Academic journal article Social Work

Informing State Policymakers: Opportunities for Social Workers

Academic journal article Social Work

Informing State Policymakers: Opportunities for Social Workers

Article excerpt

Where do state policymakers go for information and what are the implications for social work? For years, community groups, foundations, and researchers have been looking for avenues to get relevant information to legislators. Similarly, social work practitioners and students are challenged to affect the legislative process. However, there is less practical knowledge available and easily accessible to the masses about affecting public policy.

Research has demonstrated the importance of various sources of information for state-level policymakers. Fellow legislators, interest groups, state executive agencies, legislative staff, other state and local governments, the media, constituents, universities, and think tanks are commonly mentioned sources of information. However, published research has not systematically documented other avenues of information. Nor has much of the literature documented different preferences based on characteristics of the legislator or the district they represent.

In this article I report on a study of information sources for 12 state legislators. The findings show that there are additional sources of information that matter to state legislators and confirm anecdotal evidence that the relative importance of these information sources depends on characteristics of the state legislators and the districts they represent. I identify several strategies for informing state legislators about lessons learned from agency practices, community initiatives, demonstration projects, research, and related activities.


There is ample evidence of the need and obligation for social workers to inform the public policy process (Dear & Patti, 1981; Ezell, 2001; Haynes & Mickelsen, 2003; Hepworth & Larson, 1986; Jansson, 1999; Schneider & Lester, 2001; Van-Gheluwe & Barber, 1986). To do so, social work students and practitioners need a firm grounding in the policy process and corresponding opportunities to influence it. Several early studies provide insights into the legislative process at the federal and state levels (Lewis & Ellefson, 1996; MacRae, 1976; Pierce & Lovrich, 1983; Ray, 1982; Sabatier & Whiteman, 1985; Songer, 1988; Zwier, 1979). This early research should not be overlooked or dismissed when considering how, where, and when to influence the legislative process, particularly with regard to information flows.

Legislative staff and executive agencies have been consistently cited as sources of information for legislators. Staff provide key resources and help policymakers draft legislation and sort through the pros and cons of components of legislation. Executive agencies are important because they may propose legislation and are responsible for implementing it. Often the institutional memory necessary to propel policy solutions forward resides in legislative staff and employees of government agencies. Reliance on information from fellow legislators, particularly as a cue for voting is well documented (Entin, 1973; Kingdon, 1989; Kovenock, 1973; Matthews & Stimson, 1975; Porter, 1974; Wahlke, Eulau, Buchanan, & Ferguson, 1962). There is also literature on interest group influence and the prevalence of lobbying in the legislative process (Gray & Lowery, 1995, 2000; Mayo & Perlmutter, 1998; Pierce & Lovrich, 1983; Schlozman & Tierney, 1986; Thomas & Hrebenar, 1999; Ziegler & Huelshoff, 1980). Few would deny that these are useful sources of information for state legislators.

A number of studies have demonstrated ways in which the constituency may affect legislative voting patterns (Barnello, 1999; Herring, 1990; Witt & Moncrief, 1993). Segal and Brzuzy (1998) argued that "constituents who take the time and effort to present their position can make a strong impression, influence the staff person, and thereby reach the elected official ... Elected officials have limited time. They are most responsive to those who elect them or will re-elect them" (p. …

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