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Learn methods and skills for conducting different forms of investigative research, as well as how to use such research to bring about specific policy changes.


Photo of a stack of books with a person's elbows sticking out from behind them.


Imagine this scene: The county Finance Committee, made up of the financial officers of several towns in a rural county, is meeting at the courthouse in the county seat on a Monday evening. The county human service administrator has asked the directors of several human service agencies to present their cases for county funding to the board. With only five minutes apiece to speak, each of them knows that what she says could mean several thousand dollars to her organization.

As each director takes her turn, it seems that the most compelling information for members of the Committee is the number of people in the county, and in each of their towns, affected by the issue the agency addresses. The director of the teen parenting program begins her presentation, but is quickly interrupted by the chair of the Finance Committee. "I'm sure you do a great job," he says, "but we don't have a serious problem with teen pregnancy in this county."

The program director smiles, and responds, "As a matter of fact, over 25% of births in this county are to mothers under 20, and 78% of those mothers are unmarried. Over 50% of them are under 17. The majority of those are potential or actual high school dropouts, and the fathers are generally not in the picture. We're currently serving more than 50 teen parents in our residential program, counseling another 120 pregnant and at-risk teens, and we have a waiting list that's even longer."

As jaws on the Finance Committee drop, the director continues, "Mr. Chairman, in your town, with fewer than 5,000 people, nearly 40% of births are to teen parents. That translates to 30 to 40 a year, many of whom are enrolled in our program. Several gave me permission to tell you privately who they are, if you're interested."

The teen pregnancy program director had done her research: not only did she know the numbers of county residents affected by the issue, and have town figures on the tip of her tongue, but she had tracked down program participants who had some geographical or personal connection to local officials, including, as it happened, the chair of the Finance Committee himself. The program received a generous grant from the county, and, more important, the Finance Committee endorsed support services for teen parents and teen pregnancy prevention efforts in the county as a matter of policy. Would your organization have done as well?

This chapter of the Tool Box has focused on research, and its importance as a tool for your organization or initiative to accomplish its advocacy goals. Sometimes, that research has to be very specific in order to create or change policy. In this case, the program director anticipated the Committee's questions, and made sure he had done the research to address them. But she also went a step further, and connected the concerns of those his program served with committee members and other officials, making the issue a personal one for several of them. In this section, we'll examine how you can use research to bring about specific policies or policy changes.

What do we mean by conducting research to influence policy?

As we discussed in the opening section of this chapter, How to Conduct Research: An Overview, there are many different kinds of research. Each requires a different kind of research process, and each yields a different kind of information. Each is appropriate in a variety of situations, but it's important to match your research to your purposes.

Advocacy research has a specific purpose: to influence the formal and informal policies established by policymakers and others in power. Thus, it is important to collect good information and present it in a compelling manner.

The ideal is that your research will clearly show that the needs or problems you want to address are real and serious, and that the methods you recommend for addressing them have, in fact, been proven successful. When this ideal isn't quite realized, however, you may find that you have to adjust your approach to be persuasive - you may reframe the issue, for instance, or personalize it by collecting the testimony or stories of individuals affected. Whatever your approach, your goal is to make your research as compelling as possible, whether you're trying to increase funding for a local program, or to change the way the world deals with the gap between rich and poor countries.

Why conduct research to influence policy?

You might conduct research to influence policy for a variety of reasons, and some of them may be surprising.

To show that there's a need for funding or intervention (or both) on a particular issue

There are really two ways you might approach this goal.

  • Your research might have a specific intent: you're already convinced the need is there, and you simply have to gather the information to prove it to others.

There is always the danger here that your research will not support what you expect it to, or even that it will show the opposite. If that's the case, your choices are to ignore the research and forge ahead anyway, or to use the research to determine what the target population or the community actually needs. As we state so often in the Community Tool Box, it's important to face reality in a situation like this.

