Participatory research (PR) is rooted in the principle that the people and communities most affected by a study should be involved as partners in its design and execution.
Houston Housing Authority (HHA) joined an MDRC-led research project in 2017 called MyGoals for Employment Success, an innovative employment coaching intervention informed by behavioral psychology. The intervention aimed to help recipients of federal housing subsidies who were unemployed find work, build careers, and advance toward greater self-sufficiency. HHA staff members collaborated with the researchers and the technical assistance (TA) team to inform project decisions.
This blog post is based on the experiences of HHA staff members and the MDRC team and how they fostered a collaborative, participatory research partnership. It is aimed at practitioners and researchers who are engaged in a study or thinking about joining or starting one and offers five guiding principles of participatory research plus project examples and questions to consider throughout the process.
Why Does a Participatory Approach Matter?
Many innovative social policies are first tested as demonstration projects that require staff members at local organizations to implement a new program model, with guidance from a technical assistance team to ensure strong implementation and in cooperation with the research team evaluating the program. This has the potential to create conflict: The TA team and researchers need candid information from the program staff about problems as well as progress in order to make a fair assessment of implementation challenges and the model's operational feasibility, and to propose corrective actions where appropriate. Local staff, however, feeling "under the microscope" by having their performance evaluated, may feel hesitant to be fully candid about any challenges they are encountering.
“As the staff person, I will tell [the researcher or TA person] what they want to hear. It will be coming from a place of fear and defensiveness. There’s an imbalance of power—partially because there’s a perception that [project] funding is controlled by the TA team. And if the team does not acknowledge that or misuses it, it will prevent everyone from getting to the real story, the full story.” –HHA staff supervisor
Five Guiding Principles of Participatory Research
1. Be transparent about decision-making power.
During the MyGoals partnership, it was important to acknowledge when the research team, the practitioners, and the funders had decision-making power. Being honest and transparent about that was essential for the integrity of the research and for the relationship between the study partners. The research team aimed for all HHA staff members to feel empowered to make decisions in their respective areas of expertise to feel secure enough in the partnership to know that even when the decision-making power was not in their hands, each person’s voice and perspective was heard, respected, and considered.
Example: The MyGoals TA team created a plan that laid out the activities scheduled for the year and shared it with HHA. HHA supervisors were invited to give their feedback on the various activities, such as how to make them mutually beneficial for both learning and service delivery.
Questions to consider:
- Start with yourself: Given your positionality (identities, past experiences) and professional expertise, what skills are you bringing to this project and to the working relationships?
- What research activities are already designed that would benefit from input from other stakeholders?
- Which stakeholders need to be a part of the process and at what points in time?
- How can each stakeholder be part of the process? As collaborators during design? As decision-makers during planning? To provide reflective feedback during implementation?
- What communication strategies are needed to keep stakeholders informed about decisions and progress?
2. Unite around shared goals and values.
HHA staff members felt a shared sense of commitment with the project team to work toward the following goal: Support MyGoals coaches to implement the intervention with fidelity and provide excellent coaching services to program participants. This established a system of mutuality. The HHA supervisors’ success in their roles supported the project team’s success as technical assistance providers. The researchers’ success supported the coaches’ success. And the coaches’ success supported the program participants’ success. This unifying vision led to shared values.
Example: The TA team and the HHA team used the TA annual plan to maintain a shared understanding of the project goals and to guide ongoing discussions about their progress. During these discussions, attended by the managers from each housing authority site, the group reviewed the goals of the partnership, discussed how the annual plan served both mutual and organizational goals, and adjusted the plan as needed to better meet the intended outcomes. This created iterative feedback cycles in which site staff members could ask questions and challenge the TA team if they thought an activity could be improved.
Questions to consider:
- What goals do program staff members have? What goals do the TA and research project teams have? What goals do program participants have? What are the unifying goals?
- What values will help all the stakeholders get there?
