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Forum Brings Together Policymakers and Academics

February 20, 2017

On February 17, the Sanford School, Duke Policy Bridge and APPAM, the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management hosted a forum for members on bridging research and policy.  The all-day forum included three panel discussions.

Anita Brown-Graham, Professor of Public Law and Government, School of Government, University of North Carolina, moderated the morning panel on addressing the researcher-policymaker gap.

In discussing the gap between academic researchers and policymakers, three themes emerged: timing, accessibility, and communication. Senator Chad Barefoot, NC General Assembly, emphasized that the part-time citizen legislature of North Carolina is often underfunded and understaffed so that academics can best reach them at times when policy is being made, outside of election and budget seasons, January through April of odd numbered years.

Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, stressed the importance of getting researchers engaged from the outset by encouraging academics to reach out to policymakers, create safe learning spaces for open dialogue, and spend one-on-one time with lawmakers to better develop policy questions. In terms of accessibility, Glazier noted that academics need to keep in mind the importance of political and fiscal feasibility when considering projects.

Barefoot distinguished between older or more entrenched issue areas in contrast to newer issues. The former are often informed by ideology rather than evidence, and both can be hard to express in the soundbites that many citizens expect. Particularly for lawmakers without academic backgrounds, sharing straightforward memos or briefings can make a bigger impact than academic papers.

Both Glazier and Barefoot expressed the need for a compendium of current research so that legislative staff and academic researchers are not duplicating efforts. Researchers should reach out to policymakers from the outset to design evidence-based policies following rigorous standards and get engaged with legislative committees and stakeholder groups as experts in their fields. The gap between research and policy can be bridged but requires much more proactive collaboration from both sides.

Policy and Research: A Two-Way Street

Jenni Owen, policy director in office of N.C. Governor Roy Cooper, moderated a panel about the two-way street between policy and research.

Manoj Mohanan, assistant professor of public policy, drew on his experiences working in developing countries to stress the importance of building relationships for successful program evaluation and better informed policymaking. He provided examples of projects in India where studies simultaneously evaluated programs and tested academic theories, i.e. “research questions embedded in evaluation.” In one study where private doctors were contracted out by the government, they tested the effectiveness of the program on healthcare access while also assessing hypotheses about contract theory.

Drew Cummings, chief of staff for the Durham County manager,  echoed Mohanan’s emphasis on relationships and gave examples where multilateral arrangements proved most effective in making evidenced-based policy. He highlighted the success of the Durham Children’s Data Center, a cooperative effort between three parties, each with something different to offer: Duke’s Center for Child and Family Policy, Durham Public Schools, and Durham County government. Success comes from bringing together institutions that generate and hold data, those that have the capacity to evaluate data, and policymakers themselves.

Touching on some points from the first panel, Cummings emphasized the importance of “translating” academic findings to make them easier to understand as well as the role of political and fiscal feasibility. Mohanan reiterated that political realities will ultimately decide policies, underscoring the importance of evaluation from the outset.

Evidenced-Based Decisonmaking

The final panel focused on evidence-based decision policy making in three distinct ways: lessons learned, the current political and ideological context of decision making, and future efforts to make administrative data more accessible to all. It was moderated by Ron Haskins, past president of APPAM and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Kathy Stack, Vice-President of Evidence-based Innovation at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, talked about how both G.W. Bush and Obama prioritized the use of evidence-based decision-making in their administrations. One challenge was that agencies had little capacity and limited resources to conduct rigorous evaluations. With the 2008 fiscal crisis and an influx of federal funds, policymakers and researchers in Obama’s administration realized they had an opportunity to design programs in an intentional way to better evaluate their outcomes. Institutionalized evidence-based practices, like Department of Labor’s Chief Evaluation Office, became common as agencies began to reflect on how programs could be structured and evaluated.

Daniel Gitterman, professor of public policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, highlighted the importance of understanding political context. Sometimes policy makers can be hesitant to share data because they may not want to know the answer about their policy’s effectiveness or may only want evidence that justifies their policies. For example, Gitterman said when North Carolina cut unemployment benefits and reduced the maximum payout to families, unemployment numbers decreased. Some politicians interpreted this to mean the reduction in benefits caused a reduction in unemployment. Without the data to further explore this relationship, it was impossible to know for sure what the effect was. Political context can play a role in whether or not evidence-based decision making is used throughout the political process.

The conversation then shifted to strengthening existing administrative data. Federal and state agencies have begun to link administrative data, like student loans and census data, to create more complete databases and ask more complex questions about the impact of their programs. Stacks emphasized that trust among these agencies was key in sharing data. In some cases, informal working groups help enable dialogue about best practices and also provide avenues for Congress to solicit evaluations and input.

Cost and feasibility matter to policy makers, Haskin said, and cross-sector collaboration between agencies, policy makers, and researchers are essential in effective evidence-based decision making practices.

Duke Policy Bridge is a joint initiative between Duke University and the Sanford School. Deep engagement with the policy world is one of the Sanford School’s core values. The Policy Bridge was created to promote engagement as a two-way street, amplify the impact of our research to benefit society, and help our faculty and students be more aware of and responsive to the needs of the policy community.