If you're certain that the need you anticipated is there, you may have to rethink the research you're doing to understand how it missed the obvious. If it's clear that the research was sound, then you may have to change your perception of the need, and show your commitment to the community by advocating for what will be of most benefit to it. Otherwise, you risk your credibility and your integrity.

  • Your research is meant to find out exactly what the need is, so that you can advocate for something truly helpful. In this case, your primary concern is usually not a specific issue, but improving the quality of life for a target population or for the community in general.

To show that a need or issue exists and to assure it is actually addressed

The research you do can often be used to gain the backing of the public and/or policy makers for dealing with a particular issue. They may be surprised to learn how many people it affects, or how common it is in their communities (as in the example at the beginning of this section). In many cases, policymakers can use your research to champion something they already favor, but have no support for.

In a different vein, you might be able to use your research to pressure policy makers to address an issue they'd prefer to ignore, for political or other reasons. Many politicians, for instance, managed to turn their backs on racism in the United States until the research of civil rights supporters showed that African-Americans were being systematically denied their constitutional rights in large parts of the country.

To assure that what's addressed is, in fact, what needs to be addressed

There are at least two kinds of circumstances where this is a concern:

  • When the best way to resolve an issue isn't obvious. Often, research can clarify what the real cause of a problem is, or how to address an issue to bring about the desired changes. Interviews with sexually active teens, for example may show that they're more likely to accept information from peers than from adult authority figures. A safe-sex campaign can then draw on that research to create a successful intervention.
  • When the issue that really needs to be dealt with is a difficult one, either because of politics or because it will take a great deal of effort and/or expense to resolve. If research can demonstrate that the hard way is the right way, it can sway public opinion. When the public understands, for instance, that gun violence among youth won't be curbed without both getting handguns off the street (which necessitates politicians standing up to the gun lobby) and addressing the emotional needs of gang members (which implies a long-term commitment to funding and conducting hard-core street work, much of it trial-and-error and potentially dangerous), it is more likely to push policy makers to adopt measures to accomplish those tasks, regardless of the difficulties involved.

To support or discredit a specific method or practice

You may be trying to create or change policy on anything from the use of a particular teaching method in an individual school, to an emphasis on treatment to address drug problems in a community, to the employment of the death penalty in a country.

For example, in Illinois, research showed that a large number of prisoners on death row had been mistakenly convicted, exonerated by careful detective work or by previously-unavailable DNA testing. As a result, largely because of the public's apparently justified fear of mistakenly executing the innocent, capital punishment in that state was suspended.

To identify and advocate for appropriate policy in a given situation

Research can and should demonstrate what has been successful elsewhere, and what might, therefore, be a good course of action in your situation. What has worked in similar communities to reduce teen pregnancy? How did the neighboring town get drug dealers off the street? Have other rural counties found effective ways to screen for and treat adult diabetes? The answer to questions like these will help you decide how to advocate for policy that leads to a solution to a community problem.

To point out incompetence or corruption in government, business, or elsewhere that affects the public interest

If you suspect - or know - that the public is being harmed economically or politically by incompetence, dishonesty, or corruption, investigative research may give you the facts you need to anger the public and policy makers enough not only to correct the situation, but to establish policies to keep it from recurring.

In the wake of the collapse of the giant energy corporation Enron in 2002, research conducted by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission showed that Enron's accountant, Arthur Andersen, helped the company misrepresent its financial situation. As a result, a law was passed further regulating the activities of accountants, and new policy is still being made.

To protect the public health and safety

The necessary research here may range from an investigation of environmental or workplace safety standards, to lab research that shows a hitherto unsuspected benefit or harm from eating certain foods, to the influence of adequate street lights on reducing violent crime. Such research can support policies that set standards well in the safety zone and regulate dangerous substances or practices.

To give yourself a solid base for advocacy

Having solid research behind your advocacy both establishes your credibility and gives you substantive reasons for sponsoring what you're sponsoring. It helps to counter opposition arguments, and to address concerns and emotion-driven objections. Furthermore, it assures that you know what you're talking about, and aren't left mumbling when an opponent or a member of the public asks you to explain your argument.

