Oxford Community Action

Communities should be researched ‘with’ rather than researched ‘on’, write Adam Briggs, deputy director of public health, Oxfordshire CC, Veronica Barry, executive director, Healthwatch Oxfordshire, and Nigel Carter, director, Oxford Community Action.

Left to right: Adam Briggs, deputy director of public health, Oxfordshire CC; Veronica Barry, executive director, Healthwatch Oxfordshire, and Nigel Carter, director, Oxford Community Action

In March 2023, community and voluntary organisations and the county council launched a community research network for Oxfordshire. With funding from UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), the network’s shared ambition has been to address local inequalities in health and wellbeing and tackle the 14-year gap in life expectancy across the county.

The network seeks to bring people together to collaborate with local councils, academic institutions and health services to work on research projects that will benefit their communities. It builds on Public Health England’s post-covid recommendation that communities are central to informing and identifying solutions to persistent health inequalities based on lived experience and must be equal partners in the research process.

Initial network membership was developed with inclusion at its heart, and while this approach is consistent with the standards expected by UK research funders, it won’t surprise anyone involved in community research that such involvement hasn’t always been the norm.

As part of its work, the network commissioned Healthwatch Oxfordshire to produce a report exploring community research in the county. They heard from local residents and voluntary groups about experiences of working with academics and statutory organisations.

Equal partners

While the report gave some notable examples of good practice, it was also evident that all too often research failed to recognise and build on previous work, or to follow through on promised actions.

Crucially, communities also voiced a feeling of being researched ‘on’, rather than ‘with’.

If we are to understand how to tackle persistent health inequalities, then people with lived experience need to be equal partners in all steps of the research process.

For many in local government and beyond, this means a new way of working that values communities, supports skills development, recognises and develops capacity and simplifies bureaucracy.

Building on community voices, Healthwatch Oxfordshire’s report identified four guiding principles for how to do things better:

  • Nothing about us without us
  • Commit to action
  • Value lived experience and time
  • Be open, transparent and accountable.

Adopting these principles can support councils and academic institutions in their collaborative work within communities.

Firstly, these principles mean placing a greater emphasis on co-production throughout the research process, and taking time to map and coordinate study plans with ongoing and previous research being done elsewhere.

Secondly, councils and universities should work with communities to develop a shared understanding of what ‘good’ looks like, including providing examples of best practice and learning.

And thirdly, there needs to be a shared expectation and agreement for a ‘continuous ongoing dialogue’ with communities. This is both to share research findings and to feed back action needed from those in positions of power to ensure long term change.

Changing ‘extractive’ approaches

Oxfordshire’s Community Research Network has a role supporting all of these steps and can help provide leadership in coordinating public involvement and holding institutions to account.

Healthwatch Oxfordshire’s report calls for a commitment from research institutions and academics to ensure “principles of equity, trust, respect, openness, collaboration and willingness to change ‘extractive’ approaches to research, with communities as equal partners”.

The four principles identified in the report will help to achieve this commitment but will require investment in time and money from communities, councils and academics alike. And ongoing evaluation of the network will help us to understand how and under what circumstances its changes to public and community involvement influence research questions, participation, and dissemination, and ultimately, local health and inequalities.

Adam Briggs, deputy director of public health, Oxfordshire CC; Veronica Barry, executive director, Healthwatch Oxfordshire; Nigel Carter, director, Oxford Community Action

Article Source: https://www.lgcplus.com/services/health-and-care/adam-briggs-veronica-barry-nigel-carter-lessons-for-community-research-08-04-2024/