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Bogenschneider Book Addresses Disconnect between Researchers and Policymakers

Dr. Karen Bogenschneider, the Rothermel-Bascom Professor Emerita of Human Ecology, has published a second edition of her book, Evidence-Based Policymaking: Envisioning a New Era of Theory, Research, and Practice (Routledge), coauthored with Dr. Thomas Corbett, retired Associate Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty. Below, Bogenschneider describes the impetus behind the book and the opportunities she sees for the future of research in policymaking.

What prompted you to write a second edition of your book on evidence-based policymaking?

We wrote this book for those who believe that public policy ought to be guided by hard evidence and dispassionate analysis. What’s more, our experience studying policymakers and working closely with them suggested that we may be entering a new era of evidence-based policymaking. In 25 years of convening the Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars, I observed the power of science when researchers and policymakers come together rather than remaining isolated on their own islands. Recently, I also heard directly from policymakers themselves about their use of research evidence. In interviews with 225 state policymakers, some legislators reported relying on intuition or gut instinct to guide their policy decisions, whereas others factored in research evidence. Yet even as technology has increased access to information, legislators reported that nonpartisan research is very difficult to find. So, how can we bridge the disconnect that often exists between researchers and policymakers? What do science and practice say about how we can improve the use of research evidence in public policymaking?

Why do you think that research evidence is underutilized in policymaking?

The next era of evidence-based policymaking will move beyond describing “how things are” to proposing stronger, more substantiated theories about “why” research is underused in policymaking. If we are ever going to predict and promote future research use, it will take guidance from strong theoretical frameworks. Our revised “community dissonance theory” conceptualizes researchers and policymakers as two separate communities that speak different languages, confront different questions of interest, and employ different criteria to decide whether information is credible. The theory’s foundational premise is that researchers can more effectively conduct and communicate research if they better understand the policy community. Unfamiliarity with the inhabitants, institutions, and culture of policymaking can easily morph into disdain for the political process and disparagement of those involved in it.

What is the value of the book to researchers?

The next era of policy-relevant research will begin with the basics. This edition introduces researchers to policymakers and how they use research. In our study, legislators identified 14 contributions that research makes to policymaking; of these, four were seldom or never predicted by prominent theories. Policymakers used research to achieve conventional policy ends such as defining problems, designing policy solutions, and deciding how to vote. But legislators also used research evidence as a means to achieve these ends, such as building a reputation among colleagues as a trustworthy information source, educating colleagues and constituents, asking clarifying or leading questions, and shifting debate from a political to a problem-solving exercise.

Policy insiders also introduce researchers to the policy process. In our study, a legislator recounted how their job is “different than any other line of work,” which makes it “tough for people outside to always get a full grasp of why we do some of the things we do.”  At the front end of a study, we provide strategies to help scientists identify research questions that policymakers care about, and at the back end to communicate research results in the language policymakers prefer. New to this edition are the breakthroughs of pioneering researchers who have applied these strategies to engage policymakers and influence public policy in ways rewarding to both. This book’s review of both classic and cutting-edge studies of evidence-based policymaking benefits researchers who find it hard to keep abreast of a field that spans multiple disciplines.

What does the book offer to those who desire to engage policymakers?

A new era of the practice of evidence-based policymaking will build on two consistent findings in studies of research utilization. First, policy decisions are embedded in a social ecology of relationships, which calls for a paradigm shift in how to approach engagement. Instead of thinking about disseminating research to policymakers, effective engagement depends on developing relationships with them. As one legislator explained, “The reality is if you want other people to pay attention to your research… then it needs to start with having a relationship where you can… have communication and trust.”

Second, policymakers explain how they operate in an overcrowded world where hundreds of bills are introduced each session. Because it is literally impossible for legislators to read and study each bill, they specialize and develop a reputation for being an expert on a particular subject or the “go-to” person as they are known by colleagues. In our study, these “go-to” legislators are more apt to use in-depth research. Researchers could maximize their impact by getting their research findings to these trusted “go-to” legislators, who are positioned to transmit them throughout the legislative body.

Pragmatically, this means researchers do not need a lot of relationships, but they do need relationships with the legislators who specialize in their area of expertise. These productive working relationships are not that hard to build. This is not about meeting a policymaker for a cup of coffee or a drink after work. This is about being sincere in responding to the questions policymakers ask and showing respect for the expertise they bring to the table. To enhance engagement, the book includes 12 innovative best practices drawn from those who study it and do it.

What else is new in the second edition?

Infused throughout the book is a voice often overlooked in studies of evidence-based policy—that of policymakers. A new chapter lays out the role of an engaged university in providing culturally competent training to create a new type of scholar and scholarship.

Learn more about their book, including how to order a print or digital copy.

Additionally, see Dr. Bogenschneider’s related blog articles with the William T. Grant Foundation and with the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

Dr. Karen Bogenschneider is the Rothermel-Bascom professor emeritus of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her expertise is the study, teaching, and practice of evidence-based family policy. She founded and directed the Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars for 25 years and provided leadership for the Family Impact Institute for 15 years.

Dr. Thomas J. Corbett is a senior scientist emeritus and retired Associate Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He taught social policy, as well as consulted at all levels of government throughout his academic career.