Evidence-Informed Practice: creativity and challenging times

Back in 2012 a team from IRISS took part in an international invited workshop on Evidence-informed practice: creativity and challenging times.  Held in County Cavan in the Republic of Ireland, this was the third in a series based on a network of organisations from Australia, Canada, USA, UK, Ireland and Sweden.

Some of the papers from the workshop were published in a special issue of Evidence & Policy 10.4 (2014): Mapping the field in evidence-informed policy and practice: international perspectivesYou can download the introduction to the special issue free of charge.

On Research Unbound we offer a pre-print version of the paper presented by the IRISS team (Alison Petch, Claire Lightowler, Lisa Pattoni and Ian Watson), with additional material on more recent projects.

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Our evidence-informed practice work involves harvesting existing knowledge, skills and resources across the social service sector. Supporting people to share knowledge, learn from each other and to collectively produce new knowledge and solutions is both an innovative approach but also one which we believe to be cost-effective.  This is based on logic rather than detailed cost effectiveness studies; we have however promoted the replication of approaches which have been subject to such scrutiny through our Money Matters series .

The focus at IRISS enables the mobilisation of knowledge known to some but initially unknown to others, and supports the production of a more robust evidence which builds on a wide range of evidence types. Combining this with our innovative use of technology has offered an inexpensive means of providing better evidence-informed products and services to our stakeholders. It can also create numerous opportunities to do more with less—even in our current economic climate.

We believe that our organisational capacity to take an innovative and cost-effective approach to evidence informed practice is facilitated by a number of key ingredients:

  1. We have perceived freedom away from statutory requirements
  2. We are small, and as such can react more quickly to changes in policy/demand from the sector
  3. We operate in a culture which is informal, open and inquiring and which values experimentation
  4. We have the capacity to move financial or other resources around different projects and activities which enhances our ability to address issues where and when they emerge
  5. We are positioned between policy, practice and research communities, thus perceived as independent and trusted to facilitate knowledge sharing.

These elements combine to enable a culture where we can develop, and promote the use of tools and techniques for embedding knowledge, evidence and innovation in practice.

Embedding evidence in organisations

The final pillar of IRISS’s evidence-informed practice work focuses on embedding and integrating evidence as the foundation of policy and practice (Wadsworth, 2010).  At the heart of the IRISS strategy is a belief that evidence-informed practice has to be at the core of the social services sector, embedded in routine practice through mechanisms such as supervision and evidence-based reporting, and integrated throughout the organisation, whether statutory or independent, at all levels. Our approach is to work with a small number of partners to model and test practice in a specific area and, once we are satisfied it is robust, to make it available nationally.

Self-directed support: Evidence Explorers

One of our key contributions to strengthening the evidence base includes facilitating the co-creation of evidence between researchers, practitioners, policy makers and people supported by carers or services.  There is evidence that developing collaborations, particularly where people can ‘try out’ research findings and conduct their own research, can support the use of research (Nutley, 2003).

This approach is typified in our project focusing on self-directed support (SDS), which brought together people with expertise in SDS (including people supported by services, policy-makers, academics, social services practitioners and service providers) to explore evidence around achieving SDS.  Thirty people were involved, some throughout the project, others intermittently.  The purpose of the project was twofold: first to contribute to the evidence base for achieving SDS, and second to explore the process of combining the expertise and knowledge of several different stakeholder groups as a means to generate the best possible evidence for use in practice.

We see this project as part of an ‘action research’ process which by its very nature is iterative and reflective and allows groups of people to work together to solve problems identified as important to the group.  The project partners began, therefore, by exploring common interests and identifying areas they wanted to work on, within the broad remit of exploring evidence related to SDS.  Participants chose to focus on exploring the evidence about SDS and human rights, SDS and black and minority ethnic groups, and SDS and mental health.  Project partners were involved in a range of activities, such as, running ‘bring your own evidence (BYOE)’ events where participants brought a piece of evidence they found convincing and examined why, they conducted focus groups, reviewed literature, and asked their networks questions about current evidence gaps.

Bringing people with different forms of expertise together to explore and generate new evidence, with no one form of evidence taking precedence, is a relatively innovative approach in the social services in Scotland.  As is initiating a project without a set destination in mind, which allows for the focus to be developed by those involved. For the organisations involved in this process it is a cost-effective approach, building as it does on the knowledge, time and energy of all those involved, and supporting a focus on the issues of key importance.

The evidence generated during the Evidence Explorers work has contributed to the thinking behind another project, Pilotlight.  Pilotlight aims to design four pathways to self-directed support in the form of blueprints. A blueprint is a service design concept, building a comprehensive picture detailing a service from the perspective of the provider and the user. This innovative blueprinting process was chosen because it is collaborative – involving people using the service, delivering the service and commissioning the service at each stage of the design. The visual nature of the design process allows ideas to be shared and refined quickly before rapidly testing the ideas in low-cost ways.

The links between the Evidence Explorers and Pilotlight projects have raised questions  for us about the relationship between evidence and innovation.  We intend to explore this relationship in greater detail in 2013.

Strengthening the evidence base

While the initiatives of pillar one combine to provide an infrastructure that supports finding, sharing and using evidence, a second pillar is necessary to support the continuing creation and development of the evidence base.  Our work in this area includes identifying evidence gaps, producing new evidence and facilitating discussion around evidence needs

Insights and storyboards

IRISS Insights are brief, accessible and practice-oriented summaries of published evidence on a wide range of topics from measuring personal outcomes, to attachment-informed practice with looked after children and supporting people with dementia . Well received by practitioners, these are fairly typical of evidence reviews produced for practitioner or policy audiences.  However, IRISS is committed to trying out innovative approaches to more effectively communicate evidence, for example through the production of creative storyboards.

List of titles in the Insights series.

Creative storyboards are video animations that harness the power of graphic media to explain and simplify complex concepts. They combine an audio backtrack with the drawing of accompanying images. To date when producing storyboards, IRISS staff have written and recorded the script, and an external contractor has produced complementary drawings. This process has proved cost-effective, the cost for a storyboard approximating the publishing and printing costs associated with 1500 hardcopies of an IRISS insight. Feedback indicates that this method has been welcomed as a useful, creative way of making complex information understandable.

More recent examples include an animated introduction to Personal Learning Networks and What person centred means in practice.


This paper explores ways in which the Institute for Research and Innovation in Social Services (IRISS)  promotes the delivery of cost effective social services in Scotland that will support the achievement of positive outcomes for individuals accessing support.

It identifies a number of key principles that underpin the work of the organisation and suggests ways in which these facilitate innovative evidence-informed practice.  The approach to evidence-informed practice is characterised as comprising four pillars of activity.

The first pillar focuses on improving awareness and access to evidence and is exemplified by the Learning Exchange, the IRISS Insights series, and audio and video recording.

The second pillar refers to strengthening the evidence base and is discussed in the context of work on self-directed support.  Improving skills and confidence to use evidence forms the third pillar and is represented by work on data visualisation and peer support for self-evaluation.

The final pillar  is embedding evidence in organisations, through co-production, creating spaces to test and challenge evidence, and through the development of evidence-based products.  Supporting people to share knowledge, learn from each other and to collectively produce new knowledge and solutions is an innovative approach but also one which should be cost-effective.