Successful implementation demands a great liaison person: Nine tips on making it work

Community member post by Abby Haynes on behalf of CIPHER (Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research)

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CIPHER Sub-group (Participants)

When external providers deliver a complex program in an organisation, it is crucial that someone from that organisation—a liaison person—gives ‘insider’ advice and acts as a link between their organisation and the program providers. What are the characteristics to look for in filling that role? And how can liaison people best be supported?

Here we describe what we learnt about the pivotal role of liaison people during the implementation of SPIRIT (Supporting health with Research: an Intervention Trial). SPIRIT was a novel multi-component trial designed to increase individual and organisational capacity to use research in policymaking. Six Sydney-based health policy organisations took part – each nominating a member of their staff to coordinate the implementation of SPIRIT in their organisation. These liaison people turned out to be far more than administrators – they had a profound impact not only on how the program was implemented, but on perceptions, engagement and participation across their organisations.

We provide nine tips for identifying and supporting liaison people.

1. Champions: The liaison person must believe that the program is worthwhile

The ideal liaison person is:

  • a champion: someone who genuinely believes in the program and advocates for it energetically
  • an opinion leader: someone with informal organisational influence
  • a boundary spanner: someone well-connected in their workplace who can also communicate effectively with the program providers.

We found that where liaison people held an indifferent or negative view of the program they unintentionally undermined it, while those who were enthusiastic amplified others’ enthusiasm. So genuine support for the program is more important than influence or connections.

2. Credibility: The liaison person should be an authentic advocate for the program

Colleagues judged the suitability and effectiveness of their liaison person in terms of how well they modelled and espoused research-informed policymaking. This suggests that for a liaison person to be a credible champion they must be perceived as someone who believes in what they are saying and knows what they are talking about.

3. Connections: The liaison person should have sound cross-organisational knowledge and networks

The program was more creatively tailored and integrated, and better attuned to each organisation’s professional development expectations, when their liaison person consulted with colleagues and advised the program providers. Liaison people’s ability to act as intermediaries required them to have (or be able to rapidly acquire) knowledge about multiple aspects of their organisation. Broad connections across the organisation ensured that their championing efforts were not restricted to local contexts, but it was their nuanced understanding of diverse organisational needs and perspectives that enabled them to represent and respond to their colleagues so effectively.

4. Social skills: The liaison person should have good interpersonal and communication skills

The quality of connections was as important as the quantity for supporting organisational understanding and engagement. Our most effective liaison people were persuasive, approachable and well-liked: people are more inclined to do things for people they like. Adaptability and project management skills were also vital.

5. Support: Organisational leaders need to visibly back the liaison person as well as the program

Strong, visible support from managers assured liaison people that their efforts – even when they verged on ‘nagging’ – were seen as reasonable and warranted. Colleagues confirmed that evident support from above increased the liaison person’s authority and demonstrated they were acting on behalf of management.

6. Incentives: If possible, the liaison person role should be incentivised within the organisation

Liaison people were more enthusiastic about the implementation when they benefited professionally from the role. This included building tasks into performance indicators and increased organisational status or exposure. But incentives should not pressure liaison people to coerce participation.

7. Clear expectations: Organisations need clear upfront guidance about the liaison person role

The liaison people in our study had strikingly different perceptions of their role (eg., as event organisers, project managers, collaborators, connectors, translators and integrators). Liaison people and their managers needed to see the role as skilled facilitation rather than merely administration, and to understand its key attributes, responsibilities, support needs and likely time commitments. The program providers must describe these clearly and realistically.

8. Flexibility: The liaison role can be interpreted by each organisation

Providing it does not compromise implementation fidelity, it may help to take a flexible approach to the liaison role, so that core objectives and tasks are specified but the strategies for achieving them are developed locally. For example, organisations might prefer to divide the role between two members of staff: one taking responsibility for administration and another for creative and strategic decisions.

9. Collaboration: The program providers should work with the liaison person in planning and problem-solving

Where liaison people shared insider knowledge, harnessed local communication channels and made suggestions for increasing the benefits of the program, activities were assessed by the program providers and participants as more attractive and useful. This suggests that working with liaison people as program development partners, rather than as conduits, could increase our ability to develop fit-for-purpose programs that respond sensitively to local conditions.

In conclusion, we found that the liaison person can ‘make or break’ a program. Does this resonate with your experience?

