2017 Pre-Conference Workshop
Policy Engagement: Building Relationships and Partnerships for Long-Term Impact
The 2017 pre-conference workshop provided researchers an intensive, interactive program for building partnerships between scholars, civic intermediaries and policymakers. Avi Green and Hannah Reuter from the Scholars Strategy Network led six modules focused on legislator perspectives, establishing relationship networks and the various roles of scholars in policymaking.
Green and Reuter were joined by panelists Thomas Little, Director, Curriculum Development and Research, State Legislative Leaders Foundation; Jennifer Seelig, former Democratic legislator in Utah and lobbyist; and Steve Anderson, former Republican Floor Leader in Illinois.
Do you want to be an educator or an advocate?
The role a scholar can play in policymaking varies widely. The neutral educator provides data to inform policymakers, but avoids advising on policy goals or votes. This role can serve as an intermediary, or information broker, in a bipartisan and non-partisan way between legislators and researchers.
By contrast, a research director at a think tank may be an advocate for specific policy goals. This role may build partnerships toward intentional action. Researchers must decide what role to fill and what relationships to strengthen. It’s the difference between a professional partnership and a professional exchange.
“Policymakers sometimes have a culture of using research, and sometimes they don’t,” said Green. “The easiest thing you can do in building research-practice partnerships is to find policymakers who are already using research.”
The representation of evaluation varies by role as well. “There’s a difference between evaluation from an academic perspective verses evaluation from a policy perspective,” Green added.
Perspectives from Policymakers
The challenge as advocates and researchers is communicating with policymakers. Researchers will not get a lot of face time, and legislators often won’t remember the interaction – legislatures may work through thousands of bills per term. Create a message that tells a story.
“As an elected official, time is congruent with your length of office,” Seelig said of legislators. “The clock is ticking all of the time.” Researchers must gain the trust of legislators. In the political arena, trust is paramount.
“Don’t leave out the qualitative,” Seelig said. “You need to have the story. How will this impact people on a day-to-day basis?” For legislators, all politics are local. They want to know three things: how is this going to affect me, my state and my voters? Researchers should utilize town meetings or local blogs, paying attention to what politicians are talking about daily.
“Policymakers are not going to be impressed by big words, and frankly they are not going to be impressed by titles, either,” Little said. Sophisticated statics will not impress. Avoid “research-splaining,” said Green. “You should be able to describe what you do to someone with a seventh-grade education. You must take the time to prepare in this way to encourage evidence-based policy.”
There are two people you need to focus on reaching as an advocate, said Anderson: The legislative proponent and opponent. They will be debating the bill so invest time with those two people. Create a message they can use. And make sure to include a concrete “ask,” even if it doesn’t advocate for a specific vote.
As a scholar, utilize partnerships with civic intermediary organizations. These groups can help connect specific policy with the data and researchers. They have staff and resources to move policy goals forward. Local community groups are an additional resource in terms of research and stories.
During discussion, a question from the audience flipped the scenario: Are there times when legislators are looking for experts (rather than experts looking for legislators to push policy)? One way to market yourself as a content expert of issue area is to create newsletters and issue sheets – be sure to include contact information, said Seelig. Build those relationships during the slow time, because when a legislator needs information, they will need it quickly.
Position yourself so that they will call you, Little added. If they want to know more, they will ask.
Thank you to the workshop organizers: Scholars Strategy Network and the William T. Grant Foundation.
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