Need Help With Policy? Ask an Academic

The question of how to appropriately use data in policy proposals can be daunting. As a staffer, between the conflicting information from state-commissioned studies, think-tanks and what other states are doing, it can be tough to come up with policy solutions that both help solve the problem and are backed up by research.

The three above-listed resources are common places to find data, and for good reason. Work done by the state (such as Michigan’s second education funding adequacy study) is publicly available. Because it is usually funneled through a department and commissioned out to data scientists, these reports usually lack an overt partisan lean. However, they only exist for problems that have risen to enough prominence for the state legislature to get involved, which makes them only useful where available.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, political think-tanks typically post policy ideas fairly prolifically, but with no promise of being bias-free (in fact, they are often explicitly the opposite). You can find resources that set out to rank the partisan leanings of such organizations, but that’s only one of the concerns. Perhaps more importantly, it is entirely up to the organization’s own standards what qualifications their research staff need to have. When using information from a think-tank, make sure you’ve done your homework on who did the homework: partisanship, research staff,and for-profit status. None of these exclude the work produced from being useful, but ensuring the results are rigorous can go a long way to producing good policy.

Finally, some research is just looking at what already exists in the policy landscape. Beyond internal state policy teams, sites like NCSL are free for legislative staff. They offer frequent trainings and have fairly user-friendly legislative databases that can provide details on who did what and when. If you’re stuck, their research team is reachable by phone or email and gets back in a timely manner on state-level comparisons when needed. While these databases provide valuable information, there can be a problem of “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” It’s important to dig deeper into the context under which states passed pieces of legislation, and if they’ve been in place a reasonable amount of time, to check in on their efficacy before proposing that your state do it, too.

All this said, there is a resource often overlooked by legislative staff: the academy. Without playing the blame game on why this disconnect exists, a good reason no one uses academic research in policymaking is that journals exist behind firewalls. With articles running near $40 per download, trying to read one is difficult, let alone a body of work on a topic like charter schools that have intense and well-respected scholars on many sides. This is not to mention that academic work doesn’t translate neatly into policy objectives and the reading is much slower than anyone working at the legislature has time for.

However, there’s a shortcut to this research—talking to the professors themselves. In Michigan, we’re lucky to have both EPIC MSU and EPI at the University of Michigan that serve specifically as policy-oriented education research, but universities across the country have similar consortia on various policy topics. For more niche topics, there may not be an entire department dedicated to it, but there is definitely a scholar out there who studies the topic and is waiting for their work to be translated into policy.

It won’t always be possible, but when there is time to do a deep-dive on an idea before its proposal, take a moment to look up the leading research on the topic. When it’s geographically possible, take a physical meeting with a researcher—and when it’s not, talking over the phone, email or videochat can be just as helpful. Individual researchers have their own political preferences, but if you ask for the research that both concurs and conflicts with theirs they’ll give it to you—and you can always seek a meeting with the opposing voice as well.

Developing policy proposals is both an art and a science, but no matter what, having good background matters. Bridging the gap between academia and legislation is more important than ever when false information can go viral quickly, and your policy proposals will be stronger for the inclusion of research voices beyond the three most common sources.

Kelly Stec is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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