Looking back on the early history of the UK Implementation Society 2014 to 2021: how it all began

Outgoing Chair and founder of The UK Implementation Society, Dr Deborah Ghate, reflects on the history of the Society and her time as Chair.

In September 2021 I stepped down after more than seven years as Chair of the UK Implementation Society. It has been quite a journey, from the early days when nobody much recognised the term ‘implementation’ as a field in its own right. Today, although there is much scope to develop, we do have a flourishing and growing professional community of implementation scientists, consultants, researchers and practitioners.

Here, with prompting from the UK-IS board to capture some of the early history of the Society for posterity, I reflect a little on how we got here.

In 2013 I had recently returned to London from an exciting job setting up the Centre for Effective Services in Dublin and Belfast. During its first three years, CES effectively became the first implementation support centre in Europe, funded by a visionary partnership between the Irish government and a philanthropy to provide the children’s and community services sector with evidence-based implementation support.

My time there coincided with a period of unprecedented international growth in interest in a new field, which was becoming known as ‘implementation science and practice’ (ISP). Of course, it wasn’t really a ‘new’ field: ‘extension’ sciences in the US, providing science-based outreach to rural farming communities; international development; some branches of health sciences; and global prevention science for vulnerable families and communities had already been travelling this path for some years. But the effort to integrate the learning across multiple disciplines, to distil out general principles that cut across different fields of invention, and to take seriously the issue of how to get the science into actual practice behaviour at the front line: that was innovative. By that time I had spent two decades of my career as an evaluation researcher in the field of child and family services. More often than one would have liked, the hard work boiled down to massaging positive learning out of depressingly familiar outcome results, for disappointed funders and disheartened practitioners. The message was usually best summarised as ‘a good idea, badly operationalised and therefore poorly delivered’. It felt as if we had - at last! - found a better lens through which to scrutinise the infinitely challenging world of designing and delivering more effective services. Finally, research-minded practitioners and practice-minded researchers had found a bridge to reach each other over an increasingly frustrating divide. We had become obsessed with ‘outcomes-led’ thinking, but had failed to realised that good outcomes only follow from good implementation.

Returning to work in England after my time in Ireland, and finding nowhere that could employ me to develop implementation research and evidence-based consultancy for real-world practice in England, I set up the Colebrooke Centre for Evidence and Implementation in London and began to scour the rest of the UK for like-minded colleagues. It proved slow work: I found there was plenty of interest, although very few people identified themselves at that time as ‘implementation professionals’. People were scattered round the country; everyone felt a sense of being in a minority and isolated from others with similar interests. Something more proactive was needed to create a way for people to find each other.

So, the Colebrooke Centre convened two meetings, reaching out to as wide a group as possible. A diverse and distinguished group of health and social science professionals, policy makers, practice leaders and students responded to the invitation, from all over the country. Over the course of 2013, this ‘founders’ group had two large and lively meetings at the Nuffield Foundation in London. We quickly agreed that there was indeed an appetite to form a community to share learning and raise awareness about implementation, and the UK Implementation Network was born. It was launched in 2014 with a reception at the Royal Society of Arts, courtesy of a grant from the Sir Halley Stewart Trust in Scotland and from the Colebrooke Centre in London.

UK-IN Launch Event 2014
UK-IN Launch Event 2014

Over the next few years, the Network met, organised workshops on implementation science in practice, started producing a regular bulletin (Implementation Knowledge and News, edited now by Andrew Walker), drafted some gateway resources, and gradually coalesced into something that felt like it had an identity. Since then, we have hosted many well-attended events and meetings in London, Scotland and York, all funded entirely by member subscriptions and the proceeds of these self-organised events, supported by practical help donated by members and Board members.

Implementing Evidence in Practice Workshop with Melanie Barwick - Implementation Week 2019
Implementing Evidence in Practice Workshop with Melanie Barwick - Implementation Week 2019

Early help to manage the administrative systems was kindly given from various sources including students at the Centre for Evidence Based Intervention in Oxford, as well as Colebrooke staff and Board. The transition to a professional administrator for UK-IS, in the person of Penny Matthews, has been a huge step forward and we’ve benefited hugely from Penny’s patience and hard work, not least in re-organising and managing our website www.ukimplementation.org.uk and Members’ Directory.

Constitution as a charitable incorporated organisation seemed a logical next step in 2017, together with a name-change to The UK Implementation Society. Formal establishment around detailed terms of reference allowed us to develop clear governance structures and to work towards sustainability. The Board of Trustees continues to refresh itself, yet it’s remarkable that some of those currently on the Board - Annette Boaz, Tom Jefford, Claire Burns in particular - were there at those first meetings in the Nuffield Foundation in 2013 and have been stalwart supporters throughout. We also now have clear mechanisms for linking with our colleagues in the European Implementation Collaborative and an observer, Alex Ziemann, who sits on the UK-IS Board for that purpose. The Society recently agreed to work more closely with the Ireland and Northern Ireland implementation network. We have strong links to the UK’s only annual national implementation research conference at Kings College London through our Board member Nick Sevdalis, and jointly host the small but hopefully growing UK Implementation Week each year in the summer. We have links into practice in health and social care through Andrew Walker at the Health Innovation Network and Emma Ross in Leeds City Council children’s services. Past Board members Tracey Bywater and Dez Holmes also gave time and effort to the Society’s establishment; and special thanks go to distinguished international colleagues Allison Metz and Melanie Barwick who at no cost to the Society came across the Atlantic to give talks and workshops to our members. I will certainly miss working with all these good people.

I’m proud too of the Society’s explicit focus on cross-disciplinarity and cross-sectoral reach across research and practice - what could be more important for the healthy and practical development of this field? It makes it very hard to gain outside funding (outside funders, despite what they may say, prefer organisations and projects that fit into neater boxes than UK-IS does) – but the Board has always believed that this unique facet of our work is one of its most important assets.

As I hand over the chair to a new champion, I hope that UK-IS grows and gathers strength and contributes to add value to a field that still has lower profile than it ought: goodness knows, the world needs competent implementers as much as it has ever done.

© UK Implementation Society, 2021

All views expressed are the author's own and not those of The UK Implementation Society.

Recent Posts