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Jack Tweedie, from the National Conference of State Legislatures, explains the keys to communicating research to legislators in a way that will encourage them not only to pay attention to it but also to use it to inform their policymaking.

How can researchers effectively communicate research and data to state legislators? Let's start by recognizing that communicating research to policymakers is different from communicating it to other researchers. Many good researchers will be uncomfortable communicating with legislators until they get used to these differences.

For early childhood research, the audience is comprised of legislators who play key roles in policymaking on issues affecting children and families, and the legislative staff who work with them. In most states, we are talking about the members of the education and human service committees and the legislators who sit on fiscal committees that deal with human services and education budgets. Speakers or majority leaders also play a role, particularly in deciding whether to give the go-ahead on major new initiatives or big spending increases. When contacting legislators about research, it is important to keep in mind the following:

  • Legislators are very busy, with little time to learn about issues or look at research unless it is directly related to something they are focused on that day.
  • Legislators are often overwhelmed by people and documents and ideas coming at them; they have little time to digest and respond. They need quick, often shorthand methods for understanding.

Optimally, publications should have one- or two-page summaries that tell readers what they should know and give them a reason to explore the issue further. Legislators often have to decide whether to spend more than a minute thinking about something. Effective research publications provide legislators who do not have a good understanding of an issue with the information they need. Keep in mind that legislators are usually generalists:

  • Most legislators on education or human service committees will know a fair bit about some issues but not the full range of topics.
  • Fiscal legislators and legislative leaders will know less about the substance of policies that affect children and families.
  • The number of legislators who have a thorough understanding of a particular issue, such as early education or welfare policy, is seldom sufficient to get a new program or significant new spending through the legislature.

Presentations must grab legislators' attention up front. Talk to them like you would to your mother or brother, not your dissertation advisor. In writing, use plain language, graphs, and illustrations. Real-life examples that demonstrate conclusions are best. For example, start your discussion about how research shows that unstable child care is a principal reason many parents cannot stay employed with a story about a single mother who lost her job because her child care arrangements broke down. Legislators appreciate research information that is explained in ways accessible to laypersons, because legislators think in human terms, not in statistical or research ones. It is important, therefore, to combine research data with descriptions about how people are affected.

Lead with and focus on conclusions. Focus on what you can say, not on what you cannot say. Rely on your understanding of methods to guide what you present but keep discussion of methodology brief.

Listen to and pay attention to what legislators care about and address those concerns. Most legislators already have goals based on their own standards or their views of their constituency's interests. You should not assume they agree with research findings, nor should you try to convince them about what they should care about. Once you start arguing about values or goals, you become an advocate, not a researcher.

This caution is particularly important when you are discussing issues relating to the responsibilities of government or the relationship between government, children, and family. Legislators have a broad range of views on these issues, and most feel very strongly about their views. Be aware that legislators are politicians and deal regularly with claims and information from lobbyists and others focused on persuading them to take a certain position. They always look at from where the information is coming. Most have respect for neutral experts, but that respect is difficult to maintain.

It pays to take legislators seriously. Though few will know as much about your specialty as you, most have some concern for and understanding of the policy issues. Build on their understanding by correcting mistaken ideas rather than lecturing them about research conclusions. You want them to be informed as they vote and develop new legislation for young children, not to ace the final exam in Child Development 101.

Jack Tweedie
Program Director
Children and Families Program
National Conference of State Legislatures
7700 East First Place
Denver, CO 80230
Tel: 303-364-7700

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