Research is a Practice in Relationship Building

Developing research relationships with communities and government is key to delivering impact
two people look at paperwork together in an office

Here at Code for America, we know that data has the power to drive meaningful change. But how do you get good data—the kind that can powerfully inform decisions and guide the way to solutions? For that kind of data, there needs to be trust.

Qualitative research is built on relationships. In order to collect meaningful and reliable data, researchers must go beyond strictly what they want to learn to how they want to learn it. For that reason, we believe that creating a safe space for research participants is our first job, and collecting data is our second. If we’ve learned exactly what we want to learn, but harmed someone in the process, we have failed. The truth is that without a trusting and safe space, the data we gather is unreliable, anyway. People will tell us what they think we want to hear unless we’re explicit that we want the truth, we can handle it, and we might even be able to do something to improve it. 

We know that our work does not exist in a silo. When we ask people about their experiences with government programs, we’re talking about more than a digital form or a SNAP interview. We’re asking about the experience of getting government help to meet basic needs, and all the indignity that can come along with that. Oftentimes, participants will view us as part of the system by which they have been repeatedly let down, so we’re fighting an uphill battle to prove our trustworthiness. Building this trust is worth it—it helps us transform these systems to better serve everyone. 

Intentionally developing trust through research practices

Building trust starts at initial recruitment. To begin, we ask ourselves questions like: Why are we asking for input or feedback now? What will we do with the data we collect? How will this research lead to better project outcomes—and ultimately better livelihood outcomes—for the people we want to support? What might be the unintended consequences as a result of participating in research?

When looking for participants, we provide as much detail as possible in our initial recruitment message, and then follow up with a five-minute screener call to explain who we are, what we’re trying to learn, and what we’ll do with the data they share with us. We’ve seen that this helps build the beginning of a relationship and demystifies us as researchers. It also helps with show rates—once someone has heard our voices, even for five minutes, they are more likely to show up to the full research session. 

When we host the research session itself, whether as a virtual interview over Zoom or via phone call, or as an in-person contextual inquiry visit in someone’s home, we pay close attention to the first 10 minutes of our conversation. This is a key relationship building moment. We model the vulnerability that we hope participants will bring to our conversation and ask about our research participants as people. We are informal, but respectful. We are curious and pay attention to our body language so as to be inviting, but not overly casual. It’s something of a dance, as building any relationship is. 

These lead ups—the recruiting language, the screener call, the first 10 minutes of our research session—are critical. These are the moments where we prove our trustworthiness, our compassion, and our genuine curiosity toward our research participants, ideally allowing them to feel safe enough to tell us the truth.

an illustration about ingredients in a good research relationship

In contexts like this, the truth is often hard to hear, because government services have failed people for so long and services that should work just don’t. When that means that food isn’t available or a conviction prevents you from getting a job, the stakes are high and the topic can be emotionally fraught. As researchers, it can be a weighty space to hold for people, but it’s our responsibility and privilege to hear these stories so as to change the narrative for the future. In order to improve these systems, we have to know exactly how they’re already broken and the ways they’ve failed people. 

By the time the research session ends, we’ll have ideally built enough of a relationship with the participant that they will have shared the true story of their experience with government services. Then, we have the responsibility to do something with that trust we’ve developed. One way that responsibility manifests is following up. Of course we compensate participants for their time—at the beginning of each session, so they don’t feel indebted to us throughout our time together—but we also tell them where they can see the results of their contribution. Sometimes this is in a written paper, sometimes it’s in a product that we’ll develop, sometimes it’s in a text message or email follow up explaining what happened next. 

The most impactful way to show we appreciate their stories is to actually do something about the problems they’ve described—to improve the experience for them and everyone like them in the future. In order to do that, we need to have other types of trusting relationships, too.

The most impactful way to show we appreciate their stories is to actually do something about the problems they’ve described—to improve the experience for them and everyone like them in the future.

Bringing research findings to relationships with decision makers

As researchers, we serve as the liaison between clients’ lived experiences with government services and leaders with the power to change that experience. A critical part of our role as liaison is to ensure that we are not the ultimate “holders” of clients’ stories—meaning it’s our job to assemble the right team of stakeholders that have the capacity, motivation, and influence to change how those services are delivered. 

Without establishing buy-in from a variety of stakeholders across communities and government, the meaningful momentum we build with “fresh” research insights can just as quickly get lost to other competing priorities. Failure to follow through on research learnings not only damages researchers’ credibility with the clients that participated in the research, but also can harm the cause the research is trying to advance.

One way to create buy-in with government leaders and staff is by directly engaging them in qualitative research with the residents that they serve. Developing research plans in collaboration with government leaders and their staff allows our team to align on goals and research questions from the beginning of an engagement, and reinforces the value of what we are trying to achieve together. While this kind of collaboration can slow down the research process—by bringing in additional planning meetings, consensus building, and 1:1 meetings as needed to address individual concerns—it often allows for shared accountability once stakeholders have agreed to why we want to collect this data and how we intend to use it. 

At Code for America, our qualitative research team has seen time and time again that bringing client voices into spaces that often “solve for” clients versus “solve with” them can drive the most meaningful change. For example, in the summer of 2021, we co-facilitated a focus group with local representatives from the City of Memphis and Shelby-County alongside youth to learn about how to recruit hard-to-reach youth into their workforce training program. Throughout the planning, researchers and government stakeholders aligned on questions, goals, and work plans. After the focus group took place, a community leader and local government partner reflected on the impact of directly engaging with youth: 

It is really easy to be in our seats and to make policy decisions. The more that you rise up in the chain, the less actual interaction you have with the folks that you are impacting every day. Talking to young adults was my favorite thing that happened all month. I was very excited because we learned that a lot of what we are doing is not really relevant to what young adults want. We really need to take into consideration that the programs we are running across the state probably have similar disconnection issues and are not really resonating with young adults. So for me, the experience was immensely valuable and I would do it as much as I possibly could. I think it really is going to change the way that we are delivering services. 

This was only possible because our researchers and government partners were able to collaboratively hold space with youth and actively listen, meaning our government partners were empowered to advocate for improved service delivery based on suggestions they heard directly from the people most impacted. 

Creating opportunities like this one for government leaders and staff to engage residents directly allows for them to see the people they serve not as statistics in a report, but as individuals whose lives are directly affected by the policies they set. Personal connection presents an unmatchable power: When residents share their own stories, it moves government leaders and staff beyond an understanding of how services should be delivered in theory towards an understanding of how services are actually delivered in practice. Such research can show the true impact these shortcomings have on people’s lives. 

And that, in essence, shows why strong relationships should be at the foundation of any research project. Government leaders should have relationships with the people they serve, researchers should have relationships with the clients from whom they’re seeking answers, and researchers and government leaders should have relationships with one another to synthesize this knowledge and create actionable next steps. Through collaborations like these, real change is possible—change that’s deeply rooted in the lived experiences of the people we’re trying to help.

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