by Marlene Lee, program director, Academic Research and Relations
Be Prepared, Find Common Ground
Siri Tellier, keynote speaker for the Seventh Annual Research Conference on Population, Reproductive Health, and Economic Development in Oslo, Norway, last week, spoke on a theme that resonated throughout the addresses given to the conference participants: how to communicate with decisionmakers. Drawing on her experience, she offered advice that could also apply to many facets of life. Two key ideas are: first, be prepared; and second, find common ground.
Be prepared. In essence, this boils down to knowing what the key supporting points of your argument are and having this information ready in an easily understandable form. Also, it means being prepared to offer the information when asked for it, not before.
Find common ground. There may be some difference between what you believe personally, the position officially supported by your organization, and the opinions held by professionals whose actions you are trying to influence. Rather than focusing on differences, focus on common values in order to make advances on the issues on which you agree.
These guidelines are encouraging because they seem doable. But they also imply a certain amount of reflection and thoughtfulness: It is important to have figured out what is important, both in your eyes and in the eyes of those with whom you must work.
How Research Can Influence Policy
I was impressed by Ruth Levine’s reflection on the past days of the research conference. Levine, director of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s, Global Development and Population Program, provided a succinct guide to how research may influence policy. She identified three things that policymakers already do that could be influenced by research:
- Define problems.
- Define a set of possible solutions to a problem.
- Make decisions about how to design and implement policies and programs.
First, in the problem definition phase, policymakers construct problems based on their understanding of the world. This understanding may be influenced by research results. For example, in the case of high fertility, research findings could influence whether the problem depicted is: (1) high fertility produces poor health outcomes, (2) fertility is higher than women actually want, or (3) high fertility endangers the economic future of the country.
Second, in identifying a possible set of solutions, policymakers look for solutions that align with social values and an acceptable policy timeframe for producing results. Research can make a difference in what policymakers decide is a worthwhile action to take. For example, does it make more sense to work on reducing the number of adolescent pregnancies or reducing the dropout rate?
Finally, in planning the details of a policy or program, decisions have to be made about who should receive the services or information, and what activities to put in place. Rigorous evaluations are necessary to learn from what has already been done and can provide timely feedback on programs.
Levine also suggested how researchers could be more effective in communicating with policymakers:
- Simplify the message.
- Make information easy to access.
- Keep in mind that your objective is to convince others about the truth and importance of your message.
- Provide clear and punchy conclusions.