Doing Policy Research: Camelot or Oz?

Introduction: Truth and Power

Speaking truth to power has always been an “iffy” proposition.  It is a process that is laden with critical questions and, at times, contradictions.  Does power really want to hear the truth?  Can the truth be compromised by the power relationship?  What happens when power and truth are on the opposite sides of an issue?  Who gets to decide? Based on what criteria?  In the service of what outcome?  Are we in in Camelot, where everything is settled or are we in Oz, where all reality is up for grabs?

One approach to bridging the gap between truth and power is policy research, defined here as the process of conducting research on a fundamental social issue in order to provide policy makers with pragmatic, action-oriented recommendations for alleviating the problem. 

Done well, policy research accomplishes the task of speaking truth to power even if power is reluctant to hear it.  Done well, policy research is candid, scientifically sound and fearless in its recommendations.  Done well, policy research is a fundamental and critical guide to public action.  Done poorly, policy research is an abomination that muddies the policy area and makes claim to expertise that it does not possess. Done poorly, it creates the cover that power needs to escape the truth.  Done poorly, it steals the public good.

In this essay I offer a practical guide to doing good policy research focusing on ways to make speaking truth to power an effective enterprise.  It is a model that I have developed over time based on the experience of conducting many policy research projects.  It is the product of considered approaches as well as trial and error.  Over time it has served me well and I offer it here as one approach to bridging the gap between the academy and the policy arena.  

I address such questions as:  What are the characteristics and principles of policy research?  What are the properties of the world of action? What are the stages of policy research and how do you know when you move from one to the other?  How does the policy researcher protect the integrity of the research during the process?  What is the role of politics in the endeavor?  Essentially, I hope that the guide will make policy research a much less “iffy” business and place us on the road between Oz and Camelot at the proper distance from each.

Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sat

A little history will help to clarify how I have come to the conclusions that I offer in this essay.  First, I have had the good fortune to spend my entire academic career in a graduate program that has, at its heart, the connection between the social issues of the day and the policies that are mounted to address them.  The School of Urban Affairs & Public Policy (SUAPP) at the University of Delaware explicitly identifies public policy in its title to emphasize that connection.  SUAPP consciously and specifically states in its charter that the “creation of usable knowledge” is one of the primary goals of the institution. 

As a result, the faculty, professional staff and graduate students of SUAPP regularly conduct dozens of policy research projects every year at the local, regional, national and international levels.  They include such policy areas as housing, poverty, community development, energy and environment, criminal justice and media, among others.  The policy research activity of the School reflects the culture and structure of the enterprise.  The approach is so well regarded among public affairs programs that it has become known as the “Delaware Model”.

I make this point about the Delaware Model because it seems to represent an approach to the relationship between the academy and the policy arena that is very different from the experience of the communications academy.  That was made very clear by emerging communications scholars who presented their research at the 2008 International Communications Association’s Pre-Conference regarding Bridging the Divide between Scholars and Activists, Engaging in Public Scholarship: Communicating Social Impacts. 

The over-riding sentiment expressed was the disconnect they felt between the research requirements of the academy and the policy research that they wanted to conduct (and were presently conducting).  The disconnect was made more profound in that these scholars saw that it need not be the case.  That is, the work in which they were engaged (they called it advocacy research) possessed all of the attributes of sound scholarly inquiry and it could easily be accommodated into the communications academy.  We had a long discussion about the choices that they would have to make as scholars, the conditions that created the disconnect and the steps that had to be taken to “bridge the divide”.   Fortunately, in my experience, I have not been confronted with such a dilemma. 

You’re Right, but That Won’t Play in Peoria.

It was the sentiment expressed in this comment from the governor of the state of Delaware over twenty years ago that ignited my interest in the media as an institution affecting policy.  I had begun my academic career examining crime and criminal justice policy and, while I had always had a keen interest in journalism and the media, they were not part of scholarly work.  A colleague and I had just completed a large policy research project in which we examined the causes for the overcrowding in Delaware’s prisons.  In short, we found that the overcrowding was an artifact of the state’s sentencing policies and not the result of increased crime.  Delaware was among the first states to adopt minimum mandatory and consecutive (rather than concurrent) sentencing policies and the effect of those policies were now becoming evident.  Both approaches, individually, would increase the amount of time that offenders would spend in prison.  When used in conjunction with one another, the effect on the growth of prison populations could be devastating.

