Multisectoral scientific and policy networks - where the twain shall meet: Social networks and the brokerage opportunities of universities

Nasreen Jessani, Carly Babcock, Sameer Siddiqi, Akshara Valmeekanathan, Brenton Ling, Melissa Davey-Rothwell, David Holtgrave


Background: Academia – Schools Public Health (SPH) in particular – have an important role in ensuring opportunities for policy influence are realized through multi-sectoral partnerships. Relationships between academic faculty and decision-makers have been documented as an important factor in the evidence-to action process. However, knowledge about the breadth, depth and quality of these relationships often remains unknown therefore rendering the potential for multisectoral influence untapped, inefficient, uncoordinated or redundant. We sought to explore and understand the composition of faculty-government networks at a large SPH in the USA. Innovative approaches for measuring network metrics and understanding the nature of relationships was required. Particular attention was paid to partnerships peripheral to the health sector that impacted health policies and programs. Methods: Between May-December 2016, 211/ 627 (34%) of eligible full-time faculty participated in a sociometric survey eliciting relationships with decision-makers at city, state, federal and global levels. Traditional measures for network metrics using Social Network Analysis (SNA) required amendment due to the unique approach to the relationships. This was complemented by interviews with 52 faculty and 24 government decision-makers (Nov 2017-Feb 2018) exploring the nature of partnerships that resulted in multisectoral interventions to improve health. Findings: Relationships spanned over 100 government departments at city, state, national, and international levels, close to 700 individual decision-makers, and 45 country governments. These included Departments of Health, Education, Social services, Police, Fire, Planning, Public works, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy etc.. Engagement also included the private sector, media, and advocacy coalitions. Factors affecting network metrics included structural, topical, personal and experiential aspects. Examples of effective partnerships underscored the importance of trusting relationships, a mutually beneficial agenda, overcoming political and structural challenges to interagency collaborations, and creative approaches to financing. Conclusion: The unique role of SPHs in engaging in multisectoral activities to advance public policy cannot be emphasized enough. A mixed-methods approach using SNA as well as interviews can provide insight into an institution’s networks, as well as its overall potential to influence policy and practice across sectors. Given the complexities of each sector and the agencies within, creative means of approaching each partnership can yield encouraging results.

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