Coproducing Academic-Practitioner Research

Researchers Practitioners 350 x 275By Kevin Orr and Mike Bennett

Public Administration Scholarship and the Politics of Coproducing Academic–Practitioner Research 

This article is published in Public Administration Review, July/August 2012

“Developing greater cooperation between researchers and practitioners is a long-standing concern in social science. Academics and practitioners working together to coproduce research offers a number of potential gains for public administration scholarship, but it also raises some dilemmas. The benefits include bringing local knowledge to bear on the field, making better informed policy, and putting research to better use. However, coproduction of research also involves managing ambiguous loyalties, reconciling different interests, and negotiating competing goals. The authors reflect on their experience of coproducing a research project in the United Kingdom and discuss the challenges that coproducers of research confront. They situate the discussion within a consideration of traditions of public administration scholarship and debates about the role of the academy to understand better the politics of their joint practice. Thinking about the politics of coproduction is timely and enables the authors to become more attuned to the benefits and constraints of this mode of research.

In this article, we consider the politics of cooperative knowledge production between practitioners and academics in the field of public administration. By “politics,” we mean long-standing and ongoing debates about the purpose of public administration scholarship, but also the tricky issues that arise in coproducing research involving cooperative interactions between members of two communities that have distinct interests, expectations, and priorities. Coproduction of research has been gaining interest, particularly in relation to public administration scholarship. Joint projects promise the elusive goal of research that is simultaneously academically robust and useful to practitioners, and they challenge the customer–contractor convention—in which dynamics of coproducing research and highlights the complexity of the choices and dilemmas involved. We argue that these dilemmas are inseparable from the politics of the academy and from the vexed issue of how to foster closer academic–practitioner relations.

Our article provides insight into the dynamics of coproducing research and highlights the complexity of choices and the dilemmas involved.

The purposes of our article are to situate the current interest in academic–practitioner research collaboration within a historical perspective and to contribute to knowledge about the practical and political dynamics of joint research. In the first section of the article, we locate the interest in collaboration in the context of the ongoing development of the field of public administration and highlight competing views of the purpose of scholarship, the roles and responsibilities of the academy, and the basis of academic-practitioner relations.

We suggest that these different (political) positions can be understood as reflecting different traditions of research and scholarship. Therefore, we look at the macro context of public administration scholarship, identifying intellectual, structural, and cultural factors that influence the basis for academic–practitioner relations. In the second part of the article, we turn a critical lens on ourselves as participants in both a collaborative study and interacting traditions of scholarship and practice. The second purpose of the article, therefore, is to look at the interplay of our own conduct and context. This reflexive process enables us to analyze the dynamics of coproduction through an examination of grounded research practice.

Conclusion: Reflecting on the Politics and Practice of Coproduction in Public Administration Research

In this article, we engage with widespread calls to foster a reconnection between academics and practitioners in public administration scholarship. Situating the current interest in academic–practitioner research collabora- tion within a historical context enables us to highlight that the continuing development of public administration scholarship is part of a long-standing, highly contested, and fluid de- bate about the values and purpose of research, the roles and responsibilities of academics, the expectations of practitioners on the academy, and the basis of academic–practitioner relations.

We use Raadschelders’s traditions to illuminate the lines of these debates. Our second contribution is to offer insights about the practical and political dynamics of joint research by reflecting on our experience of coproducing research. Turning the lens on our- selves as participants in a collaborative project allows us to highlight the interplay of our own conduct and context—how we negotiate the interacting traditions of scholarship and research practice and the norms and demands of our professions.

Through the reflective vignettes, we illustrate that the dilemmas and choices we face are intertwined with the way in which wider traditions, expectations, and imperatives play out in our sectors. Thus, our article provides a macro analysis combined with attention to situated research practices, highlighting the many connected layers of politics. We hope that this exercise contributes an initiating framework for others to consider the politics of their collaborative practices.

Joint projects may mark a return to some of the roots of public administration scholarship, but they also present a set of ongoing challenges. For their advocates, they promise a way forward for integrating theory and practice and contributing knowledge for the benefit of both academics and practitioners.

Coproduction may confer practical benefits, including access to elites and other worlds and the capacity to build trust quickly, the better to surface stories, experiences, and insights into practice. Coproduction may also offer the potential to draw practitioners closer to the benefits of academic inquiry and perhaps may enable academics to inquire about the worlds of practice in less condescending ways. However, we have emphasized the ways in which such research takes place within a political environment, requiring the continual negotiation of different interests, including those of the members of the team, the communities to which they belong, and the structural imperatives at the inter- section of universities and the public sector.

All research is purposeful and involves people who owe allegiances to others, but coproduction appears to give rise to distinctive expressions of these dynamics. Though it is tempting to sweep tensions and dilemmas under the carpet lest they get in the way of a movement toward greater con- nectedness, paying attention to these dynamics is worthwhile, as it can contribute to a richer set of understandings of the context of joint endeavors and the roles, relations, and stakes involved.”

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