To maintain your integrity, and make sure that you're doing the right thing

Your research should not only influence policy makers - it should influence you, too. Sometimes what you think you know isn't reality. If you really care about social change - change that addresses the real issues and actually improves life for a target group or a community or the world - you have to deal with what is, not with what you want to believe.

Sometimes, facing reality can be as difficult for advocates as for policy makers or members of the public who know that the death penalty reduces the murder rate, or that sex education in schools encourages teens to be sexually active, even though the research points in the opposite direction. To be true to your ideals, to maintain your integrity, you must be willing to accept what your research tells you, and act accordingly.

Who should conduct research to influence policy?

Virtually anyone can do at least some form of advocacy research, but not everyone has the training to set up studies or comparisons that hold up statistically, or the credentials to be taken seriously by policy makers and the public. Grassroots groups, for instance, which often include members of the group most affected by the issue being researched, are certainly more than capable of collecting information and doing investigative work. They may, in fact, be more effective than other researchers at gathering information from the target population. But, they may need to enlist partners with research expertise to make sure that their methods are appropriate, and that their findings are accepted.

Among those who might conduct research to influence policy:

  • Academics. Academic researchers - both professors and graduate students - may already be doing the research you need, or may be able to get grants to do it. In some cases, they may be willing to donate time and expertise because they agree with you that policy needs to be developed or changed. Many universities also support research facilities aimed at specific issues, and staffed by professors and professional researchers. If their interests match yours, you may find them willing collaborators.
  • Think tanks and other research organizations. These are groups of independent scholars and thinkers who research and write about various topics, usually with the goal of influencing public policy. Think tanks sometimes operate as independent non-profits, sometimes as parts of other organizations and institutions.

If you're using think tank research, be sure you know the reputation of the group. Many think tanks have a political bias, and a few are not above ignoring evidence that disproves their contentions, or even skewing their research to make it conform to their ideology. While most are totally honest, it's important to understand the reliability of your sources.

  • Government agencies. Many government agencies conduct research as a matter of course. Regulatory agencies, particularly, or those that act as major funders, such as state and federal Departments of Education, often conduct research into their areas of concern, or into the workings of organizations they regulate or fund.
  • Professional associations. Professional associations (e.g., the American Medical Association) often sponsor or conduct research in their fields, as well as looking into the conduct and practices of individuals and organizations that are suspected of violating professional standards.
  • Appointed commissions. Presidents, governors, mayors, Congress, and other officials or official bodies often appoint commissions to study a particular problem or area.

All too often, the appointing official or body knows what he or it wants the commission's conclusion to be. Although these commissions are regularly packed with respected and well-known people - who may or may not be competent researchers themselves - and given research staffs and adequate budgets, their results are often ignored. If they confirm what was expected, the appointer merely says "I told you so," and continues to pay little attention to the issue. If, however, the commission's findings are contrary to expectations, they are often swept under the rug...and the appointer continues to pay little attention to the issue. Only if the media manages to point out the commission's research results and capture the public's interest, do such findings become a matter of real discussion and possible policy change.

  • Organizations that work directly with an issue. Health and human service organizations, in particular, often use their own statistics and documentation as research to determine what works, where greatest needs are, etc..
  • Watchdog organizations. These organizations engage in constant research on the topics and organizations of their concern.

Watchdogs always have an issue at hand, so the question of bias arises here. Bias, in this case, is often unconscious, and has to do with point of view. Media watchdogs on the left, for example, find the media biased toward the conservative end of the spectrum, while those on the right rail endlessly about the "liberal media." It is certainly possible for the media to be less than objective sometimes, and for a particular media outlet or media report to be biased in one direction or the other. It is even possible for the media to be liberal on one issue and conservative on another, but it is not possible for all the media to be both too liberal and too conservative at the same time. Some watchdogs tend to see conspiracy in every action that disagrees with their ideology. For an example of how watchdogs with different viewpoints can interpret evidence differently, see the web sites of FAIR, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, a liberal media watchdog, and the Media Research Center, its conservative counterpart.

