Connecting Research and Policymaking: Implications for Theory and Practice from the Family Impact Seminars

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Connecting Research and Policymaking: Implications for Theory and Practice from the Family Impact Seminars*

This paper addresses a conundrum that merits scholarly attention-why social scientists' ability to generate high quality research has outpaced their ability to disseminate research into the policymaking process. The paper describes Family Impact Seminars, a series of seminars, briefing reports, and follow-up activities that provide up-to-date, solution-oriented information to state policymakers. In support of the proposed "three-communities" theory, the utilization of research in policymaking appears to depend upon several pragmatic practices and procedures, ten which are detailed in the paper.

Key Words: Family Impact Seminars, family policy, two-communities theory

This paper stems from the premise that ideas are powerful political tools (Smith, 1991) and that research produces policy-relevant ideas. Yet with a couple notable exceptions, the history of the utilization of social science knowledge in the past 50 years yields few examples of research being used to inform policymaking (DeLeon, 1996; Strickland, 1996). This underutilization, which has defied explanation for half a century, is particularly compelling now given the convergence of three forces: the demand from policymakers for high quality research to guide their decisions (Miller, 1996; Strickland), a supply of increasingly sophisticated research, and social scientists' growing interest in applying research outside the walls of academia (Zigler, 1998). Why has social scientists' ability to generate high quality research outpaced their ability to disseminate research into the policymaking process? This conundrum merits attention now, when the climate is receptive and the words "research shows" attract the attention of policymakers (Farley, 1996; Melton, 1995; Strickland), many of whom were educated in universities (Zigler).

We describe one technology for disseminating research, the state Family Impact Seminars, an ongoing series of seminars, briefing reports, and follow-up activities designed to increase the utilization of research in policymaking. Modeled after the Family Impact Seminar series for federal policymakers (Ooms, 1995), the state seminars provide up-to-date, solution-oriented research on current issues and promote family well-being as a criterion for policymaking, just as economic and environmental impacts are routinely considered in policy debate.

The Family Impact Seminar approach may be particularly germane to family scholars because families are central to effective programs and policies (Bogenschneider, in press) yet, unfortunately, of only marginal interest to the disciplines that traditionally influence policy such as economics, law, and political science. For example, public policy texts rarely include an entry for child or family policy in their table of contents (Huston, 1994), and few serious sustained efforts disseminate research on child and family issues (see Zigler, 1998, for exceptions). Policymakers do not have ready access to the growing body of research about families nor the staff or time to gather all the relevant data on the complex issues that confront them (State Legislative Leaders Foundation, 1995). As a result, policymakers often rely on information from lobbyists and special interest groups (Hahn, 1987), which may be fragmented, parochial, biased, and less forthcoming on family issues. The leaders of state legislatures feel unfamiliar with how children and families are faring in their districts and uninformed about the effectiveness of family policies and programs. Also, they are generally unaware of grassroots groups that advocate on behalf of children and families, and are seldom contacted by constituents on child and family issues (State Legislative Leaders Foundation).

Developing technologies for disseminating research on families and for promoting families as the unit of policy analysis may be an idea whose time has come. …