This project represents a unique marriage of quantitative and qualitative research, as well as a distinctive union of researchers and on-the-ground coordinators (RAs). Primary investigators (PIs) from four universities, including the University of Medellín, joined forces with Invamer (a local survey firm), Estrategia & Territorio (a local public affairs firm), and a large team of about 18 locally hired RAs. All worked collaboratively with local police departments. Together, the team aimed to ascertain the causal impacts of two treatments on community-police relations and crime-reporting. The two treatments were community-police meetings and informational fliers about available government responses to address domestic violence. Research took place in Medellín, a city which can be subdivided into 347 residential police beats (“cuadrantes” in Spanish). Each beat can be further broken into four blocks (“prioritized manzanas” in Spanish) of about 400 households. Within each police beat, researchers assigned one block each to their four treatment conditions,” which are depicted below:
informational fliers plus community meetings
This approach ensured that each treatment arm was demographically similar to the others, guaranteeing that any differences in mean outcomes across treatment arms could be fairly traceable to the treatments. Outcomes were gleaned via three quantitative sources. First, PIs reviewed administrative data regarding thefts, domestic violence incidents, public misconduct incidents, and calls to the police. Second, they fielded public opinion surveys about security, police, community-police relations, other government institutions, and political issues. Finally, PIs conducted police opinion surveys about communities and police-community relations. In addition to collecting quantitative data, the RAs conducted a great deal of qualitative research, including semi-structured interviews, ethnographic reports on each of the 558 police-community meetings, and 51 focus groups with citizens. Research analysis is ongoing and preliminary results are not yet available.
In the sections that follow, the brief discusses Londoño-Cadavid’s reflections on constructing and training the “on the ground” team of RAs, combining qualitative and quantitative research, the working relationship between the various entities, and recommendations for future researcher/implementing partner collaborations. Where appropriate, perspectives from Eric Arias, one of the PIs, are also peppered in.
Constructing and Training the “On the Ground” Team
The PIs recruited Estrategia & Territorio (E&T), a nascent public affairs firm, to serve as a liaison between researchers and police departments. Once E&T secured commitment from the national police to cooperate in the research (providing locations for police-community meetings and making police officers available), the primary investigators then hired Invamer to coordinate all survey data collection and flier distribution, as well distribute invitations to the community-police meetings. Finally, the PIs hired about 18 RAs (spread into three teams) to conduct all qualitative research. PIs scouted potential RAs via informal mechanisms such as through references from fellow researchers. This method of hiring RAs was largely successful, yielding a cohesive and productive RA team which remained largely constant throughout the intervention.
As the meetings progressed, however, some of the RAs left the project for various reasons.
The RA teams initially had a horizontal hierarchy. However, as the project progressed, investigators identified RAs who they felt were well positioned to take more senior leadership roles. A chain of command evolved organically. Arias indicated that the organic evolution of the chain of command allowed RAs to develop their skills and provided intrinsic motivation. He also stated that the initial lack of a clear chain of command meant that supervising and on-the-ground coaching did not materialize immediately, requiring PIs to take on more responsibility in the period before certain RAs moved into managerial positions.
Arias: “If there is one thing I would change, it is that I would have started the structure that we eventually had for the RA teams much sooner. If we had done that sooner, it would have been easier to establish RA team leaders to supervise, manage, and coach on the ground.”
Combining Qualitative and Quantitative Research
RAs were responsible for a variety of tasks, including coordinating and conducting police-community meetings, police interviews, and community focus groups. Rebecca Hanson, one of the PIs, leveraged her background in qualitative sociology to provide detailed training and rubrics to RAs regarding how to conduct the qualitative research in a manner that could produce quantifiable findings. While RAs were expected to follow qualitative research protocols, they were also given latitude to leverage their expertise regarding local conditions to guide police-community meetings in a manner that would create more powerful treatments. This empowered RAs to take ownership and to be more intrinsically motivated. Leading the RA team, Londoño-Cadavid developed a novel program to increase community empathy for police officers called “police hug.” As part of the community-police meetings, RAs asked community members to think about how police officers felt after the police academy bombing in Bogotá (which occurred during the implementation period) and gave community members an opportunity to give officers a hug.
Londoño-Cadavid: “When there were suggestions from the team, the PIs were very receptive and collaborative. In the third phase of the project, when we implemented POLICE HUG, asking the community members to put themselves in the police officers’ place, they understood that behind a uniform there is another human being full of virtues and failures like us. It was a very motivating experience because those who previously rejected the officers now embraced and blessed them.
However, while RAs had considerable latitude to leverage their on-the-ground knowledge and rapport with officers and the public, they also were required to draft detailed write ups of each community-police meeting. This helped ensure PIs could make sense of the heterogeneity between meetings and tease out causal findings. Arias indicated that this structure was a means of marrying the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the research.
Arias: “The RAs had a huge impact in innovating in the police-community meetings. Londoño-Cadavid developed incredible relationships and pitched an idea as part of the meetings to show appreciation to police. By the end of the project, many community members embraced it. As a result, though, there was a lot of heterogeneity across meetings, so we relied on detailed notes to capture that heterogeneity.”
Londoño-Cadavid and Arias agreed that clear expectations about the deliverables helped the RAs both to operate fluidly and to produce work that was useful to the researchers.
