The What Works Scotland approach to collaborative action research and the learning that is emerging from our work in multi-agency, multi-practitioner public service environments.

Collaborative action research (CAR) is an approach to doing social research. Since mid-2015 What Works Scotland has been pioneering CAR in multi-agency, multi-practitioner public service environments.

We have done this in partnership with community planning partnerships (CPPs) in Scotland, in particular Aberdeenshire, Fife, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire. What Works Scotland held national retreats in June 2015 and February 2016 with these CPPs in order to nurture our innovative CAR approach and develop the outcomes from it.


CAR has a long tradition in some policy or research areas, such as education and nursing, where it has been used to improve professional working practices through developing relationships between academics and practitioners. It was used in other research programmes with which members of the What Works Scotland team were involved.

For example:

CAR is central to the What Works Scotland overall aim to understand and improve the way local areas in Scotland use evidence to make decisions about public service development and reform.

The What Works Scotland approach to CAR

More than 10 differently shaped cogwheels in different colours connected with grey linesBecause What Works Scotland has innovated CAR in multi-agency public service environments, these features are likely to be even more complicated than, for example, in single agency settings.

Whilst it is hard to generalise a description, in essence CAR involves two elements, collaboration and action research. At What Works Scotland these have usually taken the following forms.


This has usually meant collaboration between our What Works Scotland academic researchers – Hayley Bennett, Richard Brunner, Claire Bynner and James Henderson – and groups of practitioners working for a variety of public services and the third sector in Aberdeenshire, Fife, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire.

Each group of practitioners also collaborates together as part of the CAR process.

Action research

A process in which the What Works Scotland academic researchers support those groups of practitioners to think about and work on an issue of common concern to them (conducting research), and to then take action as a result. Actions have typically involved:

  • producing documents, research reports, frameworks or toolkits based on the evidence the CAR group has found, and/or
  • taking action to change practice or policy based on the work the CAR group has done, and/or
  • facilitating discussions or seminars to reflect on the evidence the CAR group has generated.

Another way of expressing this is that our CAR approach has involved What Works Scotland researchers supporting groups of professionals working for CPP partners in the four case sites to work on topics of local concern. This CAR process seeks to support each group to:

  1. reflect on working practices in relation to that topic
  2. explore evidence on that topic
  3. learn from this evidence
  4. enact evidence-informed change, and
  5. share the experience and findings, so spreading the learning.

This process can work as a cycle which may be repeated several times; or it may just be a one-off process.

Each of the four CPPs had various CAR groups operating for different periods between mid-2015 and mid-2017. Some CAR groups lasted for a few months, others for two years. The roles, numbers and constancy of professionals in each CAR group have varied too. These differences are inherent to the emergent, contextual and sometimes demanding character of CAR. They may also be exaggerated by the contemporary context for public services including issues such as austerity, short-term contracts, and patterns of service and role re-organisation.


You can read all the collaborative action research descriptions, reports, findings and articles that are emerging from the various CAR groups in:

What we are learning about collaboration in public service reform

Participants in a round-table discussion at the collaborative action research national retreat, held in Perth in February 2016

Participants in a round-table discussion at the collaborative action research national retreat, held in Perth in February 2016

By facilitating the CAR groups, the What Works Scotland academic researchers have gained insights into how practitioners in public services actually work with evidence and actually collaborate. So, at the same time as supporting practitioners to develop how they work with evidence and work together, What Works Scotland has gained insights into how the public service reform agenda in Scotland, stemming from the Christie Commission report, is happening in practice. CAR allows us to get ‘under the bonnet’ of public service reform, contributing evidence to the What Works Scotland research agenda.

The four What Works Scotland academic researchers have developed the mechanism of a professional learning community (PLC) to co-ordinate, develop and learn from their mutual work across the four case sites. The PLC involves the four researchers meeting regularly to share empirical learning, develop conceptual thinking, and discuss academic and other literature focusing on public service reform and action research. The PLC has allowed the What Works Scotland academic researchers to work simultaneously in the field in practice, whilst being informed by theory

The What Works Scotland academic researchers are continuing to learn from this pioneering CAR work. As well as sharing the learning from the CAR programme that informs the public service reform agenda, we will publish insights from applying this research approach. For example, by analysing our CAR work in retrospect we hope to be able to identify common features or principles of conducting CAR in multi-agency, multi-practitioner public service environments. These elements are likely to be of practical use to researchers, third sector bodies, universities and other agencies also contemplating facilitating CAR in multi-agency contexts. They should also inform public service and third sector leaders, professionals and practitioners about the benefits and challenges of being involved in CAR. These should also contribute to the academic literature on the theory and practice of CAR.


Collaborative Action Research and public services – insights into methods, findings and implications for public service reform

This working paper shares the findings from the What Works Scotland programme of collaborative action research (CAR). The paper highlights learnings and insights that the researchers gained from facilitating CAR over three years (2015-2017) in the four community planning partnerships. The findings demonstrate that CAR has the potential to contribute to developing the practices of collaborative governance – partnership, participation, performance and prevention – by constructively and critically engaging with current policy and practice expectations.

Also see insights from the CAR research programme from What Works Scotland research associates Hayley Bennett and Richard Brunner who shared their experiences on the practice of conducting CAR with multiple public services, in two 2017 presentations to the Scottish Government.


Related resources

Earlier What Works Scotland publications on developing our CAR approach:

Supporting Collaborative Action Research: Developing a more systematic approach

This working paper describes the approach followed by the What Works Scotland team in carrying out a ‘mini-inquiry’ exercise to develop the What Works Scotland collaborative action research framework.

How to Design Collaborative Action Research

This guide draws on the authors’ previous work in facilitating and developing collaborative approaches to continuing professional development and collaborative action research, and focuses specifically on designing CAR to engage a broad constituency.