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Three experts in conducting Family Impact Seminars share their techniques for bringing research about families to legislators in a way that not only grabs their attention, but also supports policy change.

The need is clear. The leaders of state legislators report that they are unaware of how children and families are faring in their dis- tricts and are uninformed about the effectiveness of family policies and programs (State Legislative Leaders Foundation, 1995). As family researchers and practitioners, we have the research and practice-based information that policymakers need. The conundrum we face is this: How can we get the good information that we have at our fingertips into the hands of policymakers, where it becomes a powerful political tool for developing policies that strengthen and support families?

We have discovered four practical strategies for connecting good research and ideas with policymaking, based on nine years of experience conducting Family Impact Seminars for Wisconsin policymakers. These strategies have been fundamental to the success of the seminars and may have relevance for other efforts to link research with policymaking.

Family Impact Seminars are a series of seminars, briefing reports, newsletters, and discussion sessions for state policymakers, including legislators, legislative aides, Governor’s office staff, legislative support bureau personnel, and state agency representatives. The seminars provide objective, solution-oriented information to policymakers on timely issues such as education, juvenile crime, parenting, and welfare reform.

Since 1993, 16 seminars have been held in Wisconsin, attracting 1,138 participants, including 66 different state legislators and 99 legislative offices. The seminars have proven successful in increasing policymakers’ knowledge of family issues in ways that are useful in their work. For example, using retrospective pretest methodology (Pratt, McGuigan & Katzev, 2000), participants reported knowing significantly more about prescription drugs after the seminars than before (see Figure 1 below). In phone interviews 6 to 8 weeks following each seminar, legislators consistently rate the seminars as the second most useful information source, less useful than constituents, but more useful than print materials or lobbyists (a trend analysis was significant at p < .003). Legislators reported they use the information in the following ways:


  • 81% to evaluate pending legislation
  • 66% to share with colleagues
  • 52% to identify contacts for further information
  • 48% to incorporate into speeches or presentations
  • 22% to develop new legislation

Figure 1: How Much Participants Learned from the Prescription Drug Seminar

Bar chart


Based on this preliminary evidence of effectiveness, we have identified four pragmatic strategies for connecting research and ideas to policymaking. In Wisconsin, adhering to these strategies has carved out a niche that distinguishes us from the advocates, lobbyists, and special interest groups that regularly bombard legislators with their own legislative agendas.

1. Provide objective, high-quality, research- and practice-based information. In interviews, legislators complain about the piles of reports on their desks. What policymakers need is not more information, but more objective and valid information (Strickland, 1996). So, a valuable service family professionals can provide is helping policymakers sort out the sound from the sensational, the accurate from the agenda-driven. In the words of a state legislator, "...the ability to present and prepare unbiased research based on objective analysis and without political taint is truly refreshing."

The seminars have established a reputation as an objective information source by providing policymakers with a range of policy options. For example, our briefing report on competent parenting reviewed family support programs in five states and 25 policy proposals from agencies and organizations that were notably diverse in their political orientations.

2. Be reactive rather than proactive. Most organizations that work with policymakers have an agenda, such as introducing legislation, passing a bill, or boosting their own budget. Instead of proactively promoting our own agenda, we deliberately respond to policymakers’ needs. We conduct annual interviews with 11 legislative and gubernatorial advisors so we can focus on issues policymakers are debating about or voting on.

This careful attention to timing increases legislative attendance. For example, the welfare reform seminar, held the day before the vote on Wisconsin’s welfare legislation, attracted a record 28 state legislators. We also found that in policymaking circles the usefulness of information often depends on when it is provided. For example, we divided all the Wisconsin seminars into two categories: seminars in which legislation was pending (e.g., prescription drugs and welfare reform) and seminars which legislators had identified as important issues, but no legislation was pending (e.g., competent parenting and youth resilience). In t-tests, legislators rated the seminars with pending legislation significantly more useful than the others.

3. Provide information in the format policymakers prefer. The oral tradition in policymaking is long and strong. To build on policymakers’ preference for the oral over the written word, we recommend conducting seminars, setting up personal appointments with policymakers, or organizing discussion sessions.

Surprisingly, we have learned through our work that legislators have few opportunities to become acquainted with each other, particularly with colleagues on the other side of the aisle. A valuable service professionals can provide to policymakers is to provide a neutral space for dialogue outside the contentious, interest-group-dominated environment in which policymaking takes place (Smith, 1991). One state legislator commented that "the information and ability for follow-up discussion at the round table portion of the seminar is not available to my knowledge in any other setting."

4. Bring a family perspective to policymaking. Most policymakers would not think of passing a bill without asking about its economic or environmental impacts. Family professionals can encourage policymakers to routinely ask about the impact of policies or programs on families. Policymakers should ask questions such as: In what ways do families contribute to social problems? How are families affected by problems? Would family-based solutions be more effective? We have available a list of 34 family impact questions on our website at [Acrobat file].

For anyone interested in strengthening families, connecting with policymakers is important because policy shapes the context in which families operate. In the words of an anonymous state legislator, "Persist with well-researched and accredited information and keep at it. Politics belongs to the persistent" (State Legislative Leaders Foundation, 1995, p. 29).

Karen Bogenschneider
Professor and Executive Director
Policy Institute for Family Impact Seminars (PINFIS)
University of Wisconsin-Madison/Extension
1430 Linden Drive
Madison, WI 53706

Bettina Friese, Ph.D.
Associate Director
Policy Institute for Family Impact Seminars (PINFIS)
3412 Social Science Building
Madison, WI 53706

Karla Balling
Research Assistant
Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars
CSC H6/148
600 Highland Avenue
Madison, WI 53792


Bogenschneider, K., Olson, J. R., Linney, K. D., & Mills, J. (2000). Connecting research and policymaking: Implications for theory and practice from the Family Impact Seminars. Family Relations, 49(3), 327-339.

Bogenschneider, K. (in press). Family policy matters: How policymaking affects families and what professionals can do. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pratt, C., McGuigan, W., & Katzev, A. (2000). Measuring program outcomes: Using retrospective pretest methodology. American Journal of Evaluation, 21, 341-349.

Smith, J. A. (1991). The idea brokers: Think tanks and the rise of the new policy elite. New York: The Free Press.

State Legislative Leaders Foundation. (1995). State legislative leaders: Keys to effective legislation for children and families. Centerville, MA: Author.

Strickland, T. (1996). Moving psychology toward (self) recognition as a public resource: The views of a congressman psychologist. In R. P. Lorion, I. Iscoe, P. H. DeLeon, & G. R. VandenBos (Eds.) Psychology and public policy: Balancing public service and professional need. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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