When Less is More: Advice on Getting Research into the Hands of Policymakers

Behind the loud and often garrulous rhetoric of politicians and pundits lies a quiet pipeline of information that flows from the research world to the people making policy decisions in state and federal offices. The staffs of senators’ offices, the long-time bureaucrats at the Department of Justice or the Department of Health and Human Services, or the communications staff of major committees on the Hill all need information they can trust in order to formulate the policies that shape and support our society.

So how do policymakers find that information, and what is the most effective way to reach them? For insights, we talk with John Hutchins, communications director at MDRC, a research organization that for the past 37 years has developed and evaluated education and social programs, from workforce development to education reform to family and child well-being.

Researchers in universities or think tanks or institutes like MDRC are doing critical work on many topics. Their insights and information could help inform many policies and programs. Yet often that research never leaves the so-called ivory tower. What can researchers do to reach broader audiences and have a greater impact with their work?

John Hutchins: In a nutshell, communicating effectively is a combination of defining the research projects so they are relevant to policies at hand and then carefully communicating the results in a way that makes sense to the audience you want to reach.

So the first challenge is, at the front end of the research process, to define your research to answer questions policymakers are seeking answers for. If what you’ve found is not relevant, even the best-communicated research won’t get much play.

On the back-side, it’s all about presentation, and we talk about this a lot at MDRC. The way that research papers are organized to appeal to fellow researchers is exactly backwards to how policymakers want information. In a research paper, researchers lay out the research questions, follow it with a literature review of all the research that has come before this study, they then talk about the methodology used, they then spend some time discussing the caveats of why their research isn’t perfect, and then maybe describe the sample and add a few more caveats and then discuss their findings, and then end with the conclusion that more research is needed.

But what policymakers want to know is, What is the bottom line? What problem can you help me solve? How does it fit into the current policy context, and how much does the intervention cost to get the bang that you’re describing?

And they want this in a page or less.

What communications tools are most effective in reaching broader audiences?

Policymakers and other decision-makers want short and sweet written content– one-pagers, short executive summaries with nice graphics. Those then become the basis for other publications.

We write long reports as well as the short pieces culled from those longer reports. We’re trying to appeal to a wide range of different audiences (fellow researchers as well as policy sorts), so we try to create different types of products for the various audiences. These might include a 50-word blurb for the website, an executive summary, a shorter report, and a longer report. That 50-word blurb on the website will be seen by hundreds of people so it absolutely has to convey the bottom line of the findings. But policymakers also want the longer report. The bigger report is a comfort to them that there’s something behind the short form, even if they never read it.

It’s not enough to put out a report and assume everyone will know it’s out there. We then take that report with a nice overview and an executive summary and try to get some trade press or some influential bloggers to post about it. Then people tweet about it.

It’s not enough to put out a report and assume everyone will know it’s out there.

Sometimes the timing of a report’s release is driven by the lifecycle of the research project and not a policy hook. What do you do then?

In that case, the trick is reminding people that you have useful information. Our work on high school career academies was last updated in 2008, but people keep coming back to the study because it’s one of the best studies out there on the topic. It’s important for us in the communications department to figure out how to keep reminding people about the study because it’s still relevant. We find ways to repackage the findings for current policy discussions.

How do you follow that policy conversation to discover what’s current?

It’s hard. There are organizations that have entire staffs that follow one narrow slice of a policy conversation. MDRC has research on a lot of areas. Plus, it’s hard for researchers to stay abreast of the conversations because they’re focusing on their research. So it’s a constant challenge. It becomes a collaboration between communications and researchers to stay as involved as you can, and look for opportunities to put your work out there. We go to conferences, meet with people in DC.

The explosion of bloggers and other social media has made it easier because now there are many more sources, especially in the education field [one of MDRC’s topic areas]. If you follow key bloggers, you can have a good sense of what’s going on. On the other hand, the information overload is incredible. You can spend all day on one thread. There are so many other voices out there whom you’re competing with.

How important is objectivity to building trust with your readership? Why?

I think it’s everything honestly. Reputation in this world of research is everything because one of the things that people in the policy world say is, “How do I know what research is good? I’m inundated with this study and that study. How do I know which one to believe?” At the end of the day, we can help educate policymakers about what makes a good study, but it’s going to rest more on reputation and other people saying, “yeah that work by MDRC or the MacArthur Network, that’s well-regarded.” The authority you create with other researchers and policy people is what gives you the credibility with the decision-makers.

