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Public admin explainer: What is knowledge brokering?

5 September 2023

News and media


The Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and the Australian National University (ANU) have partnered to conduct a new research project to investigate the function and practices of knowledge brokering and how brokers can best promote collaboration for research-informed public sector decision making.

The project is being led by Dr Honae Cuffe, Professor Ariadne Vromen and Dr Patrick Brownlee. In this article Dr Cuffe explains how knowledge brokering works to cross institutional boundaries to connect research and practice and promote new approaches to evidence production and use.

Governments rely on access to, and the ability to use, rigorous evidence to solve policy problems and ensure public service institutions remain fit-for-purpose. Researchers and the public sector should be natural partners, but discrete cultural norms and institutional structures maintain a gap between the two which impedes decision-makers’ use of research evidence and the public value that flows from it.

It is within this gap that knowledge brokers operate. Knowledge brokers are the organisations and individual actors who connect research and practice to help them better understand one another and support knowledge exchange. In Australia and New Zealand, these brokers can sit within universities, government or independently (MacKillop et al., 2020; Bell and Head, 2017). They play a critical role by promoting the structural and behavioural changes necessary to build the knowledge networks and capabilities that support evidence-based decision making.

The research practice gap

As governments grapple with fiscal pressure, ‘wicked’ problems, and the growing demand for more complex, individualised services, access to rigorous evidence and evaluations is essential to ensuring efficient and effective policy and service delivery (Alford and O’Flynn, 2012; Cairney, 2016; Head, 2010). Programs of public sector reform underway in both Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia seek to embed research, evaluation and analytical capabilities within public services to ensure they can continue to provide independent and high-quality evidence-based advice to the government of the day. Despite this, the persistent and well-documented gap between research and practice remains a challenge in evidence-based decision-making.

This gap is not insurmountable, with several studies identifying considerable overlap between the two groups (Gunn and Mintrom, 2021; Newman et al., 2015). However, leveraging these commonalities is more than a simple matching exercise that puts the right evidence in front of the right audience. Instead, an evidence ecosystem needs to be in place.

An evidence ecosystem includes the multiple components – both structural and behavioural – necessary to generate, analyse and implement evidence within a system. It couples the mechanisms to connect researchers and practitioners with core research, evaluation and experimentation capabilities, to empower decision-makers to test new ideas and generate a pipeline of evidence about what works and why.

As the “human force behind knowledge transfer” (Ward et al., 2009, p. 268), knowledge brokers are both an element and enabler of the evidence ecosystem necessary for evidence-based decision making.


“I think there’s a need for organisations like [ours] to be that kind of trusted middle ground, that trusted advisor or partner that has an understanding of the policy context and also an understanding of the research world and … can speak both languages and interpret for either side. The two sides are generally aiming to achieve the same thing … they have the same goals [but] the way that they go about them is … vastly different.” – participant in the ANZSOG research project

The work of knowledge brokering

Knowledge brokers leverage their unique ability to understand the contexts and needs of both research and practice. The ability to “speak the languages of multiple parties” grants them the power to act “as a negotiator and translator…working to create equivalence in understandings” (Williamson and Leat, 2021, p. 6). As trusted intermediaries with skills in persuasion and navigating sectoral norms and assumptions, knowledge brokers can enable the reflexivity and innovative thinking necessary to promote new mindsets and approaches to evidence production and use (Isett and Hicks, 2020). Aggregated, knowledge brokering can contribute in supporting enduring, systems-level change.

There is no standard classification of the activities involved in brokering, however, the list compiled by the Canadian Health Services Foundation (2003, i) – an early example of a knowledge broker – provides a useful starting point:

  • Bringing people together to exchange information and work together;
  • helping groups communicate and understand each other’s needs and abilities;
  • pushing for the use of research in planning and delivering [policy and services and];
  • monitoring and evaluating practices, to identify successes or needed changes;
  • transforming management issues into research questions;
  • synthesising and summarising research and decision-maker priorities; and
  • ‘navigating’ or guiding through sources of research.

Knowledge brokering approaches are organised into three broad models:

Knowledge management addresses the technical divide between research and practice by “translating research and other evidence into different vocabularies” (Ward et al., 2009, p. 269) like summaries and slide decks, or helping practitioners to commission research by identifying and converting practice issues into research questions. These outputs prioritise accessible language and clear, actionable findings that help practitioners make quick, easy evidence-informed decisions.