  • The police, the Justice Department (FBI), or other official law enforcement agency. If there's a question of legality or potential or actual harm to citizens, then research or an investigation may be carried out by law enforcement officials.

When should you conduct research to influence policy?

The short answer here is whenever you want to have an effect on policy-making. There are some specific times, however, when research can be particularly useful.

  • When there is no policy, and there's a need for one. You may already be working with policy makers to develop a policy, and need research results to provide the push that will bring action in the right direction. In the early days of the AIDS outbreak, for example, activists and physicians conducted mountains of research to bring about public awareness and to stimulate policy making on research on and treatment of AIDS, both in government and in the medical community.
  • When there's a critical situation, but no one seems - or wants - to notice. Michael Harrington's 1962 book The Other America, a study of poverty in the United States, drew attention to a profound problem at a time when few knew - or admitted - that it existed.
  • When current policy (or funding on the issue) is up for review by legislators or other policy makers. Appropriate research can swing policy makers' opinion in your direction.

In Massachusetts, literacy providers were able to secure not only a large increase in funding, but a complete reexamination of the funding process for adult education, by gathering the names of 13,000 people on waiting lists for adult literacy programs in all parts of the state.

  • When policy is under discussion, and you want to make sure that important issues don't get lost or shoved under the table. All too often, the best policy in a particular situation involves doing something difficult, or admitting facts that policy makers or the public would rather not face. If the issue at hand is to be resolved, the difficulty or admissions have to be acknowledged and addressed. Appropriate research can help to demonstrate the need for doing the right thing, even if it's unpleasant.
  • When policy has been established, but its effects are still unclear. Advocates in this situation might do evaluative research to determine whether the current policy is appropriate or not.
  • When you feel current policy is headed in the wrong direction. If policy makers seem as thought they are about to make a serious mistake, your research may serve to correct the error before it causes harm. Research consistently shows, for instance, that children who attend Head Start continue to do better in school - and need fewer services over time - than those children from similar circumstances who aren't exposed to Head Start. Thus, when, in the Reagan administration, some policy makers recommended discontinuing Head Start to save money, advocates were able to demonstrate that the program actually saves money over the long term, in addition to improving the prospects for those it serves.
  • When you're consulted as an expert, or otherwise have a clear opportunity to influence the formulation of policy. Lawmakers considering new legislation, study commissions, and town and county boards - these and other policy makers often hold hearings and/or call in experts in a field before formulating policy relating to that field. In addition, they may ask for public comment on a bill or potential policy while they're considering it. If you have the chance to testify in one of these situations, research is crucial. Telling the policy makers what you think is important, but telling them what you know from your research is far more convincing.

How do you approach conducting research to influence policy?

The important question here is not how to do research - that's dealt with in the first seven sections of this chapter - but, rather, how to approach your research when you have a specific policy goal in mind. That means defining your policy goals clearly, taking your audience into account, and then researching and releasing your results with those considerations in mind.

Decide how you want to influence policy

There are a number of ways you may try to influence policy:

  • Find out what policy should be. The research involved in this case might be a needs assessment to determine the issues that must be addressed, or an analysis to understand how to address a particular issue or find out exactly what's causing a problem. You might use this approach if you know there are problems in the community, but can't define them; are clear on what the problem is, but don't know how to deal with it; are concerned about a particular population; are concerned about community health and safety; or are trying to improve the quality of life for the community in general.
  • Find out if current policy is working. If it's not clear whether current policy is effective or not, an evaluation can answer that question, as well as suggest appropriate changes.
  • Push policy in a specific direction. You might want to support efforts on a particular issue, or sponsor policy that mandates action in particular situations.
  • Advocate for the institution of, or an increase in, funding for an issue or a community project.
  • Support or oppose a current theory or practice. You may want to make sure that drug policy includes treatment, rather than just punishment. Or you may want stricter policy on the required safety levels of some chemicals in drinking water.

