This is the first in a two-part series on researcher-practitioner partnerships by JPO’s Associate Director of Research, Dr. Julie Baldwin. Part two will focus on the characteristics of robust researcher-practitioner partnerships and how we can promote their development.
Some of the most rewarding and stimulating components of my career have been developing and strengthening researcher-practitioner partnerships, specifically partnerships with treatment courts. A researcher-practitioner partnership (RPP) is a collaborative relationship between an agency or program and a research partner. Generally, the purpose of researcher-practitioner (RPP) partnership is to conduct collaborative strategic problem solving to develop and implement into practice evidence-based strategies that improve effects and efficiency, as well as reduce costs. These innovations must not only be data-driven but practical.
Partnerships between practitioners and researchers are essential to treatment court efficacy, and I believe treatment court practitioners and researchers have the similar goal of understanding what works for whom to increase the efficacy and efficiency of these programs for all involved (participants and practitioners). However, various obstacles challenge the development of RPPs.
Through my own experience and many conversations with practitioners and researchers over the years, I have identified the following obstacles: lack of awareness, time constraints, value, and language. The most basic challenge is the lack of awareness of RPPs among researchers and practitioners alike, and I attribute this to the formal education experienced by both groups prior to embarking on their careers.
Chronologically, I earned my BA and MA in Criminal Justice; worked as practitioner (i.e., appeals paralegal, Freedom of Information Law administrator, court analyst) in several court systems; earned my PhD in Criminology, Law & Society; was a criminology and criminal justice professor; and am now a research director and professor. It was not until I was in the Criminology, Law & Society doctoral program at the University of Florida (Go Gators!) that I learned what translational research was and that it was what I wanted to do (a story for another blog post). In late 2009, I began working with veterans treatment courts (VTCs) for my dissertation—pioneering a new area and becoming one of the first VTC researchers in the country is another story for another time. I understood that my work was characterized as “translational” as I worked with a variety of practitioners and made a concerted effort to translate my scientific research into practice or meaningful outcomes in the field. However, I did not hear the term “researcher-practitioner partnership” (and “action research”) until I was already working as a criminology and criminal justice professor. When I first heard the term, I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s what I do and love! I’m totally going to start using that verbiage.”
What’s notable about the timing of my introduction to that term is that it came after I had two criminal justice degrees, several years of experience in the court system, and a criminology degree under my belt. Further, my initial RPP projects were either complete or well underway. Although my doctoral program did not introduce the terminology to me, it did familiarize me with the general concept, and I began spending a large part of my time working with practitioners, establishing strong RPPs to accomplish mutual goals. However, this means that I had not become acquainted with the potential for RPPs in my BA and MA criminal justice programs or my work as a practitioner in the court system—there was a lack of formal education on RPPs in my formal criminal justice education, as well as in my practitioner career. Further, in my doctoral program, the majority of my peers and professors did not engage in this type of work, and RPP-specific training did not exist (a general evaluation course was where I learned of the concept).
My conversations with researchers and practitioners over the years have revealed similar trends. Lower-level criminal justice education and most criminology programs do not address the RPP. This results in the majority of researchers and practitioners not participating in RPPs or even being aware of their potential to do so. Even if they are aware and interested, many practitioners do not know where to find a researcher to partner with because of the lack of education on RPPs. Additionally, many researchers do not engage in this work. What I first noticed in grad school, and still do to this day, is that the minority of academic researchers around me collaborate or even interact with practitioners. While the majority produce high-quality research, they do not take the next step and actively attempt to effectuate change in the field. I often ask my friends in academia, “What is the point of the research if it’s not connected to the actual field of practice?”
I’ve come to the conclusion that this is an institutional problem related not only to our education/training but also to the underlying issue of tenure. Institutions often place more value on peer-reviewed publications in top-tier academic journals than practitioner publications or translational research products. Further, there is a time clock to tenure, and generally, secondary data analysis of researcher-constructed data sets is less time-consuming than working with practitioners to collect primary data or enhance their capacity for data collection. Overall, this contributes to the devaluation of practitioner-focused work, and thus, fewer researchers who undertake these initiatives. Although scholars have called for a change, institutions have yet to shift their evaluations.
RPPs also require practitioner time and effort. Criminal justice practitioners are notoriously overworked, especially in rural areas, leaving little time to devote to RPPs even though they may address resource issues. A lack of awareness or understanding of how RPPs can benefit agencies may also be contributing to RPPs not being valued and stressed among their leadership and, in turn, not being assigned time and effort among employees.
I have heard practitioners and researchers alike discuss the difficulties of working with the other group. One of the top issues mentioned by both sides is communication, which consists of not only frequency and consistency but also language used as language varies by orientation. Researchers and practitioners need to be mindful of their partners’ backgrounds when communicating and try to use neutral (non-career specific) language and define terms and abbreviations if used.
Agencies, such as the Bureau of Justice Assistance, have supported the development and administration of training and technical assistance for RPPs, as well as included RPPs in their funding solicitations. I have been fortunate to attend their Smart Suite training with some of my practitioner partners and believe they can be very beneficial to researchers and practitioners. However, I hope to eventually see the inclusion of RPPs in criminal justice and criminology program curricula and agency goals, and I think this may be on the horizon with funding agencies pushing for them.
Dr. Julie Baldwin is associate director of research at the Justice Programs Office.