Capacity building promotes knowledge exchange by identifying and addressing the necessary individual and organisational changes. Through bespoke education and training, knowledge brokers help practitioners to develop the skills to use research evidence in their day-to-day work, and researchers’ skills in communication and stakeholder engagement.

Linkage and exchange focuses on developing relationships and opportunities for collaboration (Orr and Bennett, 2012; Ward et al., 2009). Linkage and exchange emphasises mutual knowledge sharing, which “dissolves the boundary between producers and users – all forms of expertise … are considered valuable and contribute to knowledge production” (Phillipson and Liddon, 2007, p. 5).

Linkage and exchange gets to the core function of knowledge brokering: bringing parties together to share knowledge, develop new approaches to evidence production and use, and new ways of relating to one another. This makes knowledge brokering both a technical and relational exercise, both in terms of the relationships that are built and the new knowledge that can emerge in the process.

ANZSOG’s Research Model program is an example of linkage and exchange in practice. The Research Model, which draws on ANZSOG’s unique relationship with, and insight into, government, produces collaborative research which directly responds to the needs and priorities of the governments of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. Here, our network of university partners and the joint-funding model between ANZSOG and government provides the formal structures for engagement, promoting collaboration and literal buy-in in the design and delivery of research.

Where to next?

While there is certainly a case to be made for knowledge brokering, little is known about how it operates and the relative benefits and efficacy of different strategies. There is an operational and strategic imperative to better understand knowledge brokering to support our government partners to develop the knowledge networks and requisite skills and mechanisms for evidence-based practice.

ANZSOG is currently conducting research into effective knowledge brokering. This involves interviews with individuals with first-hand experience of brokering knowledge across the research-practice gap.

The research will help our understanding of how governments access and use research evidence and the requisite skills and mechanisms for knowledge exchange. This insight will inform good practice approaches to knowledge brokering, helping researchers and practitioners collaborate more effectively.

This project speaks to ANZSOG’s unique mission of enhancing knowledge of the key issues affecting government and supporting the development of high-quality policy advice and decision-making.



Alford J and O’Flynn, J (2012). Rethinking Public Service Delivery. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Cairney, P. (2016). The politics of evidence-based policymaking. London: Palgrave Pivo

Canadian Health Services Research Foundation. (2003). The theory and practice of knowledge brokering in Canada’s health system: A report based on a CHSRF national consultation and a literature review. https://www.ktpathways.ca/system/files/resources/2019-02/Theory_and_Practice_e.pdf

Gunn, A., & Mintrom, M. (2021) Where evidence-based policy meets research impact. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 80(3), 544–53. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8500.12499

Head, B. W. (2010). Public management research: Towards relevance. Public Management Review, 12(5), 571–85. https://doi.org/10.1080/14719031003633987

Isett, K. R., & Hicks, D. (2020). Pathways from research into public decision-making: Intermediaries as the third community. Perspectives on Public Management and Governance, 3(1), 45–58. https://doi.org/10.1093/ppmgov/gvz020

MacKillop, E., Quarmby, S., & Downe, J. (2020). Does knowledge brokering facilitate evidence-based policy? A review of existing knowledge and an agenda for future research, Policy & Politics, 48(2), 335–53. https://doi.org/10.1332/174426421X16445093010411

Newman, J., Cherney, A., & Head, B. W. (2015). Do policy makers use academic research? Re-examining the ‘two communities’ theory of research utilization. Public Administration Review, 76(1), 24–32. https://doi.org/10.1111/puar.12464

Orr, K., & Bennett, M. (2012) Public administration scholarship and the politics of coproducing academic-practitioner research. Public Administration Review, 72(4), 487–97. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6210.2011.02522.x

Phillipson, J., & Liddon, A. (2007). Common knowledge? An exploration of knowledge transfer. Rural Economy and Land Use Programme Briefing Series No. 6. Available at: http://www.relu.ac.uk/news/briefings/RELUBrief6%20Common%20Knowledge.pdf (accessed 5 June 2023)

Ward, V., House, A., & Hamer, S. (2009). Knowledge brokering: The missing link in the evidence to action chain? The Policy Press, 5(2), 267–79. https://doi.org/10.1332%2F174426409X463811

Williamson, A. K., & Leat, D. (2021). Playing piggy(bank) in the middle: Philanthropic foundations’ role as intermediaries. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 80(1), 965–976. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8500.12461