News + Views

Future-proofing research – the challenges of building an evidence-base during COVID-19

As we tick over the two-year mark since the onset of the pandemic, it is worth reflecting on our achievements, as well as the challenges of conducting research and reform activities during this time. Like everyone, the CIJ paused and then pivoted as we explored how to work in drastically changed circumstances, with uncertainty the only constant.

Like all teams that are part of a University workforce, the CIJ also faced considerable organisational challenges, resulting in a reduction in capacity. In addition, the same budget pressures drove us to seek more and more projects, while rescoping and carrying existing ones, all in the hands of a smaller operation.

Given these circumstances, we’re grateful to be rebuilding and to have welcomed new members to the team. During this time, we have also managed to complete some incredibly valuable projects – some of them published, some of them internal to government, courts and other bodies – which have continued to drive reform in our priority areas.

Two years on, and we are pleased that we are still being useful to our stakeholders; still promoting innovation in family violence, adolescent violence in the home, restorative justice, disability and user experience, criminal records reform, victims of crime and women and young people’s contact with the criminal justice system; still being an independent voice for reform.

In doing so, however, it is important to retain the lessons from this period, some of which will continue to be salient to any research regarding justice system reform in the years ahead. That is because, while the CIJ is not a frontline service delivery organisation, our work is primarily – perhaps entirely – about people. We conduct our research and reform activities directly with people delivering or receiving services; and working in or using the justice system. For that reason, the vast majority of our project activities are dependent upon the engagement of participants in this system, whether as practitioners or as people with lived experience.

This presents a challenge at the best of times – and we have been incredibly fortunate that our many stakeholders across the legal and wider service system have always supported and participated in our work, seeing the value of an evidence base which is built so unapologetically from the ground up. Similarly challenging is the recruitment of people with lived experience when this very experience means that they are some of the most vulnerable members of the community. This can make participation in research or co-design a low priority at best.

For this reason – and because we seek to make participation in our projects as positive and safe for people as possible – we work with services to recruit and support participants all the way through. We do this to ensure that any risks of re-traumatisation, or other risks, such as an escalation in family violence, are identified and so that any support or communication needs are incorporated into the process. We know that research or co-design can be an intervention in itself and we want to make sure that participation in our work, at a minimum, does not cause harm.

By taking this approach, participation in our projects is open to people and communities who may be less likely to ‘opt in’ to a survey or an invitation to get involved via social media, but who will nonetheless – and perhaps particularly so – benefit from having their voice heard.

Developed over many years, we’re proud of this approach, as complicated as it can be behind the scenes. It does mean, however, that we spend a great deal of our time explaining to government and other bodies why this approach takes time and why sample sizes of participants can be relatively small. Equally, it means that we rely very heavily on the support and involvement of practitioners who want to know that their vulnerable clients’ experiences are being captured and reflected.

When these same practitioners – already responding to considerable demand in the context of workforces that have long been under-resourced – face even greater demand as the result of a global pandemic, this presents additional challenges to the research process. Equally, when clients who are already vulnerable by virtue of their lived experience and the harm that is often compounded by the justice system are made even more vulnerable during a pandemic, this similarly can make involvement in research a hurdle too high to jump.

Accordingly, the CIJ ‘paused’ and rescoped projects so that agencies could prioritise service delivery, also recognising in the process that the majority of the practitioners delivering frontline services were women who were carrying the lion’s share of remote learning. As each lockdown ended, we explored ways to open up and restart, or find different methods of collecting data. We were therefore incredibly grateful for the level of participation that we have had during this time – with practitioners who have been working in incredibly complex areas still prioritising time to be involved in focus groups and workshops, as well as to promote our research to their client base when appropriate.

At the same time, we started to build in new elements to our projects – insisting on resourcing for services which were supporting our research, as well as continuing to recognise when service engagement was simply not going to be possible and shaping our project timelines accordingly. After two years, practitioners in the family violence and other community-based sectors are exhausted and many have moved on; while under-resourced workforces were semi-paralysed once the Omicron wave started to take hold.

Entering the third year of the pandemic and a ‘new normal’ – in which new variants may continue to arrive – we believe it is crucial to build greater capacity in those services which respond to the most vulnerable members of the community. The pandemic has not only exposed existing fault lines in the community but created new ones. Australians most dramatically impacted by the pandemic will continue to need greater support for years, while services which work with them will need much greater scope and capacity to ‘surge’.

This is why we are conducting the Future-proofing safety: surfacing inequality and building service capacity for crisis-ready responses project with Drummond Street Services and the Australian Institute of Family Studies, which seeks to understand experiences and use of family violence during COVID-19. Just as importantly, the project seeks to understand and document the challenges faced, and adaptations made, by a range of different service sectors – including those who were required to respond to compounded risk and need during this time, without necessarily having the capacity or resources to do so.

Among many of its lessons, the pandemic has shown that we must build greater capacity and resilience in those fundamental frontline sectors which support those most in need. Equally, it has been a reminder that government, courts or any wider authorities cannot take these services for granted if they want them to participate and contribute to reform.

After all, years of substantial consultation and reform in the wake of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence has taken its toll on organisations which have been expected – and, just as importantly, which have wanted the chance – to participate in reform implementation but were not necessarily provided the extra capacity to do so while continuing to deliver services. More acutely, research and reform conducted with First Nations communities – reform long called for by these communities – cannot be dictated purely by government To Do lists, with consultancies tendered with limited timelines and then conducted with unrealistic demands.

Policymakers and researchers alike need to start working to the rhythm and pace of sectors which are prioritising their clients and members of their communities. Equally, researchers need time to conduct research and consultation in ways that are meaningful and can ultimately be transformative, rather than transactional. This is one of the many lessons of the pandemic which we will continue to incorporate into our approach and promote – because we are in this business not for output or publication, but for the chance to contribute to genuine and lasting reform.

Elena Campbell

Associate Director – Research, Advocacy and Policy