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.

Unintended consequences of honouring what communities value and aspire to

Community member post by Melissa Robson

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Melissa Robson (biography)

It seems simple enough to say that community values and aspirations should be central to informing government decisions that affect them. But simple things can turn out to be complex.

In particular, when research to inform land and water policy was guided by what the community valued and aspired to rather than solely technical considerations, a much broader array of desirable outcomes was considered and the limitations of what science can measure and predict were usefully exposed. Continue reading

Models as ‘interested amateurs’

Community member post by Pete Barbrook-Johnson

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Pete Barbrook-Johnson (biography)

How can we improve the often poor interaction and lack of genuine discussions between policy makers, experts, and those affected by policy?

As a social scientist who makes and uses models, an idea from Daniel Dennett’s (2013) book ‘Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking’ struck a chord with me. Dennett introduces the idea of using lay audiences to aid and improve understanding between experts. Dennett suggests that including lay audiences (which he calls ‘curious nonexperts’) in discussions can entice experts to err on the side of over-explaining their thoughts and positions. When experts are talking only to other experts, Dennett suggests they under-explain, not wanting to insult others or look stupid by going over basic assumptions. This means they can fail to identify areas of disagreement, or to reach consensus, understanding, or conclusions that may be constructive.

For Dennett, the ‘curious nonexperts’ are undergraduate philosophy students, to be included in debates between professors. For me, the book sparked the idea that models could be ‘curious nonexperts’ in policy debates and processes. I prefer and use the term ‘interested amateurs’ over ‘curious nonexperts’, simply because the word ‘amateur’ seems slightly more insulting towards models! Continue reading

Two barriers to interdisciplinary thinking in the public sector and how time graphs can help

Community member post by Jane MacMaster

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Jane MacMaster (biography)

After one year or so delivering seminars that share practical techniques to help navigate complexity to public sector audiences, I’ve observed two simple and fundamental barriers to dealing more effectively with complex, interdisciplinary problems in the public sector.

First, is the lack of time to problem-solve – to pause and reflect on an issue, to build a deeper understanding of it, to think creatively about it from different angles, to think through some ideas, to test out some ideas. There is too much else going on.

Second, is that it’s often quite difficult to put one’s collective finger on what, exactly, the problem is. Continue reading

What makes a translational ecologist? Part 1: Knowledge

Community member post by the Translational Ecology Group 

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Translational Ecology Group (participants)

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Four related blog posts on translational ecology:

Introduction to translational ecology

What makes a translational ecologist – Part 1: Knowledge (this post) / Part 2: Skills / Part 3: Dispositional attributes

What does it take for ecologists to become more effective in informing and supporting policy and practice change? What are the competencies underpinning the new discipline of translational ecology? What needs to be covered in graduate courses on translational ecology?

A group of us, supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC), have been addressing these questions. As well as defining translational ecology, we have developed a matrix covering relevant knowledge, skills and, what we call, dispositional attributes or personal characteristics. We deal with each of these in four related blog posts, as described in the right sidebar.

We argue that knowledge is required in three major areas:

  1. Socio-ecological systems
  2. Communication across boundaries, with beneficiaries, stakeholders and other scientists
  3. Engagement with beneficiaries, stakeholders and other scientists.

Continue reading