Case Study # 2: Institute of Gender and Health Strategic Plan Consultation

In 2008, CIHR's Institute of Gender and Health (IGH) engaged in a strategic planning process. The purpose of this process was to identify and describe strategic research directions for the Institute for the period from 2009 to 2012, and to identify possible opportunities for synergy. The strategic planning process was led by IGH's Scientific Director, Dr. Joy Johnson, and a strategic planning working group. They worked in collaboration with IGH's Institute Advisory Board and Institute staff members, under the guidance of process consultants Strachan-Tomlinson.

Consultations with stakeholders in the gender, sex, and health research community were an integral part of this process. IGH primarily targeted researchers during its consultation process, as they had the biggest stake in the Institute's strategic research directions and funding opportunities. However, IGH also consulted with citizens—namely, professional caregivers, advocates, representatives of affected communities, and voluntary health organizations. One important feature of this planning process was to define "expert input" as including citizen perspectives.

The Institute included citizens in its consultation process because the gender, sex, and health stakeholder community is large and diverse and encompasses both formal and informal aspects of the health care systems. It spans all four CIHR research pillars (clinical, biomedical, health services, and population health), a range of disciplines, and various types of research on the continuum from quantitative to qualitative; it also encompasses both theoretical and applied work. Given the breadth of this community, and the potential scope of topics and research processes that fall within the domain of gender, sex, and health research, it was essential that IGH engage in a strategic planning process with the capacity to capture a wide range of issues and perspectives.

IGH designed a national consultation process to achieve this aim. The process, which included approximately 250 stakeholders (in total) from every province and territory in Canada, comprised the following:

  • Face-to-face consultations with approximately 160 stakeholders in six communities (Vancouver, BC; Kelowna, BC; Calgary, AB; Toronto, ON; Montréal, QC; and Halifax, NS).
  • A focused consultation with 10 participants at the Canadian Conference on International Health in Ottawa, ON (countries represented were Canada, Australia, Thailand, and Nicaragua).
  • Videoconference consultations with approximately 25 stakeholders from St. John's, NL; Charlottetown, PE; Fredericton, NB; Edmonton, AB; and Saskatoon, SK.
  • Key informant interviews with 18 individuals from Canada and the United States. As IGH did not hold a focused consultation in Manitoba, a special effort was made to recruit four key informants from this province.
  • Written submissions solicited through an open call on IGH's listserv and website (nine received).
  • Community consultations with 32 stakeholders in Iqaluit, NU, Yellowknife, NT and Whitehorse, YT.

Consultations took place between May and November 2008. Participants included interested parties from academic institutions, the federal and provincial governments, CIHR, health and community organizations (local, national, and international), as well as individual researchers. Though researchers were the primary target population, citizens were included in the face-to-face consultations, the key informant interviews, and the community consultations in Canada's north. IGH also received several written submissions from interested citizens.

Consultation participants were asked to respond to open-ended questions on key trends and accomplishments in gender, sex, and health research, as well as to identify opportunities and areas where research investment was liable to have the greatest impact. After initial pilot-testing, IGH modified its protocol for the northern community consultations, as the region does not have the same research capacity or infrastructure as more populous southern regions. As such, community consultation participants were asked to frame their comments primarily in terms of key gender, sex, and health issues in their regions.

IGH staff members worked with external consultants and a professional writer to synthesize the notes from all of the consultations, interviews, and submissions into three reports: a report on the face-to-face and videoconference consultations, a report on the interviews and written submissions, and a report on the northern consultations. This structure was chosen because it enabled the reports to reflect the unique characteristics and outcomes of each consultation method.

These reports, as well as a set of background documents developed for the strategic planning process, were shared with IGH's Institute Advisory Board at a strategic planning workshop in November 2008. Information from the background documentation and consultations was reviewed and discussed, and consensus was achieved on six strategic research directions. Feedback on the strategic planning process indicated that IAB members appreciated this comprehensive approach to engaging both researchers and citizens in the Institute's planning process. They also recognized the importance of inclusive and precise definitions of "research" and "expert" in the context of this process.

Citizen engagement added depth and breadth to the knowledge gleaned from IGH's strategic planning process. Professional caregivers, advocates, and representatives of affected communities and voluntary health organizations brought an applied perspective to the consultations. Including this perspective enabled IGH's leadership to ground its strategic research directions in the experiences of those who care for, advocate on behalf of, or live with the health issues that form the core of IGH's 2009–2012 Strategic Plan. In addition, citizen engagement supports knowledge translation about both the planning process and the expectations that citizen engagement would help in implementing the plan. Those consulted made it clear that they valued understanding and contributing to the CIHR planning process, as well as their potential roles in supporting what happens next (e.g., communicating with their communities about potential funding opportunities).

It was sometimes challenging to extend the Institute's reach beyond its immediate community of researchers. For example, the IGH team members responsible for finding potential participants faced some difficulties in identifying non-researcher stakeholders. To address this challenge, these team members conducted focused Web searches and consulted with local experts. The size and diversity of IGH's potential community of interest meant that IGH team members had to be somewhat selective in determining which non-researcher stakeholders would be invited to the face-to-face consultations. In order to ensure that this process did not inadvertently exclude key interest groups, IGH posted an open call for written submissions on its website. This call was also disseminated through other means of communication, such as the website of the Canadian Women's Health Network.

Despite these challenges, the end result—a strategic plan with both theoretical and practical relevance, as well as potential community support for implementation—was well worth the effort.