Building Safer Communities

Building Safer Communities

PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Professor Jon Bannister to discuss his work on the ESRC-funded Building Safer Communities project. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Kate McNeil: Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your research background, and how you ended up working on Building Safer Communities?

Professor Jon Bannister:  I am an urban criminologist with a multi-disciplinary background. I am interested in how urban processes and transformations impact upon people’s wellbeing, with a particular focus on crime. My research on crime is embedded it within an urban and criminological theoretical framework. I have researched multiple topics including violent crime, community safety and policing.

My work on Building Safer Communities was proposed in response to a call for impact-focused research from the ESRC, which was linked to supporting organisations in accessing the best possible evidence base to inform their policy and practice. Prior to the project, I had already developed an interest in knowledge exchange and knowledge mobilization, and I was motivated by this opportunity to use what I knew to bring about positive changes in societal well-being. I was motivated to explore how those working in crime prevention in the private, public, and voluntary sectors  might make better use of evidence in support of effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery.

What did the Building Safer Communities project entail, and what emerged from it?

The Building Safter Communities project focused on community safety partnerships in Scotland. From 2009-2010, we were funded by the ESRC to help develop resources for these patnerships. The project was so successful that after the ESRC funding ended, the organisations involved funded me to continue that work for another few years. During that time, we built a range of resources which, in a simple and affordable way mirrored much of what has subsequently been developed by What Works centres. We sought to ensure that the developed evidence base was communicated in a manner to meet the needs of the policy and practitioner community. We achieved this by engaging in dialogue with these partners throughout the project. The intention here was to understand the challenges that local communities were experiencing, and what interventions policymakers and practitioners were able to advance – then we negotiated between the two as we developed our evidence base, collaborated on analysis, and produced outputs in accessible formats. Though my involvement with those organisations in Scotland has since come to an end, many of the things we started have evolved and continue to exist in different forms.

From the project, we produced multiple papers, as well as a book on knowledge mobilization which was designed to explain why academics hold an obligation to engage with policymakers and practitioners across the public, private and voluntary sectors. This book was also designed to provide information on how to best work with policymakers and practitioners to bring about change. We had learned throughout the Building Safer Communities project that a coproduction approach, one in which all those involved in a particular challenge felt that they had ownership of the research and its end products, was vital to its success. We wanted to share that knowledge with others.

What are you working on now?

While I still maintain significant research and policy links in Scotland, I am now based in Manchester. My current work involves working with the police to make better use of their data to enable them to offer more effective, efficient, and equitable service delivery, a clear link to my previous work. For example, I have recently completed projects aimed at improving the risk prioritization of victims of domestic abuse, addressing knife crime, improving understanding of the policing of mental ill-health, as well as numerous studies of shifting inequalities in the exposure to crime. My work continues to be driven by my belief in the value of coproduced research, and I continue to be informed by my understanding of the interface between crime and the urban environment.

I continue to produce academic papers for academic audiences, but I also do a lot of work which is targeted at policymakers and practitioners which relies on alternative engagement and dissemination approaches. When we write for policymaking audiences, we use short pieces, with photos, and which take a narrative approach to ensure that we are engaging with our audience. We also produce blogs, host webinars, share slide sets with our partners. It is important to work directly with the users of research because this is most likely to result in the uptake of the research and the achievement of meaningful impact.

Based on your experiences as a crime researcher, are there areas where you think the research community needs to improve or evolve its approach?

Two things. Firstly, doctoral training schools provide strong theoretical and methodological training, but they fall behind in training towards knowledge mobilization. You need certain skills to be able to speak in different ways to different groups, and a lot of academics do not have that skillset. Moreover, while established professors can contact organisations and initiate projects, scholars earlier in their careers do not have the resources or power to be able to broker these relationships unless they are fortunate to have powerful mentors to do it for them. Academic institutions require to establish these resources – training and networks.

Secondly, and specifically thinking about the social sciences, we need to advance our learning through comparative research design. For example, we need a clearer understanding of whether crime problems and their solutions are (and require being) unique to particular contexts or shared (and can be shared) across multiple localities and polities. This demands increased academic and policy collaboration and the development of clearly evidenced comparative programmes.  While research into crime is increasingly multidisciplinary and employs mixed methodologies, not enough is being done to explore issues across multiple sites, so that we can distinguish the global from the local. Just because something works in one way and in one place does not mean that the same applies elsewhere.