Building Internal Staff Capacity (Skill Set/Qualifications)

It is essential for an agency leader to build the capacity of agency personnel to conduct external research and generate internal research to identify best practices in child welfare. Agency leaders can achieve this by recruiting and training qualified workers with experience in conceptualizing, designing, planning and conducting empirical research in human services. This provides the agency with the knowledge and motivation to conduct its own studies and effectively integrate the findings into its work with children and families. Having a background in social work is not a prerequisite given that an understanding of the child welfare field may not take as long as developing good research and statistical skills.


A strong information management and technology division is fundamental to basic research. In addition, an internal researcher with a PhD or equivalent experience is essential for understanding and overcoming the research challenges that arise in conducting, contracting for, interpreting and communicating about research. The agency leader should assess the internal capacity for conducting research, both currently and potentially, in order to:

  • Review research proposals for relevance to agency mission.
  • Develop and monitor confidentiality agreements and contracts with researchers. Advise study design and develop hypotheses.
  • Serve as the link with external researchers -- know what data already exists. 
  • Assist program administrators in better specifying and refining research questions.

When internal capacity is built and research is conducted in-house, there is a greater chance that the findings will be responsive to the research interests of the agency and that the results will be used to inform policy, program and practice. The internal agency staff can:

  • Identify needs and interests of the agency and those of the partner and start with those that are of mutual interest. 
  • Identify whether or not research can be accomplished without seeking additional funds.
  • Keep the research connected to the agency’s overall goals and objectives and the research priorities.

Data Collection

Several dynamics in data collection must be considered to fully support the agency’s research plan. Accurate data collection is critical to all research programs, monitoring and longitudinal studies.


Some overall data collection activities can benefit from the use of administrative data currently being collected by states. However, states have challenged the reliability of the data collected from state information management systems. One shortcoming of using these systems as the primary administrative data collection tool is the narrow perspective of the data collected, meaning the system is primarily populated with data filtered by the public child welfare workers as well as by staff in contract agencies. The need for more accurate data and better reliance on the child welfare worker requires broadening the scope to include gathering information from a variety of sources.


Some states (e.g., Illinois and Washington) have begun using surveys to gather information directly from children, parents, teachers, foster care providers and child welfare workers. This provides a more objective and varied source of information and is a great complement to administrative data. Integration of data from other sources of information about the life course of children involved with child welfare services can also be very helpful. Important studies have been done that link child welfare case records to special education, juvenile justice, mental health, health, criminal justice and vital statistics (e.g., births and deaths). Some states routinely link many of these sources of information whereas other states have no such capacity and have many barriers to

overcome before such linkages are realized.


Strategic Partnerships

If an agency cannot build sufficient internal capacity to execute the research plan beyond monitoring and reporting functions, the director will need to develop partnerships with local universities or research organizations. Potential partners may include universities, for profits, non profits, internal teams and other third parties. Agencies should know and understand what to look for in a strategic partnership. A good review process should be in place to have a basis for evaluating the partnership. In the review process, an agency leader will also want to consider the following as they pertain to the research activity:

  • Cost
  • Independence / Perceived Independence 
  • Influence / Perceived Influence 
  • Usefulness / Perceived Usefulness

Additional considerations when exploring the possibility of a partnership to conduct research include:

  • What is the level of research expertise of potential partners and what is their topical knowledge and interest in policy, program and practice implications of research?
  • What are some of the external resources for research, such as partnerships with research centers or universities, Title IV-E contracts, etc?
  • What are the pros and cons of partnerships? Integrity, Increased credibility, Authenticity?
  • Do a research partner’s contributed resources outweigh possible shortfalls when it comes to conducting sensitive and sophisticated child welfare research?

Agencies may also experience these possible “downsides” to outsourcing research:

  • Research designs that are not appropriate or feasible to implement.
  • Poorly constructed research instruments.
  • Inexperience in using administrative data.
  • Lack of understanding of public agency’s programs and operations.

The Washington State Institute of Public Policy evaluates costs and benefits of programs and examines whether a program’s benefits are likely to outweigh the costs. The institute applies common research methodologies and allows an “apples to apples” comparison. More information on the institute’s work in this area can be found here:


Work done by the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research, funded by Casey Family Programs, includes many important observations from academics and agency partners about how to maximize the utility of agency-university partnerships. It is a valuable resource for agencies considering developing a collaborative relationship with a university, and discusses ways of working with external entities:


The IRB Process

Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are used to assure the protection of participants in a research study and are an important factor when implementing the agency’s research strategy. IRBs assure that studies maximize benefit and minimize risk to all participants. The ethical guidelines built in to most IRBs rely on three core ethical principles: respect for persons, beneficence and justice. It is important for all partners and stakeholders working with the agency to understand the IRB process. For many local child welfare agencies, collaborating with a university in this process can be beneficial. Federal guidelines do not provide specific limitations in this process and oftentimes are interpreted differently. For example, through a university partnership in the IRB process, a local agency leader may find help in thinking through what some of the ramifications of asking sensitive questions will be.


The responsibility of the IRB is to create a balance between "legal" and "ethical" reasoning approaches to safeguarding the rights and welfare of participants. This role is complicated when social inequalities prevail, such as inadequate health care provision or social systems that fail to respect human rights. Institutional review processes, therefore, need to develop new ways to recognize and strengthen the engagement of individuals, groups and communities, whom thus far have only viewed as candidates for protection


At the end of the day, research partners want to be sure that the research is helping the agency by identifying problems and providing evidence-informed and evidence-based solutions and unbiased findings. Once community partners are clear that the

human subject issues have been addressed, they can promote the research project with greater confidence.

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