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SOCIAL CARE: Building capacity in social care through co-produced research and a research learning partnership between University of Portsmouth and Portsmouth City Council


Social care is facing many challenges and, in a time where staff are stretched and resources are low, research can feel like a luxury rather than part of daily activities. Yet research is crucial for improving practice and finding innovative ways to overcome challenges. To increase capacity in social care research, academia and social care need to work together to understand each other and co-produce a programme that will fit with the workplace demands of social care and focuses on issues that hold meaning and value to those we are seeking to engage. The work that we co-produce will therefore lead to tangible practice change and/or a strengthening of the evidence for existing practice. The University of Portsmouth (UoP) and Portsmouth City Council (PCC) do not currently have a research learning partnership established, however our civic partnership agreement provides a strong impetus to build a learning partnership that will inspire, engage, and provide professional development for social care professionals in research, whilst providing academics with direct experience of co-producing research in complex public service contexts. Through this project we aim to develop such a research learning partnership.


Amy Drahota, Reader in Health & Social Care Evidence & Evaluation, University of Portsmouth

Carole Fogg, Senior Research Fellow, University of Southampton

Patricia Gilbert, Lecturer (Sociology), University of Portsmouth

Patryk Jadzinski, Senior Lecturer (Paramedics), University of Portsmouth

Gail Mann, Research Development Lead, Portsmouth City Council

Nils Niederstrasser, Senior Lecturer (Psychology), University of Portsmouth

Lucy Porteous, Senior Lecturer (Social Work), University of Portsmouth

Clare Rachwal, Deputy Head of Service, Adult Social Care, Portsmouth City Council

Jenny Roddis, Associate Head (Research & Innovation), University of Portsmouth

Sharon Smith, Principal Social Worker, Adult Social Care, Portsmouth City Council

Annabel Tremlett, Senior Lecturer (Social Work), University of Portsmouth

Aims and Objectives

Our overall aim is to build research capacity in social care through establishing a research learning partnership between the University of Portsmouth (UoP) and Portsmouth City Council (PCC) adult social care team, the public and other key partners, and develop co-produced research relevant to PCC social care practice and national issues.

We will achieve this via the following four objectives:

A.         To establish a research learning partnership for social care between UoP and PCC which will provide learning opportunities for both partners and their associated stakeholders around the development, design, and delivery of research.

B.         To identify and prioritise research topics for development for further grant funding opportunities, within social care and also in collaboration with other health and care delivery partners.

C.         To undertake preliminary research activities (e.g. a systematic review, public involvement activities, and potential data gathering) on a prioritised topic in adult social care, which will underpin a funding application for further primary research.

D.         To develop guidance on increasing capacity in social care research via co-production in collaboration with wider ARC Wessex social care research partnerships. 

Research Plan / Methods

We will begin this project with a three-month exploratory process with social care teams, that will be about relationship-building and working together to devise a programme of activities that will meet the needs of social care, establish what a learning partnership would look like, and how this will fit with the expertise of academics. We envisage that we will co-develop some activities that centre around relevant topic(s) of importance to social care, and that the academics can support based on their expertise. Our focus will be adult social care, to tie in with the School of Health & Care Professions’ thematic strength in older adults, PCC’s adult social care team, and the ‘ageing and dementia’ research area of ARC Wessex. The project will involve a researcher-in-residence, employed by UoP but embedded within PCC, to work alongside adult social workers and build a culture of joint research across the organisations. We will be seeking to integrate research into current processes, for example through senior social worker team meetings and practice support forums that would be happening anyway. Throughout the project we will be seeking to establish a legacy of ongoing work and practice, through the development of funding applications for future projects and the development of a community of practice that will outlive the duration of the funding, nurture an affinity for research, and help demonstrate the value of research to social care.

Work packages:

Our objectives will be met via the following four work packages:

  1. Developing research culture and collaborative working (objectives A and B).

This work package will be about developing mechanisms for the organisations to learn from each other, and adding value to each party of working collaboratively. There are a number of tools and mechanisms through which we could promote this learning partnership, which we will explore and develop over the course of the project. Initially, this will comprise:

  • Establishing visiting researchers from PCC to UoP, to provide colleagues in PCC with access to library resources, online resources, and internal seminars.

  • Provide academic mentorship to support an internship application from PCC and an application to the research champion role, with ongoing mentorship for any successful applicants in these posts. This will involve working alongside PCC’s Research Development Lead (Dr. Gail Mann) and service leads to help identify and encourage suitable individuals, and connecting with wider support mechanisms (e.g. the Research Design Service) as appropriate. 

