‘Preparing for Impact’: Bridging the gap in the anti-slavery space

‘Preparing for Impact’: Bridging the gap in the anti-slavery space

By Juliana Semione

I wrote ‘Preparing for Impact: How we can overcome barriers and cultivate a culture of collaboration, understanding, and respect to achieve impact on survivor support’ during a PaCCS placement as a policy researcher in the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner (IASC). The aim of this review was to bridge the gap between anti-slavery researchers on one side and evidence users on the other. The outcome of successful bridge building in this space will be stronger, evidence-informed survivor support practices across the various sectors that meet in the anti-slavery field. During Spring 2020 I was seconded to this placement from my work as a Rights Lab PhD candidate and research associate. My research background is in modern slavery but I have always had a foot firmly planted on the evidence user side of the ‘gap’, as well. That’s why this placement was so compelling to me.

The placement

I have told friends and colleagues that this placement was an excellent experience. I met scores of individuals from across multiple sectors, not only expanding my network but expanding my perspective on the vast array of activity within my own field. And the relatively rapid pace of the project from my start date on 20 January to the review’s 2 July launch afforded me my first experience of independently seeing a project through from concept to completion—discovering, along the way, the benefits and the limitations of a project with a hairpin turnaround.

As positive an experience as the placement was, the project faced its share of challenges. The placement, initially slated for three months full-time, ultimately ran for six. This was the result of the back-to-back University and College Union (UCU) strike (they called it their biggest ever) and onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. With many of the stakeholders on the ‘researcher’ side of that figurative gap either striking as UCU members or striking in solidarity, my data collection efforts weren’t producing enough information to meaningfully include researchers’ voices in the review. As the effects of COVID-19 set in across the country and when a full-on lockdown was officially enacted, individuals on both sides of that gap became nearly impossible to reach. I suspect many of us—myself included—will remember the early days of the pandemic as largely unproductive, as we faced the disorientating and sudden shift to working from home and coming to grips with the fact the world as we knew it had come to a screeching halt.

Completing a rapid-turnaround research output while up to half of my participants were striking and during the onset of a global pandemic was an interesting experience in itself. Probably, reflections on this could fill out the remainder of this post. Both PaCCS and the IASC’s office were flexible and completely understanding in light of these challenges, and we agreed to spread my remaining time on the project across the remainder of the spring term on a part-time basis, thus stretching the placement from three months to six.

My research plan itself faced a third challenge—this one garden-variety. I changed research strategies partway into the project. ‘Preparing for Impact’ features nine case studies demonstrating real-world examples of obstacles to impact and good practice in overcoming them. Initially, the goal was to feature 12 case studies demonstrating research that had impact, research that did not have impact, and research that created ‘buzz’ but hadn’t achieved impact to date. But despite dozens of topical pieces of literature, it proved difficult to conclusively put most of them in one of these three categories (the reasons for this are described in the review). What did emerge was a clear set of themes: there are six common barriers to impact and there are three cultural values that our field must embrace to achieve impact. With a short-term project and with the aforementioned challenges to connecting with interviewees during a critical stretch of the project timeline, revising the research strategy became necessary. Once again, PaCCS and IASC were flexible and understanding. We agreed a revised research approach together.

I’ll offer one final word about my experience during this placement. From day one, both the IASC’s office and Tristram Riley-Smith’s PaCCS team welcomed me as a team member. I had access to office space (until lockdown), was introduced to stakeholders as a member of both teams whenever meeting someone new, and I never felt I was a burden to anyone when I asked rookie questions about the ways of the office or the Civil Service. PaCCS and the IASC’s office embodied some of the very recommendations I make in the review. Any realistic reflection must acknowledge areas for improvement, of course, but many barriers to conducting research were proactively removed and most of my interactions with PaCCS and the IASC team were characterized by a spirit of collaboration, understanding, and respect. I look forward to follow-on work with the IASC as the office seeks to implement ‘Preparing for Impact’.

Research findings

Survivor support research is not informing policy and practice as often as it should. Yet many stakeholders communicated an appetite for quality evidence and an eagerness to put it into practice. And researchers, of course, are eager to see their work applied. This is how I know ‘Preparing for Impact’ was worthwhile, and why it leans so heavily on ways forward. We have the will to achieve impact in the anti-slavery field. Just not, it seems, a very long history of choreographing that forward movement together. So what occasions our relatively short repertoire of research with definitive impact upon the field?

The six barriers to impact most commonly named by interviewees were access, feasibility, funding, preconceptions, relevance, and time. Additionally, there are three values that anti-slavery stakeholders say they hold—and expect one another to embody: collaboration, understanding, and respect. The good news is that, for every barrier named, there were examples of stakeholders overcoming it. And for each of the values appealed to, there were examples of how someone was already exemplifying them.

The review’s recommendations (further detailed in the document itself) were written for individuals on both sides of the figurative gap. Impact, the marriage of research and practice, cannot be achieved unless both parties are committed.

  1. Plan for impact from the beginning
  2. Respond to issues on the ground
  3. Be realistic and specific
  4. Make research accessible to stakeholders
  5. Share findings strategically
  6. Receive the questioning of frameworks and processes with an open mind
  7. Take proactive steps to understand each other’s worlds
  8. Gain first-hand experience of anti-slavery work
  9. Communicate throughout the research process
  10. Share emerging findings

The importance of strategizing to overcome barriers should not be diminished, but I would be remiss not to reiterate interviewees’ emphasis on the values of collaboration, understanding, and respect that undergird impact—values that can stand in spite of barriers on occasions when overcoming the latter seems especially challenging. Concerted efforts to overcome those six barriers will allow us to build a bridge; the three values will guarantee it is structurally sound.

This review is a reflection of the field—a reflection of the experiences and aspirations of individuals on both sides of our figurative gap. So how do we undertake this bridge building? Paired with the case studies and overall narrative of the review, my ten recommendations provide instruction. But what the review reflects is a call for a shift at the heart of our field; the fact is, our present culture is not entirely conducive to our purposes. What do we require of one another if we are to see impact realized? A refreshed approach to each other and to our field itself, and personal investment not in impact alone, but in survivor support itself.

Juliana was a PaCCS policy researcher in Spring 2020. She is a Communities & Society researcher in the Rights Lab, leading work on survivor support and definitions of freedom. Juliana is also the programme development lead for the Salvation Army’s Anti-Trafficking & Modern Slavery Unit, with whom she co-developed Modern Slavery Hubs to provide community-based survivor support. She is a member of the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force (Calif.) and a doctoral candidate at the University of Nottingham.