Consider whom you need to influence, and what they'll be swayed by

Understanding your audience and what they will respond to should constitute part of your research, make clear the kind of research that's therefore appropriate, and show you how best to present the conclusions of that research. Being able to speak forcefully and convincingly to exactly the policy makers and others you want to influence is a key to good advocacy research.

  • Legislators and other elected officials. By and large, elected officials respond to four things: economic arguments; anything that has an impact on their next election; anything that affects large numbers of their constituents (since that's likely to have an impact on their next election); and issues with which they have a direct connection. They usually like quantitative evidence - i.e., numbers - and/or actual, provable real-world results. They can also be swayed by powerful first-person testimony from someone affected by an issue, especially if that person is one of their constituents.

Most officials will respond to anything they have a personal connection with. If Uncle Joe is on welfare, or a friend's daughter has waged a long battle with schizophrenia, then they are apt to be interested in and sympathetic to the needs of low-income citizens or those with mental health problems. You can often gain the ear of an official through the intercession of a family member, friend, or neighbor who is affected by the policy area you're addressing. For that reason, it's useful to include looking for those kinds of connections in your research.

  • Corporations and businesses. For most corporations and other businesses (with community-oriented small businesses being a notable exception), one concern dwarfs all others: the bottom line. Corporations and other businesses exist, after all, specifically to make money, and therefore that's their primary concern. Other motivating factors, depending upon the situation and the nature of the business you're dealing with, may be the opportunity to look like - or be - a good corporate citizen, and fear of prosecution. The most compelling research results for these entities are cost-benefit analyses showing them that the policy you're backing will increase profits or cut losses, or, in cases where it's an issue, investigative reports proving questionable or illegal behavior on their part.
  • Funders. Private and public funders of interventions are usually most interested in cost-effectiveness and results. They fund organizations in order to achieve desirable outcomes at the lowest possible cost. If you can show them that their money is well-spent - or not - they'll usually adjust their policies accordingly. They're often interested in qualitative evidence (i.e., evidence based on observation, anecdotes, participant reports, theory, etc.) as well as quantitative. They'll listen to logical or theory-based arguments unless they have a political agenda based on partisan policies, ideological purity, or a prior commitment to a particular way of approaching issues.
  • Public opinion. While the public might occasionally create or change policy through a referendum process, it is more likely to pressure policy makers to do so. If public opinion is strong enough, it will direct policy decisions. Public opinion is generally influenced by what it sees as "common sense" - which may neither be common nor make sense. This translates to questions of how a policy will affect them, fairness, apparent effectiveness, and community values. Quantitative evidence works better here if it's simple and clear. ("In the six months before we started midnight basketball, there were 321 arrests of juveniles. In the six months since the program began, there have been 17 arrests of juveniles.") Many people prefer personal testimony, anecdotes, and other qualitative data.

Use the evidence you already have

Do you need further research? If you already have enough appropriate information to back up your advocacy, you may not.

On the other hand, do you know enough to know the direction your research needs to take? If, for example, you've identified a problem, but don't know its cause, do you know how to find it, so you can advocate for addressing it? Or is finding the cause the direction your advocacy should take? (That's what much early AIDS advocacy was about - funding for medical research to find the cause of the disease.)

Use what you already know - about the direction you're moving in, about your target audience, and about the issue itself - to determine what else you should do.

Conduct the research itself

Consider both what you're trying to demonstrate and the background and assumptions of your target audience. These two considerations are equally important. You may have overwhelming evidence to support your conclusions, but if it isn't evidence your target audience will accept, it will do you little good.