The other thing is policymakers are smart and obviously they’re very political so they want to know where you’re coming from. Almost all organizations say they’re nonpartisan, but that doesn’t mean they’re not advocates. There’s nothing wrong with doing advocacy research, of course, but people want to know where you’re coming from, so being straight about that is important.

The more advocacy-focused organizations that do research are very credible but in a different way. They’re seen as advocates. It’s also important that they establish their credibility, too. You can have a point of view but you have to be able to demonstrate the analysis was valid.

How important is it to tell a story or to have one clear narrative point throughout when you’re writing a brief or report?

It’s absolutely critical. And again, I think the ethos among researchers—and it’s perfectly legitimate one for a research audience—is that in reports, you lay out what you find and then wait until the end to tell readers what the bottom line is. Yet most readers want to know where the story is going upfront, so it’s important to establish right from the start a couple of clear themes—previewing your findings, if you will. That provides an anchor for the reader to be able to follow the story. So rather than saying, “this study looks at this question and you’ll see the findings in chapter 4,” give them the findings right away in a short description. Giving away the story upfront doesn’t mean that you’re not going to tell them all the complications and nuance later. You’re just giving them something up front to hang their hat on. Even within the chapters itself, let us know upfront what is going to transpire in this chapter. It’s so much easier for the reader if you signal frequently where you’re going.

What role does social media play in communications for research institutes today?

Obviously the web is how we communicate now. I think it’s interesting you’re starting this new part of your business because MDRC is just starting to think about social media.

It became clear that ignoring the phenomenon wasn’t going to work. We were already part of the conversation. People on Twitter and in the blogs were making us a part of the conversation and we weren’t even seeing it.

We’ve realized it’s not a question of whether to get involved. It’s how. The way we’ve thought about it is, at the very least, we need to be monitoring what’s going on in blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to see how people are talking about the policy issues and how they’re talking about us.

It became clear that ignoring the phenomenon wasn’t going to work. We were already part of the conversation. People on Twitter and in the blogs were making us a part of the conversation and we weren’t even seeing it.

We’re also thinking of having a presence, so at this point we’ve launched an MDRC twitter feed and I’ve launched my own twitter feed. The official feed is another way to distribute what we’re putting out on our website. In my own account, I’m being more free about commenting and retweeting. We’re also going to launch a Facebook presence as well. It will start out mostly as another extension of the website.

For us, it’s less about being an active participant and retweeting everyone else’s stuff. It’s more about making sure bloggers and influencers are hearing about our work. Bloggers are always looking for content so targeting the top few bloggers and making sure I send them an email when we have something new is a good strategy. They seem to appreciate having the new information and they then will often write about it.

In many ways, it’s reconfiguring the news channels. It used to be that with EducationWeek, for example, you’d pitch the reporters. Now they have 30 blogs as well.  So there’s so much more opportunity than there ever was—but more cacophony as well.

What are researchers’ fears or hesitations about social media?

I think there’s some concern, but I think it’s a generational issue. I think people my age and older are more skeptical of social media, and younger people are more fully embracing it.  From my own perspective, I think there’s some concern that, what is the point of all this? MDRC is very careful about its language in reports and what those reports say, and with social media, there’s a need to be quick and even provocative with a lot of back and forth. Researchers are deliberate and develop ideas slowly. For them, the idea of thinking of something and tweeting it immediately is counterintuitive. So it’s a bit of a cultural mismatch.

But at the same time, it’s not unlike where the web was 15 years ago. Let’s face it: the research world has never been on the leading edge of any communications revolution. It took a lot of organizations awhile to even have a web presence, but now it’s hard to imagine not having one. So it’s figuring out how to make this next generation of technology useful for us without feeling like we’re being pulled in a direction that doesn’t make sense.

Are policymakers and other decision-makers reading blogs or listening to podcasts or videos to get their information?

You know, I don’t know. I go back to the generational thing. I don’t think a lot of senators or even the more senior policy experts are that connected. But their staff are—on the Hill, in the federal agencies, and the think tanks. Among the more senior people, if they’re not following it themselves, their more junior staff are and feeding it to them. Here’s an example: I know a communications director for a Congressional committee, and he’s on Twitter all day. He’s a young guy, early 30s. I would guess that his (older) chief of staff for the committee is not tweeting or on Facebook, but if his communications director is hooked in, that must have an influence.

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