While you’ll often read posts on Evidence in Action about how to improve the quality of research and ensure we get it “right,” I’d argue that is only the first step. In other words, it doesn’t matter how novel or flawless a randomized controlled trial or quasi-experimental design is, or how significant and substantive the findings are, if that information doesn’t get to the people who need it. And more often than not, it doesn’t. Just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean anyone has noticed.
Don’t believe me? Ask the World Bank. In fact, that organization conducted a study to find out who’s reading its research. The shocking finding: more than one-third of its reports had never even been downloaded!
As an organization dedicated to improving public well-being, Mathematica long ago recognized the value of strategic communications. To ensure research has an impact, it needs to get to the right people, in the right form, at the right time. So what exactly does this mean?
- The right people. It never ceases to amaze me how often researchers aren’t thinking about their audience. Sorry to break the news, but “policymaker” isn’t an actual person. In fact, it’s a whole group of people who are very different. There are legislative assistants, topic specialists, actual members of Congress, and federal agency staff, just to name a few. So why does it matter? It matters a lot. If you’re writing something for a policy staffer like Wendell Primus, who has a Ph.D. and three decades of policy research experience, your deliverable can have a certain level of complexity. However, if you are writing for the 22-year-old legislative assistant in the same office (who I’ll call Parker), it’s a different story. Parker is just as likely to be an art history major with limited understanding of both research and your topic area. Both Wendell and Parker are educated and interested, but need to be informed in a way that will grab their attention and be easy to understand.
- The right form. Wendell may appreciate a 150-page research report on health care delivery, a topic he has followed for 20 years, but a catchy headline and cover still help get his attention. For Parker, a two-page issue brief with a clear headline, some graphics, and a simple explanation of what you did and why it matters would be better. Princeton University economist Alan Krueger once told me that, when he was assistant U.S. Treasury secretary, the form he often needed most was the right two sentences. He’d often be called for a meeting with the president on an issue and have 15 minutes to synthesize a field of research into a clear, two-sentence takeaway of what the research suggests the president should do with a particular policy or issue.
- The right time. Timing research is kind of like dating. It doesn’t matter how perfect the person is if the timing is wrong. Yet most research dissemination happens whenever research is completed, regardless of what’s happening in the world. For research to be used more effectively, we have to make sure it’s also being disseminated when the right people need it, like when policy is actually being developed or voted on. Imagine if Alan Krueger had a one-pager on a research topic when the president needed it? Chances are that research would be used. I saw this play out when I was the director of public affairs at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In 2008, we commissioned a study on the costs of not implementing health reform. The first release in 2009 got very little traction, so we broke the findings down by state and re-released the report about six months later. This time it got lots of local coverage, but still didn’t gain much traction. A year had passed and we updated the report with new data. We then released the report for a third time in early 2010. This time lightning struck. It was within a month of the Affordable Care Act passing and it became a critical pillar of evidence and communication. Timing matters.
This is a blog entry, so I admit that I’ve made strategic communications sound somewhat simplistic. But frankly, the principles are simple—and they work. I can’t promise that getting the right information to the right people at the right time will lead to policy improvement every time. What I can tell you is that not doing it means the most attention your research gets may be with a #shelfie.