Some ways to do your best to assure that your evidence is accepted:

  • Try to gather many different kinds of evidence
  • Find and use evidence that's simply indisputable. (In the Massachusetts example cited above, the state adult literacy organization compiled a list of 13,000 names of real people waiting for service. A legislator could have called any of the people on that list, and would have talked to someone who had applied for adult literacy services and was put on a waiting list because there were insufficient funds to serve more learners.)
  • Know exactly what you need to convince your target audience, and go looking for it
  • If you can, emphasize the credibility of your researchers (e.g., well-known experts)
  • Point it out if many different studies have come up with the same conclusions

Analyze your data

Depending on the type of research you've done, you may need to perform a statistical analysis, simply record and tabulate the numbers you've found, try to look behind numbers or other information to understand the context of the situation, use the "but why" or other techniques to find a root cause, etc.

Respect your results. Don't exaggerate or lie about them - not only is it unethical, but your opponents will make you pay eventually if you do. If they don't show what you expected, you have to figure out why. Did you look at the wrong factors? Did you collect the data badly? Did you collect the information that would actually tell you what you wanted to know? Is it possible that previous research doesn't apply to this situation? Or were you just dead wrong to begin with?

As discussed above, if you were wrong, your integrity demands that you accept that, and advocate for whatever will actually solve the problem or serve the best interests of the target population or the community.

Present your data in a way that will both reach and influence your target audience

First, some general guidelines for presenting information:

  • Communication has to be accessible. Choose a channel through which your target audience is most likely to receive your message. If you're trying to reach suburban legislators, an interview on an urban hip-hop radio station isn't likely to do the trick.
  • Communication has to be noticeable. Even after the message is placed in the right channels, it has to have some characteristics that will help it to break through the barrage of messages that bombards everyone every day. People not only have to be exposed to the message, but they have to pay attention to it for it to have any effect. If you want to catch the attention of policy makers themselves, personal contact is probably the best idea. If you're trying to catch the attention of a target population or the general public, using bright colors, familiar music and/or images, unusual visual or audio effects, or statements by familiar community figures or celebrity spokespersons might be successful. (Using a celebrity spokesperson to report your results is effective only if your target audience idolizes or identifies with that spokesperson. You might not ask Tiger Woods to tout your results to Hispanic women, for instance, but he'd probably be a very successful spokesman if golfers were your intended audience.)
  • Communication is a two-way street. You have to be sure that what your audience understands is the message that you meant to send. There are several issues that can create difficulties here.
    • Language. Is the message in a language that people can understand? Effective communication may require putting your message in a language other than English if that's the primary language of the target audience, or it may mean making sure that your message is in clear, simple English.
    • Non-verbal communication. Body language, tone and pitch of voice, and clothing all send powerful messages of their own about whom you intend to reach. If you're using images - in photographs, music, video, or film - will your audience immediately recognize and identify with them? The choice of spokespersons also sends a psychological message to an audience.
    • Culture. Different cultures - whether represented by race, ethnicity, social class, or some other factor - may communicate in different ways, so you have to understand the culture of your target audience to communicate effectively. Looking toward and away from people have different meanings in different cultures, for instance. It's important to be culturally sensitive in order both to be understood and not to offend.

Keeping these communication guidelines in mind, you can choose from among a number of different forms of presentation that will get your report to the attention of your target audience. You can use them singly or in some combination, to attract the notice of the largest possible number of people, as well as to attract media attention, so that the message gets out to the general public, even if that's not your main aim.

