GEIS 2018 – Day 1

What a beautiful day to head off to a conference!

Robyn Mildon from the Centre for Evidence and Implementation welcomed us the the conference and the opening session immediately set the groundwork where questions began coming to mind and where ideas became food for thought.

The first idea that crossed my path was when Howard White, from the Campbell Collaboration, questioned our ability to articulate the design of the program and what was it’s purpose. So often we know what we do and how we do it but the why or what we are trying to achieve alludes us. Or we have a sense of purpose but an inability to articulate it and communicate it so that others understand. In turn this impacts on the quality and validity of any evidence that is produced.

Richard Weston, from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation, spoke of the impact of intergenerational trauma and how when we fail to recognise and address it the impact of trauma is perpetuated through to the next generation and so on. The evidence in his latest work, a report produced by the AIHW demonstrates the impact on the stolen generation vs other indigenous people. This I found interesting because I was more accustomed to data about Indigenous Australians being compared to the rest of the Australian population. To think of the disparity within the Indigenous Australian population was a new way of thinking of the struggles and challenges they face and highlighted how within a disadvantage community of people there are people who face even harder circumstances.

Recently I spoke with a friend about collective methodology to which my immediate come back was how do you apply a collective approach within a neoliberal society like ours? This was also a dilemma for me when writing up my thesis and for which I drew on Agnes Heller’s theory to make sense of neoliberalism and agrarianism. Today, Richard also talked about how western countries tended to focus on the individual and individualistic approaches as opposed to collectivist approaches that resonate better within Indigenous cultures. Maybe I need to relook at this concept further.

The morning session was pretty full-on. Next was Peter Gluckman who is the Chair of the International Network for Government Science Advice and who comes from New Zealand where he was the former chief science adviser to the New Zealand government. It was extremely refreshing to hear a scientist speak about how science should create options for policy rather than provide definitive solutions. This led to challenging the concept that scientists must be mindful of how research is not completely objective; that the values we bring with us to our research can have an impact; that there is always a subjective element to scientific evidence.

Further he argued that unfortunately while quality evidence is needed to drive change it is too often subject to public opinion and electoral values that threaten political longevity. How often do we see political decision-making bowing to media and other powerful influences like lobbyists and those with the loudest voice to ensure voter support when elections come around?

After morning tea I attended a panel that looked at evidence-based practice in child protection: ‘Child Welfare – using evidence to improve the lives of children and families’. I was particularly interested to hear what Julia Littell and Aron Shlonsky had to say given the work we do in this area. The panel ended up much larger and the discussion was very stimulating.Much of the discussion focused on the concept of evidence-based vs evidence-bias and how evidence could be viewed as a moving target. Questions were raised about the credibility of rapid reviews that are starting to be completed in preference to systematic reviews that are viewed as more rigorous and credible but take twice as long to produce. I enjoyed the contestation of the validity of evidence and was somewhat surprised at the passion with which people spoke. In some ways I realised that this is why attending conferences is so important to me. It is a safe place in which to present, contest, discuss and listen to what others in my field are doing.

Integral to the development of evidence-based practice was further investment in quality improvement. We need to be able to evaluate and determine what works and learn from what doesn’t work. One speaker suggested that if we cannot describe the theory of change for the program being implemented than we are probably not delivering quality practice. Furthermore they suggested that we are often overselling the quality of our programs. New programs are like big shiny objects (the silver bullet) that are seen as a solution but fail to consider the context. In this way, when we begin to roll-out new programs stamped as evidence based but with no flexibility for the cultural context for where they are being delivered, there is a strong possibility that the program is culturally blind and that is not okay.

There was so much to take in during this hour but the exciting thing was, much of what they were saying was helping me to think about what we are doing at work. We are exploring and in some cases practicing what these people are discussing. Some areas were are developing and others are still to be considered. I often look at what we do as ‘normal’ for the human services sector yet so often when hearing such discussions I begin to suspect we might be closer towards the front of the pack. I do find this curious given the size of our agency and that we are located in rural Victoria. Then I think about the vision and practice of our leadership group and maybe that’s where the answer lies.

Lunch was good and it was here that I met Flo, a social worker and PhD student from Germany and Kelvin, a psychologist from Singapore and enjoyed a great conversation about what we had learnt and discovered so far.

After lunch Flo and I ended up at the same session: ‘Blind-spot analysis and Evidence-based initiatives: shining a light on methodological innovations’. This really did shine a light on exploring what we know we don’t know. The presentations took me back to a feminist approach to understanding objectivity where they ho so far as to challenge the positivist paradigms by suggesting that all researchers bring some element of bias to their work even if it is as simple as they have an interest in the topic. Sandra Harding called it ‘strong objectivity’ where our work stands a better chance to be considered objective when we are able to reflect on and articulate the bias and assumptions we bring to our work. They also reminded me about Bourdieu’s notion of reflexive practice, another theory that suggests the lack of acknowledgement of our biases and assumptions undermines the authenticity of our results. I suppose this is really a challenge of methodologies such as positivism that suggests objectivity can be achieved vs constructivism that explores the context from which knowledge reveals itself and so on.

The question was asked: who says what is evidence? Someone has clearly invested in producing the evidence – what are they trying to find? These comments made me question some of my own practices where I attempt to work with our workers to support actions that contribute to identify evidence that what they are doing is producing results.

I think the excitement of the day was hearing people from the natural sciences being open to questioning objectivity especially in a political climate that promotes the medical and clinical model of randomised control trials as being the ultimate ‘golden’ standard for producing evidence. There is a genuine discussion taking place that allows for questioning of norms and as many who know me would know, this is my favourite past time.

The biases and assumptions were often referred to as blind spots and understanding our ontological perspective I suspect is necessary to working towards addressing them; particularly when identifying our preferred ideological and theoretical standpoints.

I did pop into the philanthropy panel and yes it was good and it was great to hear how people were working within philanthropic organisations it wasn’t what I thought it would be so just sat back and enjoyed the discussions. Unfortunately I ended up missing Caroline Fiennes’ (from Giving Evidence) keynote presentation and so was glad, I had at least heard her speak here.

After that I was feeling somewhat exhausted so I took myself off for some alone time, some fresh air and sunshine. Over a long glass of homemade raspberry and hibiscus lemonade I continued trying to write this blog.

There was so much to think about and I wanted to remember the points that triggered reflection on what I do at work and learn more about how I can bring that into my practices.

One of the great things they did for this conference was give us an app for the conference where we can make notes for the presentations we attend. So not only do you get to make notes but they are linked directly to the presentation.

Next was the Welcome Drinks! And while I enjoyed a proseco or two, I met some great people, including Danny and Kyle from the USA who work with the military and their families on suicide prevention and later caught up with Flo and Kelvin. What an amazing day!

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