintain a focus on the ‘person not the patient’ when budgets are being cut. Well-reported issues such as the rise in the use of 15-minute home care appointments are just one symptom of this. More generally, making time to consider alternative approaches or learn from good practice elsewhere can be hard. That is where having access to a trusted database can help.

Trusted source of research and ideas

The Alliance for Useful Evidence, most recently in its practice guide to using research evidence, has highlighted the importance of using trusted sources rather than “haphazard online searches”. One of these resources is Social Policy and Practice, a database which we have contributed to for twelve years.

“SPP is useful for any professional working in the field of social care or social work who can’t get easy access to a university library.” Alliance for Useful Evidence, 2016

The partners who contribute to the database – Centre for Policy on Ageing, Idox Information Service, National Children’s Bureau, the NSPCC and the Social Care Institute for Excellence – are all committed to sharing their focused collections with the wider world of researchers and to influence policy and practice.

Social Policy and Practice is the UK’s only national social science database embracing social care, social policy, social services, and public policy. It boasts over 400,000 references to papers, books and reports and about 30% of the total content is grey literature.

Social Policy and Practice has been identified by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a key resource for those involved in research into health and social care. And importantly, it supports the ability to take a holistic approach to improving outcomes, by covering social issues such as poor housing, regeneration, active ageing, resilience and capacity building.


Find out more about the development of the Social Policy and Practice database in this article from CILIP Update. Update is the leading publication for the library, information and knowledge management community and they’ve given us permission to share this article.

If you are interested in using the Social Policy and Practice (SPP) database for evidence and research in health and social care, please visit www.spandp.net for more information and to request a free trial.

Read some of our other blogs on evidence use in public policy: