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Bibliography expanded to reflect additional resources in clinical data mining and consumer-centered evaluations. Consumer-centered evaluation integrates service users in all facets of the evaluation from data collections to utilization of the findings.

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Agency-Based Research

Abstract and Keywords

This entry reviews agency-based research and the unique demands created by the organizational context where this activity resides. Three primary stakeholder groups are identified: administrators and program managers, supervisors, and direct service workers and clinicians. Possible uses of agency-based research by each of the respective stakeholder groups are described. Finally, the role of service consumers in agency-based research is discussed.

Keywords: clinical and program evaluation, consumer involvement, research utilization

Social work is and always has been an agency-based occupation. Notwithstanding the movement to “professionalize” social work through licensure and certification and the interest in private practice, most practitioners continue to work within or on behalf of social agencies. Similarly, most social work clients receive services within agencies. These organizations may be specifically social work settings or those in which social workers play important but ancillary roles, for example, hospitals, mental health clinics, schools, prisons, and the like.

Despite the pervasive organizational underpinnings of social work practice and the pioneering work of Tony Grasso (Grasso & Epstein, 1992, 1993), the value of agency-based research remains underappreciated within the field. Instead, most published social work research is carried out under university auspices with the prevailing paradigm of social work knowledge development ascribed to social work academics. More recently, the evidence-based practice movement has further emphasized the division of labor by characterizing academics as knowledge producers, and practitioners as obstacles to research (Rubin, 2006), knowledge implementers (Gambrill, 2006), or “propagandists” of misinformation (Gambrill, 2010). Rarely are practitioners of any stripe viewed as legitimate contributors to the knowledge stream.

By contrast, this entry focuses on the conduct of programmatic, supervisory, and clinical research within social work agencies, by agency staff. More specifically, it describes and illustrates the administrative, supervisory, and clinical uses of agency-based research. In so doing, it suggests how agency practitioners can conduct their own research for internal decision making as well as for making external contributions to knowledge. This requires the design, implementation, and utilization of studies that attend specifically to organizational aspects of service delivery.

As indicated earlier, social work agencies have three sets of “stakeholders” that have a professional interest in agency-based knowledge development: (a) administrators and program managers, (b) supervisors, and (c) direct service workers or clinicians, or both. Each group has its own parallel stakes in questions about client need, service delivery, and client outcome. At the organizational level, the research studies that address these questions are referred to as planning studies, monitoring studies, and program evaluations. At the direct service or clinical level, research can help assess the needs of individual clients; the clinical interventions they receive; and the individual, family, or group outcomes that result. Between the programmatic and individual client levels, supervisors may be concerned with the training and supervisory needs of their units or individual workers and staff responses to supervisory interventions.

To answer these questions, agency-based social workers at each level have available to them a wide range of research approaches and methods as well as an eclectic range of data sources (Kapp & Anderson, 2010, chapter 8). These include both qualitative and quantitative methods that can be applied to already available information or make use of original information. Available information can come from within the agency itself in the form of computerized information or case records, community informational resources outside the agency, or published research literature. Original information may be secured through observation, interviews, or questionnaires. The latter can be based on already available instruments or can be completely original.

Of course, the appropriate use of any of these approaches requires some degree of research sophistication and material and technical resources. And they must be used in ways that are ethical and sensitive to the cultural values and sensibilities of clients and agency staff alike (Kapp & Anderson, 2010, chapters 5 and 6). Agencies may have their own research units, may employ outside research consultants, or may collaborate with universities to conduct this research. But what sets agency-based research apart is that its primary purpose is to enhance the effectiveness of the agency in serving its clientele and in achieving its mission. In addition, the research task must accommodate the dynamic context of the organization. Epstein (2001) suggests that practice-based research principles should be used where the practice setting is the centerpiece and research activity is conducted in a manner complementary to service processes and activities. Kapp and Anderson (2010) further specify that each step of the evaluation process, from its design and implementation to dissemination of the findings to users, should be centered on the intended use of the evaluation data by various agency practitioners.

Clinical Uses of Agency-Based Research

As noted earlier, a significant gap exists between much of the research conducted on clinical practice and the clinical practitioner’s usage of that same material (Epstein & Blumenfield, 2001). One of the strategies for addressing this gap is for practitioners to design, implement, and use research on their own practice within the agency setting (Vonk, Tripodi, & Epstein, 2006). Single-subject design is one research method that has been sanctioned and supported by social worker practitioners to assess and evaluate clinical effectiveness. This technique applies the logic of time series evaluation methods to the treatment progression of single individuals (Rubin & Babbie, 2005; Tripodi, 1994; Tripodi & DiNoia, 2008). Program logic models have been used to create conceptual intervention models that can be used to organize and facilitate practitioner research projects (Alter & Egan, 1997; Alter & Murty, 1997; Kapp & Anderson, 2010, chapter 7).

Epstein and colleagues have continued to develop an innovative, direct service practitioner-friendly approach described as clinical data mining (CDM). This method uses the individual clinician as the primary researcher responsible for designing, implementing, and utilizing the research. The clinician-derived research questions are addressed by collecting and analyzing data directly from the case files. This method has been effective in a variety of settings (Auslander, Dobrof, & Epstein, 2001; Epstein & Blumenfield, 2001; Peake, Epstein, & Medeiros, 2005; Zilberfein, Hutson, Snyder, & Epstein, 2001) and in multidisciplinary and international contexts (Joubert & Epstein, 2005, Lalayants et al., 2012).

More recently, organizational research-oriented doctoral students have demonstrated how a CDM approach can be applied to studying organizational strategies as diverse as multidisciplinary child protection efforts (Lalayants, 2010), workplace trauma interventions (DeFraia, 2011), agency accreditation (Williams-Gray, 2008), and social entrepreneurship (VanBrackle, 2012).

Supervisory Uses of Agency-Based Research

The information obtained through agency-based research is a critical resource for administrators and supervisors (Schoech, 2000). Data from agency-based research is critical to determining whether client outcomes are being achieved (Poertner & Rapp, 2007). Typically, agency-based research by administrators and supervisors is completed by exploiting existing data sources, specifically internal information systems (Hatry, 2004).

Supervisors are able to use information from clinical information systems to foster the improvement of clinical skills (Mooradian & Grasso, 1993). Current information technology provides access to large automated data systems that sort and analyze client information in custom reports, which allow supervisors to “drill down” to key data that address the development of direct service skills. This technology allows supervisors to create specific staff or team reports that facilitate information-based supervision (Kapp, Hahn, & Rand, 2011; Marty & Barkett, 2002; Moore & Press, 2002).

Managerial Uses of Agency-Based Research

Information technology is equally useful for creating custom reports that allow managers access to key data that address specific service-related questions. For example, managers can generate program-specific reports of successful clients or family contacts reports organized by workers (Kapp et al., 2011; Marty & Barkett 2002; Moore & Press, 2002).

Program improvement planning efforts integrate agency-based research with organizational initiatives directed at improving program performance. Organizational innovation is complemented by agency-based research. The implementation and impact of specific program enhancements targeted at program outcome (for example, an aftercare program intended to increase postplacement stability) are evaluated using specific data collection plans (Hartnett & Kapp, 2003; Kapp & Anderson, 2010).

Consumer Involvement in Agency-Based Research

Social work ethical directives focused on empowerment and the increasing role of the consumer in service provision in more and more fields of practice provide continuing support for the involvement of consumers in agency-based research efforts. Consequently, consumer satisfaction surveys are very common in agency-based research (Corrigan, Lickey, Campion, & Rashid, 2000; Fischer & Valley, 2000; Kapp & Anderson, 2010; Kapp & Vela, 2004; Martin, Petr, & Kapp, 2002). Although philosophical reasons have been cited for a more consistent inclusion of service providers in agency-based research (Boll, 1995), Corrigan and Garman (1997) argue that consumer involvement is likely to highlight aspects of service implementation and effectiveness that may otherwise be overlooked. More recently, service consumers and agency evaluators have collaborated to develop and implement strategies for including consumers in study design, data collection, report writing, and utilization of agency-based research findings (Linhorst & Eckert, 2002; Monson & Thurley, 2011). Guiding principles and procedures for designing and implementing this work have been developed and documented (Malins et al., 2006). These recent developments illustrate the vital role of the service consumers in the design, implementation, and use of agency-based evaluation.


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