Influencing Policy: partnerships move research into action

A multi-sectoral research partnership investigating precarious employment directly influenced employment policies. This case illustrates the value of partner organizations with experience in knowledge brokering, and the importance of building relationships to influence policy.

Project

Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO)
https://pepso.ca/

Research Lead

Dr. Wayne Lewchuk

Professor, Labour Studies, McMaster University

Case Contributor

Dr. Wayne Lewchuk

Professor, Labour Studies, McMaster University

Michelynn Laflèche

Director, Research, Public Policy & Evaluation, United Way Toronto & York Region

Stephanie Procyk

Manager, Research, Public Policy & Evaluation, United Way Toronto & York Region

Caroline Fram

Research Assistant, PEPSO

Partners

More than 20 partners from private, public, and non-profit organizations

Research funded by

SSHRC

Impacts

Increased public awareness of the scope and effects of the labour market’s shift toward precarious employment

Directly informed the formulation of the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act (Bill 18)

Knowledge Exchange Strategy

Stakeholder engagement; knowledge brokering; communication planning; collaboration

Goals

Increase understanding of and policy responses to precarious employment

Activities

  • Developed consistent messaging and branding
  • Publicized and coordinated well-attended research launch events
  • Published a series of articles in the Toronto Star
  • Nurtured relationships with relevant policy makers

Keys to making it work

  • Partner(s) with communication and knowledge brokering expertise
  • Partner(s) who can open access to decision-makers and a range of networks
  • Strategic and consistent messaging
  • Media training

Resources

Influencing Policy Development http://ctb.ku.edu/en/influencing-policy-development

The inspiration for the 6-year, multiple-partner research project, Poverty & Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO) was originally seeded in the United Way Toronto report Losing Ground (2007), which indicated that the growth of family low-income rates in Toronto were connected to the rise in precarious employment. Following this report, United Way held conversations with its community agencies, during which agencies cited their concern about the troubling effects of what they perceived to be a surge in insecure part-time, temporary, and self-employment. In 2008, United Way Toronto formed a research group called the Precarious Employment Research Group (PERG) to address the observation that “the combination of low pay and new forms of insecure employment may be having effects beyond the workplace with implications for household and community well-being as well as inhibiting people’s capacity to participate more generally as citizens.” The research group decided to apply for SSHRC funding and expanded to involve partnerships with multiple universities, municipal councils, community organizations, media, and employers. The resulting PEPSO research group, launched in 2010, set out to provide a reliable measure of the magnitude of insecure employment in Southern Ontario, to understand the effects of this labour market shift on individuals and families, and, importantly, to encourage policy debate on the topic.

Policy Influence

The PEPSO project directly influenced policy, and shaped public debate on a phenomenon that had not previously received public attention. The group’s 2013 report, It’s More Than Poverty, helped bring the Ontario Government’s attention to the problem of precarious work and stimulated the government to introduce the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, designed to protect the province’s most vulnerable workers and to increase fairness for both employees and for businesses (Bill 18). The provincial government expressly cited the report when announcing the legislation. The group’s research has been referred to almost 50 times in the House of Commons, Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Toronto City Council and York Regional Council.  

PEPSO brought into public debate a term more often used by social scientists: precarious employment. The report defines precarious employment as “states of employment that do not have the security or benefits enjoyed in more traditional employment relationships.” This type of labour might previously have been referred to, variously, as insecure, part-time, contract, and/or short-term work, and was regularly misconstrued as a problem of low-wage work only. By labelling, defining, and researching the phenomenon, PEPSO gave media and the public a way to understand and describe what they were seeing or experiencing. Lewchuk considers this one of the project’s most important impacts.

"The research has introduced the topic [of precarious employment] into the popular debate. …It has raised the level of debate about what was going on in the labour market…It wasn’t that people didn’t know something was going on, but it didn’t have the legitimacy or concreteness that allowed them to talk about it, so I think a lot more people are more able to talk about it. As a result, the political parties have had to pay attention, certainly the liberals in Ontario have paid attention."
Lewchuk

Though the project was initiated nearly ten years ago, the research to impact trajectory was relatively immediate upon publication. The research was timely and the knowledge exchange (KE) strategy extremely effective.

We were able to… give a name to an experience that people are having, which resonated with a lot of people, and there was a new provincial government that wanted to establish itself in a particular way. This magnified the relationship of research to action.
Laflèche

Intentional, planned and strategic knowledge exchange

The success of PEPSO’s KE points to the importance of working with media and with experienced, influential brokering organizations:

[The United Way] opened doors that allowed the knowledge to flow into the community…. Without the United Way, it [the research] would have been much different, had much less impact. 90% of it was because of the groups they have access to.
Lewchuk

The United Way Toronto crafted and managed the project’s knowledge exchange plan, and served as knowledge broker, work that required communications expertise and experience in policy influence.

All project communication was anchored in key messages and professionally branded. To start, Laflèche and Procyk worked with the communications team to develop “key messages” from report findings. Once key messages were developed, they trained all partners in delivering these messages consistently when discussing the project with the media. A designer created the unique, recognizable PEPSO brand—separate from the United Way or McMaster brands. Laflèche and Procyk also coordinated the report launches in Toronto which were attended by upwards of 200 stakeholders and captured media attention.

“We facilitated [the knowledge], curated it, made sure people had access to it in ways that they were capable of engaging with… ”
Laflèche

The Toronto Star became a PEPSO partner early in the project, after inviting Lewchuk to speak to its editorial board about the requests senior editors were receiving from their own freelance reporters to cover the issue of precarious employment. Originally, the plan was to feature a number of op-ed pieces on precarious employment, but instead the Star decided to develop full stories. The result was front page coverage for PEPSO findings.

The United Way’s reputation, as well as Laflèche and Procyk’s expertise and experience in policy influence positioned them as powerfully effective brokers for the project. Laflèche and Procyk explain that policy influence works through relationships. Relationships, and the many conversations it takes to build them, make a difference in how policy makers receive research. Laflèche emphasizes that the conversations are as much about learning about the ministry’s or government’s concerns and priorities as they are about informing policy makers about the research.

“You start with a formal meeting… introduce the work, try to find out what they think about the work, what would be helpful for them about the work, always putting it in a tone of ‘what can we do to help you make this work?”
Laflèche

Partnerships & compromise to achieve shared goals

For Lewchuk and Laflèche, negotiation and compromise are integral to partnership and to the process of social change. The first meeting of the full PEPSO team brought together about 10 academic researchers with representatives from fifteen to twenty community agencies including employment agencies and centres for new immigrants as well as Social Planning and Research Councils from both Toronto and Hamilton. Defining the research, and the way that the groups would work together, took time and many discussions.

Everyone needed to understand that this was a partnership. There was some confusion about what a partnership is. To me, a partnership is equality and both partners have some skin in the game and are able to shape what the outcome is.
Lewchuk

The range of partners was also important. The United Way has expertise in research, as did some of the agencies, such as the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, but partners also brought other skills and networks. Community agencies who work with precariously employed people contributed their knowledge. KPMG, a multi-national company which provides audit, tax, and advisory services to Canadian businesses, worked with PEPSO to engage employers.

Including this range of partners also meant that the team needed to work with a range of perspectives and values. Compromise and negotiation was critical. Some partners might have preferred to convey findings in more critical terms than the key messages the team agreed on, but all partners reached a compromise in order to achieve PEPSO’s policy-oriented goals. This compromise, and the emphasis on working toward solutions, was integral to the project’s impact.

“If you remove yourself from how the world is working and only provide observational, critical observation, without consciously thinking of solutions--and solutions require compromise--then you aren’t going to be impactful.”