Making Evidence Matter: Tips for Researchers
Today’s policymakers continually grapple with increasingly complex, high-stakes problems. They are inundated with persuasive information from stakeholders, special interest groups, and political leaders. What many policymakers don’t have enough of is accessible, objective, and trustworthy evidence to inform decision making when it counts most. Earlier, I described some challenges in linking evidence to policymaking.
But what can researchers do to help overcome these challenges? Below are a few tips based on lessons I’ve learned.
Make it matter to them
Policymakers don’t have time for information that isn’t relevant to their problems of the day. Capturing their attention often requires that you tell them up front why they should care and how your information will affect their near-term agenda. Here are a few questions to consider: Will the evidence you present inform a vote on active legislation? Is it relevant to a decision about renewal or redesign of a program about to expire? Does it provide compelling evidence to back up the policymaker’s position? Does it impact his or her constituents?
Make it timely
Evidence is most useful when a topic is actively being debated and when it is delivered before policy decisions are made. When possible, gather information about policymakers’ foreseeable political timelines and create synergies with your research timelines. This approach to planning, together with use of research designs that enable rapid-cycle feedback, will better ensure that results can be available when they are most useful.
Get right to the point
Policymakers and their staff are busy. Their days are packed with meetings, their email inboxes are overflowing, and their phones ring off the hook. Capturing and keeping their attention can be challenging, so get to the point quickly. Use simple, clear language and easy-to-interpret graphics. Do your research and know who you’re talking to so you can customize what information you share and how you share it based on how much they already know. If policymakers are new to a topic, stick to the basics. If they’re already well versed in the subject, move quickly to the more nuanced points. And don’t worry about leaving some information out. If you’ve captured their attention, there will be opportunities to follow up.
Policymakers are quick to assign researchers to a political or partisan category and to filter their research accordingly. If you want policymakers to listen with open ears, you must gain their trust. That means presenting the problem, findings, and recommendations in a way that is politically neutral. This doesn’t necessarily preclude you from presenting a point of view. But if you do, make sure you’re transparent about the viewpoint’s strengths and weaknesses, remember to present the counter argument, and be aware of and sensitive to the potential perceptions others might have when viewing your work through a political or partisan lens. A strategy that has worked well for me is to identify politically astute colleagues and to ask them to check my slide decks, verbal remarks, and written documents for potential bias to ensure that I present an objective presentation of findings and recommendations.
Don’t sell your expertise short
Researchers often make the mistake of presenting themselves as experts on discrete studies or narrow research questions. In fact, most researchers have much broader subject matter expertise. When possible, let policymakers know that you’re available for consultation as a subject matter expert. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to every question. You can always make a friendly referral to a colleague or, if you can spare the time, do some quick evidence collection on a policymakers’ behalf to help build confidence.
Stay in touch
Building relationships with policymakers can help promote open and ongoing communication that will give researchers a receptive audience to share new evidence. When appropriate, ask policymakers about research topics that interest them, let them know what you’re working on, and work with your government affairs team to send them the release along with a note when findings are public. By keeping them in the loop early and often, you’re more likely to face a receptive audience when the time comes to release your results.
Make your research accessible
We all know that most policymakers don’t download literature reviews, and few regularly peruse academic journals. If you want your research to be used, you need to make it easily available to your target audience. Publishing on your organization’s websites and distributing your publications on social media can break down significant barriers to access because the findings can be more easily uncovered through simple Internet searches. Producing fact sheets and executive summaries makes review of key information easy for busy readers. And don’t hesitate to send your evidence directly to their inboxes or pick up the phone and give them the citations they need.
Researchers eager to bring evidence to policymakers should tailor their communications to the unique needs of this audience, be assertive, and build trusting partnerships. Ideal relationships will enable ongoing evidence sharing and dynamic, objective communication. My future entry will provide tips for policymakers eager to better use evidence for their decision making.