  • Personal contact. If you have already established relationships with them, you may be able to go directly to policy makers, or reach them through aides or committee staffs. You may also be able to reach corporate CEOs, directors of organizations, community leaders, or other influential people directly through your or your allies' personal contact with them. Funding agencies and government or other regulatory bodies are also places where personal contacts can make your task easier, especially if you're hoping your research will spur some quick action.
  • Official channels. This means putting your results into the bureaucratic pipeline -giving them to the public contact (most likely a receptionist) in the appropriate office - in the hopes that they will get to a policy maker at the other end. Going through official channels can take time, and may result in the policy maker herself never actually laying eyes on your information. It's probably the least efficient way of reaching anyone with real power to help you, but in some cases, it may be the only choice you have.
  • Legislative briefings and other similar official presentations. These events, aimed specifically at policy makers or other influential people, give you the opportunity to meet with a number of them or their aides at once, and to gauge your support. They're also excellent forums for using personal testimony, and for distributing and commenting on simple but effective fact sheets reflecting the results of your research.
  • Letters or e-mails directly to appropriate people. See the example at the end of this section for a demonstration of how well this can work.
  • Public presentations and forums. These differ from the events above in that they're aimed at a more general audience, and meant to generate some media coverage. A public presentation of research results can range from a press conference, to a presentation at a professional conference or other public forum, to a rally or public demonstration. You have the chance to speak directly to people, using appropriate verbal and non-verbal language and cultural sensitivity. In addition, a public forum lets you answer questions, expand on anything people don't understand, and generate energy for working on policy change. The trick here - and it's not always easy - is to make sure that not just the event, but the substance of the research is covered in any media reports. One way to accomplish this is by giving the media a handout detailing the research results.
    • A trade book or an article in a large-circulation publication aimed at a general audience. Especially in the case of national issues, this type of presentation can spark a debate that leads to profound change. AIDS first came to national attention as a result of an article in the New York Times Magazine, for instance.
    • A media campaign. When your target audience is the general public, and your aim is to influence public opinion quickly and profoundly, using the media is almost always the best method available. If you've done your advocacy homework, you have made connections with the media that you can use to get your information and your message out to the community or the world. A media campaign might encompass press releases and press conferences, newspaper articles, interviews on radio or TV stations in different languages, a story on the evening news, etc.
    • A multi-media presentation. The United Way of America annually prepares videos and brochures on a particular issue, meant to be combined with a speaker with first-hand experience of the issue, for presentation to groups of potential donors. These presentations are often very powerful, and convey the message of need in a way designed to appeal both to donors' intellects and emotions, as well as giving them something (the brochures) to take away to remind them of the presentation.
    • A formal report. This may take the form of a scientific paper, a white paper, a journal article, or something similar. It is usually aimed primarily at policy makers, at people with an academic interest or background, or at a highly educated audience.
    • Flyers or posters in strategic places. Putting your results in places where people are likely to be thinking about your issue - facts about child nutrition at a WIC site or pediatric clinic, for instance - is a way to attract attention. The flyer could include information about policy change, and about what its readers can do to make it happen.

Continue your research to monitor changes in the situation, and in policy or potential policy

If you are able to gain policy changes, continued research will allow you to show policy makers they made the right decision, and to head off efforts to reinstate ineffective or ill-advised policy. Research will also help you continue your advocacy as conditions or the needs of the community change.

In Summary

Advocacy research differs from scientific and other academic research, in that it seeks to influence the making of policy. Research can be a powerful tool for helping you to influence the formation and modification of policy on your issue. If you understand how to use it, it can lead to better services and real social change. Whether the point of your research is to determine what appropriate policy should be, to call attention to an issue or need, to urge the adoption or abandonment of a specific practice or approach, to expose corruption or wrongdoing in government or business, or to protect the public, it can have a profound effect on the life of your community.

Research can help to assure that an issue is accurately identified, and then addressed effectively. It can help you, as an advocate, to establish a solid base for advocacy, and to keep you honest, by making sure you don't fall into the trap of advocating on the basis of ideology, rather than responding to the real needs of the situation and the community.

While research can, and should, be carried out by grassroots community groups of activists or those affected by an issue, it's often more likely to be heeded if it's the product of an individual or group with some research credibility. Among those whom you might ask to conduct or collaborate on research on your issue are academics in the field, think tanks, government agencies, professional associations, government-appointed commissions, organizations that work closely with the issue, watchdog organizations, and law enforcement.

