The CES Guide to: Working with Peer Researchers

Peer researchers have a unique, insiders’ perspective which can help to shed new light on a policy or service challenge.

In a previous CES Guide, we looked at inclusive ways to involve people and communities meaningfully in the decision making that affects their lives. Hearing the voice and lived experience of citizens and service users is an increasing priority in the design, implementation and evaluation of policy and services. Some communities and individuals experience difficulties in contributing their views, and may be less inclined to participate in research and evaluation activities.  

Peer research is a participatory methodology which involves people with lived experience of an issue in designing, conducting and analysing research and evaluation activity. Peer researchers or ‘community researchers’ are usually members of the community that’s being researched or users of the service that is being evaluated. Peer researchers have a unique, insiders’ perspective which can help to shed new light on a policy or service challenge.  

This guide primarily draws on our experience of working with peer researchers in the context of evaluating two services for children and young people in Northern Ireland. These evaluations featured an educational programme for children and young people in foster care, and an independent guardian service for separated or trafficked young people. For both projects, CES recruited young people as peer researchers to support evaluation activities and worked with other stakeholders to identify and support them.

In recent years peer research has grown in use across a range of settings in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including justice, housing, and youth services. While there are obvious benefits to this approach, it’s also important to plan and put things in place before you start.    

Why use peer research?

Peer research can benefit research and evaluation projects in different ways. Here are some of the reasons why you might use it:

Peer researchers can provide access to peer knowledge and experience. A peer researcher has an insider’s perspective of the issue being researched. This means they are more likely to know what questions should be asked and be able to advise on the most appropriate and accessible language to use in surveys or interviews.

Peer research can support the meaningful involvement of those who are likely to be affected by any actions or changes brought about by the research being carried out. Peer researchers can draw on their networks and experience to involve research participants. Participants may also be more comfortable engaging with a peer researcher, which can enhance the quality of the data collected.  

Peer research can offer personal and professional development opportunities. Participating as a peer researcher can provide for personal and professional development through confidence building, training, and work experience. We know from our experience working with peer researchers that individuals value the opportunity to share their voice and expertise and to advocate for others with similar experiences.

What should you consider when involving peer researchers?

You can work with peer researchers in different ways. The Wellesley Institute’s working paper on approaches to Peer Research describes three broad models of peer research:

The models sit on a power sharing continuum with the advisory model reflecting more of a consultative approach. The partner model on the other end of the scale gives more power to peer researchers to make decisions and direct the research.

It can be easy to assume that the optimum approach is the ‘partner model’ which gives peer researchers greater power and influence in shaping the research. However in our experience, it is important to consider a range of factors when choosing your approach, including:

  • the scope of the study
  • the circumstances of peer(s), including their interest and capacity to invest time and take on particular roles in the research
  • the timeframe and resources available for the project.

 If you are thinking about involving peer researchers, then consider the following:

The need to secure adequate resources including sufficient time, money, staff, and training to ensure peer researchers are fully equipped to engage in the research. Training could include anything from analysing survey responses, facilitating focus groups and data collection. It is also important to consider suitable forms of remuneration for peer researchers.

Peer researchers may require additional support to manage the emotional and practical investment needed to undertake the role. Issues and experiences shared by research or evaluation participants could contribute to secondary or indirect trauma for a peer researcher. Research teams should anticipate the types of issues which could arise and plan the provision of appropriate support. In our experience, we found partnership with an independent advocacy organisation extremely helpful in supporting us to support the young people involved.

Learning from experience: three takeaways for working with peer researchers.

In reflecting on our experience, we thought the following points were important to consider in order to manage expectations for everyone involved in the evaluation.

  1. Explore the possibility of co-designing the role with peer researchers, including as far as possible, all relevant stakeholders. In our experience the role of the peer researcher was predetermined, however there is value in adopting an inclusive co-design approach from the earliest stage in a research project or evaluation.
  2. At project initiation stage discuss and agree the level of involvement that peer researchers will have at each stage of the project. It is important that all relevant stakeholders are in agreement on this issue to avoid confusion, disappointment or delays.
  3. There are important ethical considerations such as confidentiality and anonymity that must be factored in when planning peer research involvement. For example, in smaller communities there is a greater likelihood that participants will know the peer researchers personally. This may present challenges, particularly if the research involves the disclosure of experiences of complex trauma.

When planned and implemented well, peer research can yield important new insights for policymakers, research and evaluation commissioners, as well as shifting the balance in research to a more inclusive ethos of co-production.

Want to talk to CES about a project? Book a call with the team here.

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