The researcher-policymaker partnership
16th June 2023
Authors: Jessica Sprague-Jones, Jacqueline Counts, Center for Public Partnerships and Research.
We at the Center for Public Partnerships and Research, University of Kansas, have built long-term relationships with state agencies that have weathered changes in political leadership and agency administrations. In What they don’t teach you in school about working with policymakers, we shared four lessons for how researchers can more effectively influence policy. Here, we share our experience developing intimate knowledge of our partners’ contexts and needs through long-term relationship building.
Our relationships with our partners are foundational to our work. Regardless of the service we are offering them, we begin with understanding our partner’s context, needs, and priorities, and closely monitor how they change over time– while all the while keeping in mind where we’d like to go. This is especially true for our partners who are most actively engaged in making and influencing policy. We communicate regularly to understand timing, changing opportunities, and key pieces of information that will help move conversations forward.
Through these trusting relationships, we get a lot of critical feedback on what ideas are conversation-enders. Sometimes this is at the level of terminology, and sometimes it’s just an idea that has not yet found its moment. This is valuable information to receive. We cannot all be native speakers of state political discourse – it is amazing how often we inadvertently use a term that to us seems neutral or positive but is completely toxic to the intended audience. Creating better conditions for children and families is a goal that a lot of people of different political persuasions share. To be able to make progress, we need to build on that shared interest, not torpedo it by calling attention to the ideas we don’t agree on.
Likewise, our partners give us helpful feedback on what is persuasive. The policy-relevant materials we create must be succinct. The information we get from our partners about what policymakers value or need to better understand is critical both to how we develop our materials and, more fundamentally, the direction of our research. This willingness to take an iterative approach to the kinds of evidence we find and build is at the heart of what makes us effective in supporting policymakers. We act as knowledge brokers. Our job is not to be an expert in a single substantive area, or method of analysis, or even discipline. Our job is to be an expert at finding and applying solid research and tractable solutions to the problems at hand. We try to find the best information, and make recommendations clearly, knowing that we share with our partners and audiences a fundamental understanding that all plans are contingent – just because we put an idea on paper does not mean it will be adopted whole cloth.
Credibility is key to the researcher-policymaker relationship. Our value is in our expertise and our ethical commitment to representing empirical realities. Most researchers understand and value that role, but where they usually misfire is how they try to convey that credibility. Academics are trained for deep expertise, and to document the minutia of their methodological choices. This kind of information is critical for an academic audience that will use it to evaluate the quality of the research, as well as the finding. To non-academic audiences, this same transparency can read exactly the opposite, looking like a lack of clarity or even obfuscation. Many short research briefs devote most of the space to methodological choices and caveats to interpretation, to the point that it is difficult to find the result. We find that a general audience often trusts us to have done the work well without knowing all the details – and that those details actually engender some mistrust, like you’re trying to hide what you want to say, or you maybe aren’t really saying anything at all. We need to stand ready to provide the methodological details for those who want it, rather than leading with them and burying the “so what”.
Ultimately, influencing policy is a partnership between people who are experts on policymaking context and people who are experts at finding and understanding research. It requires deep knowledge of the policymaking context, which changes rapidly. Building and maintaining trusting relationships with people who make and influence policy is the only way to stay on top of it.
The Center for Public Partnerships and Research specialises in systems change and in finding innovative solutions to complex social problems.
This blog is part 2 of 4.
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