Spent this weekend at APPAM spring conference engaged with others in the question of how can the gap between research, policy and practice be bridged. This is a topic near and dear to my core motivation and passion for my work.
Teasing through the conversation was, though, what I think is a dangerous assumption - if we can only make create more rigorous research and make the results accessible or consumable to policy decision-makers - policy making will be better. This assumption is dangerous for a few reasons.
First, the conversations tend to simplify research rigor. It is essential. And it is a constantly moving target, with strengths and limitations to all choices about design and analysis, including the randomized control trials that are so often referred to as the "gold standard." There are other rigorous research designs, other “precious metals,” that are more appropriate for other policy relevant questions.
Second as the lunchtime speaker, Becky Shipp staffer at the Senate Finance Committee stressed, what is more essential than a particular research finding is having policy decision-makers who can think in evaluative ways. People need to be committed to evidence-informed practice. What is known from research? When might I bring that into my system, strategically? How might I help that system to gather, reflect on, and use evidence to change daily operations? We have to help policy actors see the professional benefits of consulting evidence; we need them to believe that it actually improves the chances that we can implement solutions to our collective challenges.
Finally, as analysis of almost any policy implementation process reveals, the “fit” of research into a particular setting is more important than strict “fidelity” to an evaluated program. Researchers know there are limits to external validity in our most rigorous designs. And strategic policy makers know that there is considerable skill in figuring out how to fit the ideas into other contexts to allow the successful program or policy idea to scale. We need more systematic research into this process – how are these adjustments made? What is generalizable about this process that can be learned? How can we reduce the time policy makers feel they are groping around to make the necessary adjustments? Stephanie Moulton and I are beginning to think through this challenge and explore it in our current projects – so stay tuned.