The concepts of research and evidence and the importance in linking these with developments in social care practice have been gaining momentum since the early 1990s. In 1996, Directors of Social Services initiated a research implementation project known as Research in Practice. This was the largest children and families research implementation project in England and Wales, with a mission to promote positive outcomes for children and families through the use of research evidence. As a consequence of development like this, evidence-based practice has significantly contributed to the direction of social care practice in recent years.
Evidence-based practice can be thought to comprise of a combination of factors: the available evidence on a specific issue at a particular time; the preferences of clients; and the experience and skills of professionals. All these are as important as each other to the process and should be utilised together to inform learning and ultimately practice.
There are many definitions of research, and many varying styles of research which I will not labour on for the purpose of this post. It is enough to say that any type of research aims to enrich our understanding of, or increase our questions of a particular topic. Therefore, we can see the immediate link with evidence-based practice, in that this research can contribute both to the ‘evidence’ but also act as a critical friend when practitioners are engaged in a process of analysing, questioning and developing a particular area or style of working.
Research and evidence are vital to promoting good social work and social care practice. An acknowledgement of this and the use of the material produced means that practitioners can not only inform and enrich their understanding, but they can also intervene in peoples’ lives on the basis of the best available evidence regarding the likely consequence of that intervention, and in such a case can be confident that they will bring about positive change. Evidence-based practice can therefore be regarded as being more transparent and accountable than approaches of the past.
In addition to this, a greater focus on research can generate new ideas and create an organic development process, allowing practitioners to make comparisons and trial approaches in their area. This means that although research and evidence are informing practice, there remain decisions to be made regarding the available resources and priority groups in particular areas of the country.
Furthermore, at present, there is no other known method within social work and social care of linking research and evidence with the day-to-day practice and profession. Research and evidence in this field allow us to question existing practice, highlight ‘what works’ and utilise ideas and developments in thinking to constantly strive to improve services for social care clients and the job satisfaction of those providing the services.
The problems with research and evidenced-based practice
Some have argued that there is no ‘evidence’ that evidence-based practice actually works and that it can have a detrimental effect on professional decision-making because it often acts a constraint. It has been dismissed by those who have been in the profession for many years as moving away from the importance of professional judgement. Social care practitioners should be aware of all of the debates in their particular field, this may include their specific area of social care practice and their organisation, department or team. There may be particular professional sensitivities which will need to be balanced with the significance of the research and evidence at any one time.
Others have argued that research can be confusing because it serves to highlight a number of often conflicting views on one subject. Despite this, the number of theories, concepts and approaches should be regarded as enriching understanding and assisting the practitioner to raise questions. Questioning research should be considered an essential part of this learning process and practitioners should always cast a critical eye over what they read.
Research implementation projects such as Research In Practice are vital, but further work will need to be done with local authorities, health services and the voluntary sector to ensure this research evidence translates into the decision-making process at a local level. This can only be achieved through the commitment of organisations to the research process and an engagement in further interpretive work.
There are inevitably going to be gaps in research and evidence from which practitioners can draw on, one example of this is research around the participation of service users in the development of social care services. Although this has improved in recent years, it is still often treated as an after-thought, or a rather tokenistic approach is adopted. Furthermore, progress towards this way of working varies across the UK.
Service users hold the keys to where practice should develop next, they are the ‘customers’ of social care and further research both nationally and locally is required to drill down the detail of what works for people in what circumstances. The challenge for social care practitioners is to find a balance between professional knowledge and judgement and the views and wishes of service users.
Where do you stand on this? How much weight do you give to research in your day-to-day practice? To what degree does this influence your thinking?