We met with the Governor and prison officials to present these findings.  The Governor saw the logic and the merit of our research.  Then he said that, although he agreed that sentencing policy was the culprit in prison overcrowding, that is not what the public believed.  The public thought that increased crime was to blame.  Therefore, he chose a policy response that was in direct contradiction to the policy guide that the research suggested —he built another prison.  Of course, the sentencing policies that had caused the overcrowding of the first prison virtually repeated themselves and the new prison became overcrowded and the state built another. Delaware was not alone in its prison-building approach.  During the 1980′s and into the 1990′s, most states addressed prison overcrowding in the same way.

The obvious question to me then was: What was playing in Peoria?  How did citizens understand a social issue that was at odds with the facts?  What sources of information formed their cognitive map about crime in their communities?  Given those questions, especially about crime, it did not take long to focus on local television news, specifically, and media policy, in general.

Defining Policy Research

Although I began to expand my research agenda to include media and crime, I also continued to conduct policy research on criminal justice matters.  In so doing, I developed the model of policy research that I offer here.  And, as I moved into the examination of media ownership, localism and television news, the model has served well as a touchstone for organizing my activity.

The most complete definition of policy research that I have found was articulated by Peter Rossi and his colleagues.[1]  I state its major points here because I think that they capture the activity extremely well. Policy research is a mixture of science, craftlore and art in which science is the body of theory, concepts and methodological principles; craftlore is a set of workable techniques, rules of thumb and standard operating procedures; art is the pace, style and manner in which one works.

Policy research is the process of analyzing a fundamental social problem in order to provide policy-makers with pragmatic, action-oriented recommendations for alleviating the problem.  The issue under analysis comes from the world of action and the results of the analysis are destined for the world of action.

The World of Action

Rossi and his colleagues refer to a world of action that has important characteristics.  First, the world of action has time constraints.  Information is needed quickly.  Secondly, the language and concepts are different from those of the discipline.  But, most importantly, given my experience, the world of action contains a set of parties who control resources in an on-going system that involves conflict.  The researcher is outside of the system, but the research problem comes from inside the system and the research findings are injected back into the system. And, while the research results are arrived at through a system that is neutral to these interests, the results are not neutral in their impact on the world of action.  The research results will add to the resources of certain parties and diminish those of others.  In short, the power structure will change, to one extent or another. 

The world of action is, essentially, the policy arena and it is important to understand that the findings of policy research are only one of many inputs to the policy decision.  For the most part, policy is not made; it accumulates.  It has its own history, understandings, advocates and detractors.  As I stated earlier, the governor chose a policy option that contradicted the research results.  However, it would be unfair to characterize his decision as uninformed.  There were many “guides to action” that entered into his calculus and he made his decision based on a consideration of information beyond policy research results.  The policy researcher must understand this crucial attribute of the policy arena.  In short, sometimes the research loses.  Welcome to the world of action.

Doing Policy Research

Given the characteristics of  the world of action and the policy arena, I have developed a way of doing policy research that has served me well.  It consists of three stages: negotiation, analysis and communication.

Stage 1: Negotiation

In some ways, this stage is the most crucial of the three.  It involves the asking and the answering of a set of questions.  And it must be accomplished with a genuine give-and-take between the researcher and the policy-maker.  What is the policy issue that must be addressed?  What is the context of the problem within the policy arena?  Who came to whom?  This is a critical question because if I go unsolicited to the policy-maker, I must make the case for the relevance and the advantages of the research that I propose.  If the policy-maker comes to me, the question of relevance remains. 

As researcher I must be careful—not skeptical—of agendas.  The policy-maker may want the policy research to confirm a position or strategy that is already held.  Or, the policy maker may want the research to be a change agent for a change that is already thought out.  He/she needs a hammer; better yet, a screwdriver.  The policy-maker may want the appearance of activity and reluctantly uses research as a substitute.  Alternatively, the policy-maker may really want unbiased information.  Remember, we are dealing with a world of interested parties who control resources to one extent or another and the policy research results will likely affect the balance.

The most important concept that is negotiated in the first stage is the research question.  The agreement on this matter should take place over several meetings and discussions in which information flows in both directions.  The research question must be relevant to the policy-maker’s needs but it must absolutely meet the rigors of the scientific method.  It must be neutral.  This has often been a point of contention but clear discussions about the nature of research during this stage have proved invaluable.  Further, there is a “bottom-line” for me.  If the policy-maker insists on an articulation of the research question that does not pass scientific muster, then the process stops.  I have walked away from a number of policy research projects under those circumstances.  Sometimes you have to know when to fold’em.  However, that is rare.  The advantage of the negotiation stage is the clear opportunity for the researcher and the policy-maker to find common ground so that the requirements of each of their realms are satisfied. 

