Reflections on the APPAM Spring Conference

Our names are Mike McCarthy, Trevor Mattos, and Jason Wright, and we are graduate research assistants at the Public Policy Center (PPC). The PPC graciously funded our trip to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM) spring conference entitled “How policymakers use APPAM member research.” The overarching theme of the conference was creating a dialogue among policymakers, practitioners, and researchers, in essence connecting those who make, implement, and study policy. Such a dialogue has the potential to enrich policy debates and the policy process in general by infusing them with empirical knowledge.

One of the main challenges surrounding such an effort is that these actors tend to remain isolated within their respective fields. Researchers, for instance, may not have experience in translating their findings to a large audience or marketing their research within policy circles. The concurrent sessions were designed to highlight examples of when cross-fertilization was successful and strategies and tools for facilitating such interaction.

We attended a session that examined the impact of research, and specifically evaluation of state policy innovation, surrounding the 1996 welfare reform. The session focused on how research on welfare programs contributed to the final reforms and the ways in which this research reached the reform’s architects. One of the main points was that confidence in a research team’s ability and integrity built trust on the part of managers, thus reputation matters greatly. Unfortunately, these individuals do not necessarily have the time or resources to devote to learning about advanced statistical methods, meaning that trust is crucial in ensuring that research findings make their way into the decision making process. To this point, panelists closed the session by discussing how scholars can best market their research to policymakers. A major takeaway for us was that connections between researches and government are often strongest at the local level, mostly through the presence of university centers that provide a service to their communities in the form of objective research.

Another session examined recent developments in federal research clearinghouses. These websites feature research related to federally funded programs. The “What Works Clearinghouse” is particularly well developed. It includes practice guides for educators, intervention reports, and reviews of single studies and research efforts at large. Perhaps the best aspect of these resources is that they are in the public domain, increasing access to individual practitioners and their institutions regardless of available resources.

We also attended a session entitled “Simple isn’t Stupid” that focused on disseminating research findings in the digital age. Doing so involves an active effort and multiple platforms, formats, and instances of release are key to success. Comparisons were drawn with the timeline of a movie release. First, we hear news that a project has started and learn who the major actors are. Next, a trailer is seen, which is comparable to a project update, research brief, or infographic highlighting preliminary findings. Then, there are reviews that offer a synopsis of the film, which parallels the executive summary. Finally, it was suggested that the release of the final report should have a number of well-timed publicity pushes, like we would expect to see from a major film release. Having a thoughtful dissemination plan for research ensures that all potentially interested parties have an opportunity to come into contact with some aspect of the project.

Over lunch, we heard from a congressional staffer. This talk was eye opening because it showed how little members of Congress are briefed on the important issues before them. The staffer mentioned that they often had only a two to three minute train ride from the office complex to the capitol during which they could brief their boss. Thus, a translatable summary of research findings is critical!

Fortunately, we were able to enjoy the city around the conference events. The capital is a bustling city made even more so by the cherry blossom festival that was still ongoing that weekend. The trees were beautiful, and the National Mall is a great tribute to civic virtues. We also had some great food and toured Georgetown. We were able to learn a lot, meet great people, and see great sights thanks to the support of the PPC.

Below is a picture of us near the White House

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Trevor, Mike, and Jason

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