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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Beyond Policy Briefs 

January 31, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

Whoever invented the “report launch” and the “policy brief” has had a lot of impact in the world – and, by my measure, not all of it good.  At some point in the remote past, someone noticed that people who create and implement policies do not read book-length technical treatises produced by think tanks and other research-based organizations.  Many of those people are too busy pursuing an ideological agenda or negotiating a quid pro quo; facts and nuanced analyses don’t matter.  Some of those people, however, do have an interest in grounding their policy work in facts and good analysis.  They just don’t have enough time, attention span or ability to understand technical terms of art to read a whole book or report.  Thus was invented the report launch, to draw attention to a researcher’s new tome, and the policy brief, a summary of findings, aimed at an interested but non-technical audience.

From that point forward, virtually every policy-oriented book or report has been accompanied by – drum roll here – a launch and a policy brief.  We see this all the time.  In fact, a common response when I ask grantees about the policy impact of a research report is, “We prepared a policy brief for the report launch.”

Perhaps the report launch and the policy brief (L/PB) mode of research-to-policy translation has hampered the search for other and possibly better ways to solve the original problem.  Maybe there’s some room for improvement here.

Let’s just say there were a new law outlawing policy research organizations from L/PB.  (This would, of course, be an evidence-based policy, founded on an observation that launches rarely coincide with moments when the analysis is needed by the policy community, and policy briefs often are as unread as the reports on which they are based.)  What would motivated researchers do to translate their work into changes in the real world?

They might get creative.  They might think to themselves, “who are we trying to get to do what, and what might influence them to look at the evidence we’ve generated?”  Midway through a research project they might ask, “who might value the findings and when, and how can we keep them up-to-date about what we’re learning?”  Even at the start of a research project they might ask, “what problems are facing the policy community, who really cares about them, and how can they help us define our research questions and keep us focused as our work proceeds?” 

The answers to those questions might lead to things like alliances between research and advocacy organizations around specific action or awareness campaigns.  Or the establishment of a “policy roundtable,” where invited participants from political and academic circles meet in private regularly for a combination of socializing and exchange of ideas.  Or a working group, task force, commission, study group or other collective means to define a question and conduct research.  Or even a report, but timed to be issued just at the moment, like a G20 meeting, when politicians are faced with pressure to deliver a policy solution.  Or something else entirely, appropriate to the context.

Each one of those approaches would require more time, more work and often more money than the old L/PB tactic.  But they would potentially be many-fold more effective in getting the information researchers have into the hands, minds and hearts of those who can use it.