Working for APHSA as a Research Associate has been an enlightening and transformative experience as I interact with members to address the root causes of structural inequalities through a race equity lens. And I am always eager to attend conferences with members too—it is always a learning experience. However, while the presentations are enriching, I sometimes find there to be a lack of integration of research in policymaking. The speakers are often eloquent and interesting, but they do not always tell the audience what the research says or how the research can contribute to their work. For example, I remember listening to a presentation on the lack of father engagement in the lives of children. Although there has been a lot of research on that topic, the presenter missed the opportunity to shed light on actual research findings.
Despite the importance of incorporating research evidence into policymaking—defined as information generated from processes that are explicit, systematic, and open to scrutiny—its usage has remained quite limited within many health and human services organizations. Researchers have examined this conundrum and found several contributing factors that make it difficult for agencies to adopt research evidence.
- Creating an organizational culture that routinely considers relevant research evidence is hard. With limited resources, leadership in health and human services often lack the commitment to invest in research evidence. In some instances, leadership has legitimate questions about the reliability of currently available research and its findings.
- Staff of health and human services agencies may lack the knowledge and resources to integrate research concepts into policymaking. Training and learning opportunities are often needed to help staff identify relevant research and use it in the development and analysis of their policies.
- Leaders face budgetary constraints as they determine the funding sources for their programs and services. States’ allocation of resources toward research is limited and sometimes non-existent. As their budgets shrink, leaders are reluctant to invest in research evidence.
- Some funding streams, such as the Family First Prevention Services Act, mandate the use of research evidence by implementing agencies. While imposed mandates incentivize the use of research evidence, often times they enforce restrictive and narrow rules on the type of research that policymakers can use that prevents them to integrate other type of research in their work.
Withstanding these numerous challenges, there are some strategies that states can explore to improve the use of research evidence including:
- Cultivate trusting relationships between researchers and policymakers and build an organization that both values research and has the capacity to use research. By bringing all these stakeholders together through research projects, policymakers can develop strong partnerships with researchers and practitioners.
- Build trust and value for research by providing opportunities for staff to vocalize feelings of anxiety, confusion, and disempowerment. For policymakers who are not familiar with the use of research, that transition could be a little difficult at the beginning. Yet, exposing them to research evidence through an extended time would yield productive outcomes.
- Institutionalize the use of research evidence and help staff learn the language of research and integrate its findings into their policies. This step requires leadership to start investing in research and promote activities and practices that are conducive to the consistent use of research.
Many state and local health and human services agencies are leading the charge to improve the use of research evidence in policymaking. For instance, in 2016, Allegheny County developed the Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST)—a predictive risk model to improve decision making in Allegheny County’s child welfare system. A recent evaluation of the tool shows that it has reduced the rate of children screened in for investigation, helping to reduce implicit bias among caseworkers that may refer children for investigation when another approach to support the family is more prudent. Likewise, this tool has also helped maintain a reasonable workload regarding the rate of screen-ins.
As organizations make strides to engage research in policymaking, APHSA is well suited to play the role of “knowledge broker.” Using APHSA’s numerous communication platforms, such as our Policy and Practice magazine, member work groups, newsletters, and conferences, we can help close the information-sharing gap between researchers and policymakers and unleash collaboration and trust-building among all stakeholders. I am committed to help our members use research evidence in their policies.
To that effort, I am leading a number of APHSA’s outreach to academic research centers around the nation to collaborate with them, alongside our members, on numerous projects around child and family well-being, economic assistance, work supports, and childcare. Also, I will invite researchers to submit proposals for our 2020 AASD/NASTA Conference* so that policymakers, practitioners, and researchers can build better relationships. And lastly, I will leverage our communication platforms to highlight success stories of research integration in policymaking. I look forward to moving down this path with you to use research to help all families build a path towards well-being.
* The AASD/NASTA Annual Conferences are designed to assist health and human service leaders and policy makers to shape the future of the SNAP and TANF programs through collaboration and modernization and the exchange of experience and knowledge amongst attendees.