Particularly good times to conduct or present the results of research are those when policy is at a crossroads, and your research can help to push it in the right direction. These include when there's a policy vacuum in a particular area; when policy on your issue is under legislative review; when there's a critical situation and no one seems to be reacting to it; when policy change or formation is under discussion, and it's important that difficult, but crucial, issues aren't ignored; when current policy needs to be evaluated; when policy seems headed in exactly the wrong direction; or when you're consulted as an expert on the issue.

There are a number of steps to take to use research to influence policy:

  • Define how you're trying to influence policy. You could be trying to find out what policy should be; pushing policy in a given direction; advocating for funding and other support for addressing an issue; or advocating for or against certain practices or approaches.
  • Identify your audience - legislators, the general public, etc. - and what kind of evidence they'll respond to.
  • Use existing evidence to help you get started, and to make your work easier.
  • Do the actual research, attending to what your audience will accept and understand.
  • Analyze your results, and abide by them, even if they're not what you expected.
  • Present your results, using basic principles of communication to reach your target audience.
  • Continue research, even if you've been successful in changing policy, so that you can both show the success of that change, and be aware of the need for more as the needs of the community change.
Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

The American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research is a member of one of the conservative think tanks.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a progressive think tank respected across the political spectrum for its accuracy and hard-nosed insight. One of the most influential of liberal public policy research organizations.

Chapter 14: Public Policy in the "Introduction to Community Psychology" explains how public policy interventions can bring about impactful change, how social justice issues can be addressed through public policy, and ways to get involved in public policy.

Community Advocacy: A Psychologist’s Toolkit for State and Local Advocacy is a science-based toolkit that highlights various advocacy strategies to inform policy at the state and local levels. It aims to build a community of grassroots psychologist advocates that can intervene to promote well-being in the communities in which they reside. 

A Gateway for Capacity Development provides a resource for practitioners to draw on their own work, and it gives information on the latest research findings, analytical frameworks, policy debates, practical experiences, and toolkits.

Guide to Federal Public Policy Research is a guide to public policy research in the library of the State University of New York at Albany. Helpful references, including a short bibliography.

The Harris School - The University of Chicago offers links to resources - think tanks, government agencies, etc.

How do researchers influence decision-makers? is an article that appeared in Health Policy and Planning in 1999.  It is available free online, and case studies of Mexican policies are used to analyze factors that promoted or impeded exchanges between researchers and policy-makers.

The Institute for Public Policy Research is a UK center-left public policy think tank.

The Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin includes a database of research papers and findings.

The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard provides public policy research papers and links to other organizations.

Knowledge to Policy – This free e-book was written to enhance the design of research projects in order to increase the policy influence of research.    

Making the Most of Development Research is a resource provided by ODI, the Overseas Development Institute.  The “report” link provides a detailed summary of a presentation on research and policy development. 

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is a conservative urban policy research group.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a conservative think tank.

The National Institute for Research Advancement (Japan) provides links to public policy research organizations worldwide.

NE Public Policy Institutes: New England Board of Higher Education is a state-by-state directory of public policy research organizations in New England.

Policymaking and Research – This online article by Carol Weiss and Evert Lindquist discusses the role of researchers in public policy as well as policy-making processes. 

Public Agenda is a non-partisan group founded by, among others, former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, to provide "in-depth analysis and opinion studies" to keep policy makers informed, as well as educational materials on policy issues for the general public.

The Public Policy Forum is an independent, non-partisan, good government organization (est. 1913) serving southeastern Wisconsin.

RAND (a contraction of research and development) is the conservative grandfather of think tanks, was founded to serve the US military after World War II. It now works in a broad range of policy and other areas.

Research that Influences Policy and Practice – This article, from the Malaria Journal, is an analysis of characteristics of operational research used to improve malaria control in South Africa. It provides detailed analyses of the positive and negative attributes of the employed research methods by the groups in their sample.

Syracuse University Public Affairs Department provides a guide to conducting public policy research on the Internet. Links to resources from a Syracuse University course syllabus.

Three Ways Academic Research Can Influence Civil Service Policy is an article that appeared in The Guardian.  It discusses three different ways that research can influence the policy environment.