The power of plan B

16th June 2023

Authors: Jessica Sprague-Jones, Jacqueline Counts, Center for Public Partnerships and Research.

Part 4

We at the Center for Public Partnerships and Research, University of Kansas, have been successful getting many of our ideas implemented into practice and policy through collaboration with policymakers. In What they don’t teach you in school about working with policymakers, solutions need to be proposed without the safety of years of study and analysis. Third, it presumes that you get to call the shots and set the conditions, which is a very poor match for the actual landscape of policymaking. Finally, it’s extremely shortsighted and will fall short when that one future doesn’t happen. 

What differentiates our approach is that we understand the value of staying nimble, bringing multiple ideas and partial solutions, and being ready to communicate quickly with the best available information.

We start by gathering input. We read widely, scan outside of our subject-matter expertise, and consider a lot of perspectives.  A typical routine is having massive amounts of coffee, scanning newsletters, newspapers, social media, magazines, and playing with AI chats. When we get asked to write things—testimony, memos, briefs, talking points, grants—we go to this treasure trove to pull ideas and insert them as add-ons or conversation starters. Ninety percent of these ideas don’t go anywhere at first. The feedback (both positive and negative) is used to refine the approach, park it, or ditch.

Complex problems are best addressed by a multitude of partial solutions. We follow the Institute for the Future mantra of strong opinions, lightly held. We don’t focus on developing full-scale plans that solve everything. For example, right now we are taking advantage of heightened concern over childcare to develop multiple solutions to improve access, affordability, and caregiver retention. We’re investigating Michigan’s Tri-Share model and exploring how it could be applied elsewhere. We’ve developed models to understand the cost of quality care. We’re pursuing multiple avenues for making childcare provision a more attractive career choice through professional development and improved compensation. We’re developing new methods of community-driven problem-solving to get stakeholders collaborating for expanding childcare in their area. We do these things at the behest of partners, but often the original idea is something we are working on in the background – understanding the need, being on the lookout for good ideas, and tinkering with them just enough so that we have them in our back pockets and ready for an opportunity to present itself. 

When it comes to communication, we don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good and are ready to turn on a dime when there is interest. During the legislative session, requests for testimony or more information can happen less than 24 hours in advance. We recognise these as critical moments to influence policy. For us, this means it is worth it to prioritise these requests – even though it can (and does) wreak some havoc in our schedules. We are in this business to effect change, and we keep that at the center of how we prioritise our work. 

Policymakers want good information, but they generally understand that no information is perfect. Our job is getting them the best information we can when they need it. Too many researchers hold information back because they understand its flaws. The problem with this is that policymakers are not going to wait around for better data – they must act on the information they have. Holding out is usually abdicating your opportunity to influence. And, again, this presumes that what you have will dictate policy – once they have your perfect data everything will fall in line with your recommendations. That is not ever going to happen – and really should not happen. Your perspective can be good, needed, and important – but it isn’t the only one that should be considered. Democratic policymaking is noisy and full of interested parties trying to push and pull the end result. Our best outcome is to speak loudly enough to be heard and accounted for. 

The Center for Public Partnerships and Research specialises in systems change and in finding innovative solutions to complex social problems.

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This blog is part 4 of 4.


What they don’t teach you in school about working with policy makers

Read part 1 of the blog series.

Read here

The researcher-policymaker partnership

Read part 2 of the blog series.

Read here

Using strategic foresight to support policymaking

Return to read part 3 of the blog series.

Read here

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