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Case study: CRN Kent, Surrey & Sussex brings research culture to Kent County Council

Much of the responsibility for public health sits with local authorities, not the NHS, and it is essential that local councils have the research support they need, says Lindsay Forbes

Clinical Research Network Kent Surrey & Sussex (CRN KSS) is working closely with Kent County Council to support and promote the use of research in public health policy development and practice.

A research team, supported by CRN KSS funding, is supporting local government officers, helping them develop their own research capacity and building organisational capability for evidence-based practice.

Lindsay Forbes, Professor of Public Health at the University of Kent and advisor to Kent County Council is overseeing the CRN’s involvement with the council. She says that councils need to carry out research to build the evidence base for what works and doesn’t work in terms of improving the health of their communities’.

“Since 2012, the responsibility for public health has sat with local government, rather than the NHS,” she says. “For example, responsibility for tackling obesity, creating healthy environments or tackling drug and alcohol problems. Local government is best placed to tackle these huge health challenges.”

“Finding solutions for problems such as these requires solid evidence, and the role of CRN KSS is to bring our research expertise into the council, enabling the organisation to carry out the research required.

Whether through schools, highways and infrastructure projects, open spaces and leisure centres, or even the approach to tackling crime, local council decision-making has huge implications for public health.

However, the research activity is not widespread, and less well funded than other areas, and often not central to policy-making. Lindsay says that the CRN KSS funding is helping Kent County Council to develop the research capability it needs. And she says there is a lot that can be learned from the NHS.

“There was a time when evidence-based practice was not the main driver behind clinical decision-making in the NHS, but over time it has become a guiding principle. That is what we want to develop in local government,” she says.

While the NHS has stronger links to academia and a growing culture of research-based decision-making, local government has a completely different structure, working culture and policy drivers.

“One obvious and important difference between the two is that local governments are democratic organisations,” says Lindsay. “The decision-making processes, and the funding model are entirely different. So it is important that we support them in developing a research culture that suits them.”

The team has provided support to three council officers wishing to apply for research fellowships, and has supported the development of a number of applications for external research funding. This kind of support is important in building a sustainable research culture within the organisation. But more practical and immediate project support is also underway.

For instance, Lindsay’s team has been working as a collaboration partner with the Kent and Medway Violence Reduction Unit (a collaboration between Kent County Council and Kent Police), investigating the links between violent crime and public health.

“People who commit violent crime are so often traumatised people themselves,” she says. “When you start to consider how best to prevent violent crime, manage high-risk young people, and decide what services need to be in place to help them, public health issues are high on the list.

“How do you motivate young people? How do you help to build their skills and their self-esteem? We find that there are very important mental health issues at play here. But at the moment there really is very little hard evidence out there telling us what works.

“As a researcher, it is incredibly exciting to be working in a field where so little research has been done previously, compared with many areas of health research,” she says. “To be working on a project with the potential to make a difference is a real privilege.”

This is just one of a number of projects that are being worked on in Kent County Council, the results of which will certainly be of interest to local government organisations around the UK. With neighbouring Medway Council currently competing for an NIHR Health Determinants Research Collaborations grant, this is just the beginning for health and care research in the Kent, Surrey and Sussex region’s local government organisations.