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duncanDuncan Green provides short and sweet translations of some of the key findings from a recent survey looking at how US policymakers use and value international studies research. The findings point to the importance of blogging, but also to the sustained influence of traditional print media. The future of evidence-informed networks may require a more engaged look at what policymakers are actually looking for.

Interesting survey of US policymakers in December’s International Studies Quarterly journal. I’m not linking to it because it’s gated, thereby excluding more or less everyone outside a traditional academic institution (open data anyone?) but here’s a draft of What Do Policymakers Want From Us?, by Paul Avey and Michael Desch. The results are as relevant to NGO advocacy people trying to influence governments as they are to scholars. Maybe more so. I’ve added my own running translation.

The authors surveyed all senior White House officials involved in national security under both George Bushes and Bill Clinton. 234 out of 915 responded (pretty good response rate for people this senior). Conclusions?

The gap between the scientific aspirations of contemporary international relations scholarship and the needs of policymakers is greatest the higher one reaches in the policy world. More surprisingly, this gap tends to be greater the more educated the policymaker. This is consistent with the argument that familiarity with advanced techniques instills greater appreciation for both their promise and limits.

Translation: the more policymakers know about a subject, the less they believe ‘experts’

green policymaker skills

Source: Avey and Desch (2014). What Do Policymakers Want From Us? Results of a Survey of Current and Former Senior National Security Decision-makers

Another conclusion we draw from this survey is that a scholar’s broader visibility – both in government and among the public whether through previous government service or publication in broader venues –– enhances influence among policymakers more than his or her academic standing.

Translation: get blogging, people

The primary constraint policymakers face in digesting scholarly, or any other writings, is lack of time. As one respondent put it, “any research papers that exceed 10-15 pages” are not useful to policymakers. Another noted that “I do not have the time to read much so cannot cite” many examples of useful social science scholarship.

Translation: work on those elevator pitches

We were surprised by two other findings from our survey about how policymakers get their information: First, unclassified newspaper articles were as important to policymakers as the classified information generated inside the government. This fact opens up an important avenue for scholarly influence upon policy if scholars can condense and convey their findings via this route.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923). Photographed 2007 by Carol Highsmith (public domain, wikimedia)

Second, the Internet has not yet become an important source of information for policymakers, despite its ease of accessibility and the generally succinct nature of the presentation of its content. It could be a just a matter of time until a more web-oriented generation reaches the pinnacle of national security decision-making authority but we also ought to consider whether the internet suffers from weaknesses vis-à-vis traditional print media that dilute its influence. The plethora of internet news and opinion outlets, many of questionable reliability, combined with the lack of an authoritative source among them, may mean that the internet will continue to lag behind the elite print media because it exacerbates the signals to noise problem for policymakers.

Translation: good old fashioned press work beats social media

But our most important findings concern what role policymakers think scholars ought to play in the policy process. Most recommended that scholars serve as “informal advisers” and as “creators of new knowledge.” There were two surprises for us here: First, policymakers ranked the educational and training role of scholars for future policymakers third behind these other two roles. They also confessed that they derived relatively little of their professional skills from their formal educations. (see pie chart) The main contribution of scholars, in their view, was research. Second, and again somewhat surprisingly, they expressed a preference for scholars to produce “arguments” (what we would call theories) over the generation of specific “evidence” (what we think of as facts). In other words, despite their jaundiced view of cutting-edge tools and rarefied theory, the thing policymakers most want from scholars are frameworks for making sense of the world they have to operate in.’

Translation: the best narrative (not the best evidence) wins

This piece originally appeared on Duncan Green’s blog From Poverty to Power and is reposted with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the Author

Duncan Green is Senior Strategic Adviser for Oxfam GB and author of the book ‘From Poverty to Power’. He can be found on twitter @fp2p.

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