Arias: “One thing that worked well was that the RAs had clear guidance on expectations. Even though the project was complex, the deliverables were straightforward.”
Londoño-Cadavid: “The researchers were wonderful. While they were demanding on the quality of reports and delivery time, they were respectful and clear.”
Working with the Various Entities Involved in the Project
The research team made themselves very available to RAs via constant contact on WhatsApp and other media. To ensure communication was not overwhelming to the PIs, they cycled points of contact over the course of the project depending on which PIs expertise would be most valuable to RAs at any given point. RAs also had a chain of command which allowed many questions to be resolved internally within the RA team and ensured RAs and the research team had a manageable number of streams of communication.
Londoño-Cadavid: “There was always communication via Skype, WhatsApp, direct calls, emails, in person, not only with the RAs but also with the rest of the attendees. The PIs were always rotating who would be the point of contact. When one of them could not be aware of the week, there was always another who resolved doubts and concerns.”
Arias: “One thing that worked relatively well was that there was always one member of the PI team who was clearly responsible for responding to our shared WhatsApp with the RAs.”
This constant contact was characterized by mutual respect. PIs communicated clearly that they felt the RAs were an essential part of the research team, and RAs appreciated the tone of PIs communications.
Arias: “We tried to be open and honest with the RAs that while we bring the funds and white boards, we cannot be at the meetings so this is your project as much as ours. It lives or dies with you. You’re an ambassador of the field and deserve a lot of recognition.”
Londoño-Cadavid: “I found working with the research team wonderful. From the beginning there was a lot of respect. The PIs had great human and professional qualities while remaining humble and responsive.”
Londoño-Cadavid opined that while it was motivating to RAs when the research team met with them face-to-face, some RAs would have appreciated more in-person interactions. Londoño-Cadavid also conveyed that RAs experienced some frustration with delays in payments, and that they occasionally had to pay out of their own pockets for the snacks and other items required for the qualitative research.
Londoño-Cadavid: “One complaint from many team participants was the delay in payment. Although we all knew that it did not depend on the PIs but on the red tape of the funding institution, many times RAs sent money from their personal account to help with tickets and snacks; and many times the PIs covered expenses while we awaited funds, which we greatly appreciated. Another was that many wanted more face-to-face meetings with the research team. It was always important and motivating when PIs came to the city and attended meetings.”
A more pressing concern for Londoño-Cadavid was the relationship with E&T, who had been hired to liaise with police departments. Arias explained that E&T had been hired to liaise with police leadership, and while they successfully secured agreement from top-level police leadership to provide the research team access to police departments, they were unable to secure a commitment to an advance schedule for the huge body of qualitative work. This left RAs with a great deal of work tracking down, and nailing down schedules with, the heads of 16 separate police departments—including determining the timing, location, and roster of police personnel for each of the 558 police-community meetings. While E&T indicated being willing to help manage some degree of communications with these 16 police departments, Londoño-Cadavid indicated that E&T did not follow through on this commitment.
Londoño-Cadavid: “E&T was the organization that opened the doors in Medellín and managed the permits, but as the project evolved, we did not count on their help. We never received a call and they never met with the team of RAs. The most important thing for research partnerships in the future to consider is to start with a well-established consulting company that can provide unconditional help.”
The Medellín, police-relations study provided a wealth of valuable insights for future research-practice partnerships.
An organically developed chain of command among RAs can create intrinsic motivation for them to take ownership of the project and rise up to managerial positions, but it can also leave gaps for PIs to fill in terms of RA management and coaching. As research teams think about striking the right balance between organic and rigid chains of command, they should consider the complexity of their projects, the benefits of providing RAs with a source of intrinsic motivation, and their own availability to (at least initially) take on managing and coaching.
If PIs seek to integrate qualitative work into their studies, they should consider mechanisms to provide RAs with both the training and structure needed to ensure fidelity to the intended treatment and the flexibility required to leverage on-the-ground expertise and rapport. Providing RAs with thorough and clear reporting requirements can assist PIs with making sense of the heterogeneity in the implementation of treatments. Ensuring RAs have discrete, well-defined deliverables can also help them manage the complexity of mixed methods research.
When PIs expect RAs to lead particularly multi-faceted projects, they should make themselves available via methods of constant contact such as WhatsApp, Skype, and email. Researchers may consider cycling points of contact to spread the time commitment associated with being available to RAs. They also may consider establishing specific points of contact between themselves and RAs to limit streams of communication and empower RAs to resolve issues locally, when feasible.
Face-to-face communications are critical to ensuring all members of the broader research team can work together cohesively. This may require not only ensuring that PIs meet RAs, but also ensuring that other service providers (such as liaisons with government entities and survey firms) interact face-to-face with the RAs to allay potential sources of friction and facilitate integrated teamwork.
When hoping to work with entities that face political challenges, PIs should anticipate that RAs may be tasked with overcoming a range of hurdles to ensure the project proceeds smoothly.
Building a team of independent RAs, particularly outside the US, presents tradeoffs which researchers should consider. On the one hand, researchers can hire RAs with the right skills while limiting overhead expenses. On the other hand, researchers should anticipate that their institutions may present bureaucratic hurdles to paying their overseas RA teams. Researchers should anticipate and prepare for these bureaucratic challenges.