The product of the negotiation stage is a contract that specifies the responsibilities of each party.

Stage 2: Analysis

This stage is characterized by the conducting of the research.  Essentially, it is the traditional scientific process of  stating the research question, choosing the methodology, gathering the data and conducting the analysis.  The communication that was begun in the first stage must continue here for several reasons.  First, as in any research, unanticipated factors arise that require changes in the work, i.e. some data may not be available, etc.  Any changes that are required must satisfy scientific rigor.  This is why the implied methodological difference between applied and basic research is bogus. 

Research is research with the same rigor and grounding in method and theory.  Second, the changes must not come as a surprise to the policy maker.  The communication between researcher and policy maker that was established in the first stage will provide the basis for an understanding of the changes required by the scientific method.  This is crucial so that the policy maker has confidence in the findings.  It is very easy for a policy maker to disavow research findings that are unflattering by claiming that the rules changed in the middle of the game. 

The product of the analysis stage is a completed research report articulating the findings and any recommendations that are warranted.

Stage 3: Communication

The relationship that was established between the researcher and the policy maker in the first two stages is manifested in this stage.  Speaking truth to power is a process.  It is not a “once and done” event.  Effective communication takes time and effort.  That fact is sometimes lost on researchers.  Too often researchers drop off the final report on the policy maker’s desk and walk away feeling that the merit of the information is not only pre-eminent, but also self-evident.  That is a delusion.  There are many reports on the back shelves of policy makers’ offices that underscore the inaccuracy of that position.

In this stage the researcher advocates for the relevance and applicability of the research to guide policy.  There are many valid sources of information available to policy makers in addition to the research results as we saw with the Governor who chose to use the public perception of crime to drive corrections policy.  All of these sources of information have advocates; so, too, should policy research.  There are some that have argued that this advocacy is political and it would sully our objective reputation as social scientists.  That is fundamentally wrong.  The world is political, in the best sense of the word, i.e., reconciling differences.  The advocacy of the relevance and applicability of policy research results does not in any way compromise the scientific quality of the research.  Speaking truth to power does not occur in a political vacuum and if we are to be successful, to be heard, we must engage the world of action when that engagement is critical to the use of policy research to solve problems. 

An obvious question is how do we communicate. Yes, we all know about research reports.  They are very important.  But, in my experience, I have used many venues to communicate/advocate the relevance of the research results.  I have met with policy makers (both involved in the research and beyond it) to discuss the work, written op-ed pieces in the popular press, appeared on television and radio programs that addressed the question, participated in community forums, spoken with community groups working on the issue, among other approaches.  All of these communication paths are important because they not only communicate information about the particular research, they reinforce the fundamental notion that social scientific research is critical to the formulation of policy. 

Conclusion

As I wrote this essay I considered that the model of policy research I present here suggests a proximity between the policy maker and the researcher that is not usually the case between the communications academy and decision-makers.  But that is precisely the point.  As I understand it, the gap has been wide because, well, that is just the way it has been.  However, that need not be the case.  The communications academy has much to offer the policy world and that can begin with the development of contacts between them. 

The policy research that the Social Science Research Council has supported is a step in the right direction.  The policy research in which I am engaged that has been supported by the SSRC has put my colleagues and me at odds with the policy makers at the FCC.  The relationship between us and some of those policy makers is not characterized by the level of communication that I state in the model.   But, we do understand each other’s position and that has been crucial to the success of the policy research that we have conducted.  In short, we have engaged the policy process at its heart, and not in some abstract way.  And that has made all the difference.

There are limitations inherent in any model for research or social action.  So, too, with this set of suggestions.  The model is meant as a general set of principles to guide the process of speaking truth to power.  Some parts of the model will be more easily applied than others.  But, regardless of the limitations, it calls for an engagement of the policy process by social science researchers that will help them recognize just exactly where they are on the road between Camelot and Oz.

 

Danilo Yanich is the Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Delaware. He also directs the Local TV news Media Project at the University. Dr. Yanich has considerable experience in conducting policy research studies in several fields, especially media issues and criminal justice policy for over two decades. The work has been accomplished at the local, state and national levels. His most recent policy research has focused on localism and media conglomeration, particularly the effect of media consolidation on local content of local broadcast news.


[1] Peter Rossi, James D. Wright and Sonia R. Wright. (1978).  “The Theory and Practice of Applied Social Research”, Evaluation Research, Vol 2, No 2. pp. 171-191.

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