- What processes can the TA team use to facilitate the participation of the program supervisor and the program staff in creating these goals and activities?
3. Foster interest in and a sense of co-ownership of the quality of implementation.
Program staff members have varying levels of experience with and knowledge of research studies, which can add additional burdens to their usual day-to-day responsibilities. To ensure staff members feel like an integral part of a research project, it is important for the researchers and the TA team to provide rationales for various activities and to make time to answer any questions staff members might have. Initiate conversations about the purpose of the research request, the process, and how the information gained will inform both the research and the programming.
Example: Design data monitoring tables together. HHA staff members received a draft of a data table the research team developed that was based on information the staff members entered into the program’s management information system. Initially, HHA staff members felt the tables were confusing and thought they were intended for “performance evaluation.” Since this was not the reason for collecting the data, the research team adjusted its communication approach by using the data tables as a conversation-starting tool with HHA coaches about what was happening in the office and in the field. For example, the team would preselect a handful of data points on such things as goals being set and milestones reached that the researchers and the staff members could use to analyze strengths and growth areas together. These changes reduced feelings of being judged and built trust that supported comprehensive candid exchanges.
Questions to consider:
- When asking individuals to do something that is new or may add to their workloads, what information can be provided to help them understand the purpose, benefits, and potential risks of taking on those duties?
- Are there “credible messengers” on the staff or the research team who can communicate the request and field questions from site staff members?
4. Support the staff through actions grounded in gratitude and empathy.
The MDRC team proactively found ways to support the HHA staff throughout various program challenges—both personal and professional—and to show appreciation for the partnership. This helped the HHA coaches feel trusted and supported by the project team and more comfortable sharing information, successes, and challenges.
Example: When Texas’s energy grid shut down in February 2021 and state residents experienced power outages, the MDRC team sent the MyGoals coaches gift cards as a token of appreciation for continuing to provide coaching during the outage and for their commitment to the program, and to alleviate some of their hardship. The MDRC team also hosted virtual end-of-year celebrations for the coaches: semi-structured events to support reflection on coaching practices and participant successes and to celebrate the coaches’ work throughout the year. This event allowed the research team to learn more about the coaches’ experiences and, through them, the experiences of the program participants, which inform project plans for the next year. The MDRC team also created a certificate of completion to give to coaches when they finished their three years in the program. The certificate included a description of their accomplishments and the skills they acquired during trainings for motivational interviewing and executive skills coaching techniques. The goal was to show gratitude to the coaches as well as to provide them with professional development certification they could use to advance their careers.
Questions to consider:
- How can funding be used to create spaces for celebration and opportunities to share project engagement supports?
- Are there resources to help staff members in their professional development and career advancement?
- What can be learned about the site staff members’ lived experiences to best support them in their work, especially in the context of the study?
5. Provide structure to facilitate full participation.
The MDRC team found that it was helpful to provide a well-defined structure of the research process in order to engage HHA coaches who were less familiar or comfortable with research or who had historically marginalized identities. When assuming a facilitator role, the team would take a strengths-based approach—identifying the skills and experiences that the TA team and the MyGoals coaches brought to the table.
Example: In addition to codesigning TA activities with and for coaches, the team also applied that collaborative approach to designing a financial education workshop for MyGoals program participants. The planning team for the workshop was a collaborative effort that included a certified financial counselor with deep experience providing financial counseling to people with low incomes, two MDRC TA providers, the program director at the Houston site, and two program coaches. To ensure that the event would be participant-centered, the coaches helped the research team design and distribute a brief survey meant to inform participants of the financial topics that would be covered in the workshop.
Questions to consider:
- Before a project meeting, what are ways to help staff members feel prepared so they can fully engage?
- During a meeting, what are ways to make room for others to share their perspectives? How can each person’s expertise be respected?
- What are the TA providers’ “offerings” in this setting? What information can they provide about their professional experience and expertise?