To find out more:
Haynes, A., Butow, P., Brennan, S., Williamson, A., Redman, S., Carter, S., Gallego, G. and Rudge, S. (2016). The pivotal position of ‘liaison people’: Facilitating a research utilisation intervention in policy agencies. Evidence and Policy. Open access online (DOI): 10.1332/174426416X14817284217163

The CIPHER Investigators. (2014). Supporting policy in health with research: An intervention trial (SPIRIT) – protocol for a stepped wedge trial. BMJ Open, 4. Online (DOI): 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005293

Participants: This blog post was written by Abby Haynes on behalf of CIPHER (Centre for Informing Policy in Health with Evidence from Research). Members of CIPHER involved in the research on ‘liaison people’ were: Abby Haynes (Sax Institute and University of Sydney), Sally Redman (Sax Institute), Anna Williamson (Sax Institute), Sue Brennan (Australasian Cochrane Centre, Monash University), Gisselle Gallego (University of Notre Dame), Stacy Carter (University of Sydney), Sian Rudge (Sax Institute) and Phyllis Butow (University of Sydney).

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Photo (L-R): Anna Williamson, Sally Redman, Sian Rudge and Abby Haynes. Missing CIPHER Sub-group members: Sue Brennan, Gisselle Gallego, Stacy Carter and Phyllis Butow.

Values, confidence, and time: What researchers should consider when engaging with civil society organisations

Community member post by William L. Allen

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William L. Allen (biography)

When researchers want to engage or work with groups outside universities—especially civil society organisations—what should they consider as part of this process?

Civil society comprises organisations—large and small—that are outside of the public and private sectors. These include non-governmental organisations, charities, or voluntary groups.

Three lessons emerged from asking civil society organisations what they would tell academics who want to work with them: Continue reading

Overturning the design of outcome measures

Community member post by Diana Rose

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Diana Rose (biography)

Outcome measures in research about treatment and service provision may not seem a particularly controversial or even exciting domain for citizen involvement. Although the research landscape is changing – partly as a result of engaging stakeholders in knowledge production and its effects – the design of outcome measures has been largely immune to these developments.

The standard way of constructing such measures – for evaluating treatment outcomes and services – has serious flaws and requires an alternative that grounds them firmly in the experiences and situations of the people whose views are being solicited. Continue reading

Pro-active learning to improve interdisciplinary processes

Community member post by Laura R. Meagher

Member of Board of Governors
Laura R. Meagher (biography)

I am a firm believer in looking at interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge exchange – or impact generation – as processes. If you can see something as a process, you can learn about it. If you can learn about it, you can do it better!

I find that this approach helps people to feel enfranchised, to believe that it is possible for them to open up what might have seemed to be a static black box and achieve understanding of the dynamics of how nouns like ‘interdisciplinarity’ or ‘knowledge exchange’ or ‘research impact’ can actually come to be. Continue reading

Complexity, diversity, modelling, power, trust, unknowns… Who is this blog for?

Community member post by Gabriele Bammer

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

This is the first annual “state of the blog” review.

This is a blog for researchers who:

  • want better concepts and methods for understanding and acting on complex real-world problems – problems like refugee crises, global climate change, and inequality.
  • are intrigued by the messiness of how components of a problem interact, how context can be all-important and how power can stymie or facilitate action.
  • understand that complex problems do not have perfect solutions; instead that “best possible” or “least worst” solutions are more realistic aims.
  • enjoy wrangling with unknowns to better manage, or even head-off, unintended adverse consequences and unpleasant surprises.
  • are keen to look across the boundaries of their own expertise to see what concepts and methods are on offer from those with different academic backgrounds grappling with other kinds of problems.
  • want to join forces to build a community which freely shares concepts and methods for dealing with complex problems, so that these become a stronger part of the mainstream of academic research and education.

November saw this blog’s first anniversary and this 100th blog post reviews what we are aiming for and how we are tracking. Continue reading

Improving health care services through Experience-based Co-design

Community member post by Glenn Robert and Annette Boaz

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Glenn Robert (biography)

There is lots of talk about the potential of co-creation as an approach to improving public services, but what does it actually look like (and do) in practice?

We describe one specific approach that has been used extensively for improving the quality of health care services: Experience-based Co-design.

Key Features and Stages

Experience-based Co-design draws on elements of participatory action research, user-centred design, learning theory and narrative-based approaches to change.

The key features of Experience-based Co-design are that it: Continue reading