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We spend a lot of time talking with government practitioners and a lot of time talking with academic researchers. We’ve often wondered about the barriers that keep them from talking with one another as much as they should.


That’s why we’ve been particularly charmed by the Office of Strategic Partnerships in North Carolina, which we wrote about in an April 16 column for Route Fifty.


The effort there has been to close the gap that often exists between the multiple academic researchers in a state and the government officials who are often addressing the same topics – just in different ways.


Here’s what Jenni Owen, the director of North Carolina’s Office of Strategic Partnership, told us last month. “People in academia who say they want to have an impact on policy really mean it. And people in government who say they want evidence and data to inform their decisions also really mean it. But the way they each go about doing that is often clunky.”


Witness her experience in a recent meeting with about 100 faculty members and doctoral students. “How many of you are pursuing or have something on your research agenda that you think has implications for public policy?” she asked.


Everybody raised their hand.


Next question: “How many of you have talked to anybody in government ever about the topic you’re pursuing or thinking about pursuing from a research perspective?”


 And one person raised a hand. Cautiously.


The problem is not one-sided. Government officials often have little time to seek out good research themselves and no easy way to know what’s going on in the multiple institutions of higher learning within the borders of their state or beyond.


North Carolina has set up formal ways for government departments to communicate their research needs to universities across the state. But there were also ways that Owen, who has vast experience in both academia and government, and others cited in our conversations about how the relationship could be improved in relatively simple ways.


1.     While state and local governments can certainly do a better job communicating the different initiatives that they’re working on, researchers can also do more to actively learn about their own governments. Owen and OSP often advise researchers, to watch the press releases from an agency, for example; pay attention to interim committee study groups; learn about organizational structure; look at departmental goal-setting, strategic plans and areas of cross-department collaboration.


2.    Advice also focuses on Initiating communications at the beginning of a research project, not when it’s finished. This requires knowing about new or ongoing government initiatives that might connect with research and touching base at an early stage with a couple of sentences about the relevance of the research to the initiative.


3.     That means that before communicating, it's important to understand areas of jurisdiction, a bit about departmental organizational structure and some basics about operations. If the research is about county jails, it’s likely an error to focus attention on the State Department of Corrections, which may have limited responsibility in that area. Likewise, it sends a bad signal to inquire as to whether someone is likely to be re-elected when they’re actually appointed to their position.

A few other tips for researchers who want to see their work having impact:


  • Don’t wait until a journal article is published to send it to a government official and hope that they read it, without explanation as to why it would interest them. Make sure that the journal article is relevant to the work the official is doing and include a sentence as to why you’re sending it to them.

  • Understand who the players are below the top level. Communications don’t have to go to the Cabinet Secretary or the Commissioner. As Owen told us, “Don’t assume that the leader is where you need to start.”  

  • Consider ways to collaborate. University research may overlap with a government’s own specific research needs. See if the research you’re doing can also address a government’s own specific needs in an overlapping area. Says Owen: “I dream about the day when a researcher says to a government entity, ‘I’m going to go interview new parents in rural areas. Is there even just one question you’d like me to ask?’


“There are not just small gestures of partnership, but they are also substantive. It shows that researchers are thinking about policies and programs and applications of research learning for government decision-making. This can be a game-changer for the partners.”


One more thing: The gap between professions; the difficulty in communicating and the caution with which each side approaches the other is something we run into all the time.  Our book, “The Little Guide to Writing for Impact” was published last month. It was written in collaboration with Donald F. Kettl and motivated by our mutual sense of a pervasive frustration among academics, editors and publishers that different styles of writing and communication were often standing in the way of getting important research findings across to the practitioners who could put them into action.



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