  • Develop a community of practice for wider stakeholder engagement. The shape of this will be developed during the initial engagement phase to determine how the group will interact and the process of engagement. It may involve for example: relationship building between researchers and practitioners, finding points of commonality/solidarity/shared purpose; sharing of research summaries to support practice-based issues; sharing how research has informed practice; sharing challenges faced in social work to develop new project ideas for future research; supporting our objective to identify and prioritise research topics that matter to practitioners for development for further grant funding opportunities, within social care and also in collaboration with other health and care delivery partners; identifying and tackling barriers to engagement in research.

  • Utilising practice-based issues arising in adult social work to inform question development for students on the BSc Social Work programme, where they undertake a module on ‘Using Evidence and Research in Social Work’. This will help in the development of research-mindedness of social workers of the future, and provide feedback loops between academia and practice as part of a learning partnership. Students will need to identify and appraise evidence based on a research question as part of their assessment. At this stage in their studies, students will not have been on placement, and it presents a real opportunity to have pertinent questions exchanged with them, which could support the practice of colleagues at PCC.

2.  Co-produced social care project (objective C)

Our plan is to work with adult social workers to develop some research activities that they can hold a sense of ownership of, and appreciate the relevance of, to their practice. An example of the sort of topic this team could support could be around the delivery of social care packages and strength-based approaches to decision-making. This ties in with a national priority area that the James Lind Alliance identified in 2018: “How are eligibility criteria applied to people with different types of needs and are the thresholds appropriate?  What impact does this have on the care and support offered and/or early prevention?”, and also work that the UoP team members have been involved in, demonstrating that older adults with social care packages are less likely to be transferred to hospital.

The partnership would aim to assess evidence, and explore innovative solutions, for issues of national significance currently impacting both health and social care, such as those highlighted in the recent Age UK report “Why can’t I get care? Older people’s experience of care and support”. A research learning partnership could utilise expertise from both social care and academia, to generate shared learning, future collaborations on funding proposals, and impactful research.

To make this project work, it is paramount that we first engage with our social care colleagues to design a project that will suit their needs. We will develop our research topic focus with consideration of what the other ARC Wessex capacity building partnerships are working on, to ensure our work is complementary to activities in the wider region.

We anticipate our direction with be to:

  • Undertake a systematic review to underpin a research proposal (future funding application) that is developed alongside practitioners over the course of the project.

  • This project will be led by the embedded researcher who will work alongside PCC staff, who will have opportunities to contribute to, shape, and guide the project.

  • Exploration of what data PCC currently hold on the chosen topic of focus and if/how this could be used to support a funding application and future research.


3. Collaborative research learning programme (objective A)

This work package will link in with wider learning opportunities across the ARC Wessex (i.e. as is being proposed by Bournemouth University). We also propose to run our own series of social care seminars, which will be integrated into our current Health & Care Research Group online seminar series to provide opportunities for wider networking between the organisations.

We aim to:

  • Deliver a programme of seminars on putting evidence into practice to cover the topics of: (1) question formulation, (2) searching for evidence, (3) appraising evidence, (4) synthesising evidence, and (5) assessing the quality of cumulative evidence. These seminars will utilise the systematic review in progress (work package 2) as a worked example, and provide an opportunity for two-way exchange to further help shape the review as it develops, as well as train attendees in the process of the research. The seminar series will culminate in a seminar covering (6) the final review findings and discussion around implications for practice.

  • Contribute to a series of workshops being delivered across the Wessex region (led by Bournemouth University) to share examples of social care research and encourage discussion around different research methods. We will contribute three workshops on the suggested topics of:

  • A mixed methods evaluation of a service delivered by Age UK Portsmouth to reduce loneliness in older adults

  • Using routine data to evaluate the influence of social care packages on hospital transfers - the interplay between health and social care.

  • Using art and imagery to understand the lived experiences of marginalised groups (moving beyond research interviews)


4. Reflective practice and evaluation of process (objective D)

This work package will be centred around drawing learning from our experiences of addressing our aims and objectives, to appraise the cultural ‘feel’ around the project and reflecting the experiences of the embedded researcher and practitioners who have participated in the project. Our activities will include:

  • The embedded researcher will maintain a reflective journal of their journey (to include a log of how co-production has informed the shape of the project); 

  • We will incorporate feedback mechanisms throughout the project (e.g. via Padlet boards for online events), as well as tracking engagement with the various opportunities for interaction throughout the project; 

  • We will aim to track impacts arising (e.g. funding applications submitted, funding awards, examples of how research-informed practice); 

  • Working collaboratively with projects within the ARC Wessex to source and evaluate models for developing research capacity in social care to reflect on lessons learnt, and create guidance for co-producing research within social care.

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