“You have an opportunity to break through. But are you answering the questions they are asking?” – Bridget Lowell, chief communications officer, Urban Institute

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s recent Sharing Knowledge to Build a Culture of Health conference, Policies for Action grantees gathered for an exclusive training on sharing and promoting research, hosted by communications experts at the Urban Institute. The “Research to Policy Boot Camp” outlined fundamental policy impact strategies and emerging dissemination tactics to help our researchers ensure that their research gets in front of the right people, at the right time, in the right way. Materials from the workshop can be found here.

That day, we were also joined by a group of seasoned policymakers and staffers for a conversation about elevating evidence to inform policy debates. Here’s some of what we learned.

Pick up the phone

While early-career researchers may feel like they have a long road ahead before becoming a “go-to” resource for policymakers, building a reputation as a responsive, credible, politically-savvy expert starts now.

Seeking experts to help guide disaster recovery budget allocations after Hurricane Harvey, Joe Carlos Madden, chief of staff to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, started his search with the obvious: Google. And when he inevitably started cold-calling researchers, he asked this question:

“I’ve got a hyper-specific question tangentially related to your field. Can you help me find the answer?”

Inevitably, it was rare that a researcher could immediately answer that “hyper-specific question.” But the experts that Joe continues to call on (and refer to his colleagues) were the ones that said, “I don’t know. But I might know someone who might. And here’s what I do know.”

By being willing and available to help, these researchers took a major step to becoming a policymaker’s first call when a question comes up.

Recognize political constraints

Early in Elena Marks’ career as the director of Health and Environmental Policy for the City of Houston (she now serves as the president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation), she was working on updating a local smoking ban. She already knew the literature on second-hand smoke’s detrimental effects on health. But as a policymaker acutely attuned to her political environment, she also knew that a ban completely outlawing smoking would never fly. In her words,

“I can move the needle a little, or I can do nothing.”

So it was incredibly frustrating when researchers were oblivious to the political constraints she faced.  Suffice to say, those were not the researchers that Elena called upon in the future. Being cognizant of the political climate and working within these constraints is the only way to ensure you don’t alienate the policy actors that have the power to effect (often incremental) change.

Define the winners and losers

With any policy change, some people will make out better than others, and the financial ramifications can be drastic. Joe put it simply:

“If I spend a dollar here, it’s one less dollar I spend there.”

As Sherry Glied, whose previous role as the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation earned her a deep understanding of the intricacies of translating research into policy change, noted:

“The average experience could be nobody’s experience, and isn’t likely the experience of the person you’re talking to.”

In other words, it’s one thing to talk in probabilities and distributions; it’s another to clearly explain to a policymaker that a new law or policy change will help some people (e.g., residents of affordable housing) and hurt others (e.g., landlords who manage fewer than 10 properties).

Policymakers are accountable to their constituents; outlining the winners and losers of policy change helps policymakers proactively manage criticism and elevate the ways in which a policy promotes equity and improves health.

Will it work in my community?

Little by little, researchers and policymakers are working together to co-create, co-design, and co-learn. This starts with frank conversations identifying important questions and determining whether data exist to answer those questions. But doing the research isn’t the end of that journey. Policy implementation—and rigorous evaluation of that implementation—is also key.

For Tracy Wareing Evans, president and CEO of the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), that question of implementation is the most fundamental—and the most neglected:

“What actually makes the evidence-based intervention spread and scale? [Policymakers] need help understanding how to make it real in their own jurisdictions. If you can make that kind of connection, you’ll see a lot of uptake.”

Tracey did caution, however, that the typical multi-year timeframe for research is often incompatible with policymaking—especially for elected officials. Whenever possible, researchers should be sharing early learnings, including lessons from studies of implementation, to foster a culture of responsiveness and action.

Changing the conversation

For these policymakers, research is a critical building block of good policy. When the evidence is timely and relevant, and the researchers are credible and responsive, research can truly “change the nature of the conversation.”

  1. Be the person a policymaker wants to call when they need information.
  2. Recognize political constraints, and work within them (not against them).
  3. Name the winners and losers–and help policymakers calculate the real costs of policy change.
  4. Show how a policy could be implemented in a specific community (not just a  theoretical one). 

Policies for Action would like to extend its heartfelt thanks to Tracy Wareing Evans, Sherry Glied, Joe Carlos Madden, and Elena Marks for their insights and guidance. These are the kinds of conversations that help turn research into action.


Photo by Jillian West/Urban Institute

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