The Rules We Play By, Part 3: Citizen Action and Research

Last Updated: November 27, 2012

This article appeared in the November 2012 Rural Policy Matters.

In previous articles in this RPM series, we explored what public policy is, how it affects what is possible, and where education policy is made and enforced.

In this issue we explore influences on policymakers and turn our attention to the roles of citizen involvement and research in policymaking. See the previous articles here and here.

There is no question that many education policymakers, at all levels, are influenced by the most powerful of their constituents, be they large population segments, corporate lobbyists, or well-funded interest organizations. This reality doesn’t necessarily lock citizens out of the political processes that affect their schools. See “Unexpected Outcomes in Some Ballot Initiativesfor a report on key outcomes of this month’s education ballot initiatives.

Citizens can also change the direction of public policy by directly influencing policymakers. This usually requires a compelling story supported by some kind of research and a willingness of citizens to get other people on board for their cause through organizing efforts.

The role of research in policymaking

“Research is the accepted language of discourse around policy,” says Jerry Johnson, co-author of Why Rural Matters and consultant to the Rural Trust. “Ideally, research helps develop an understanding of what works.”

Policymakers sometimes point to research as the public justification for policy decisions. But that doesn’t mean the research is sound. “There’s a lot of ‘faux’ research out there,” says Johnson.

Interest groups have been known to produce questionable data and conclusions based on poor research methods, and the developers of educational programs and learning interventions often hire their own research teams to demonstrate the effectiveness of their products. Nevertheless, if such research captures the public imagination, gets a lot of media attention, or is backed by big marketing dollars it can be viewed as valid. “Whatever the ‘accepted’ research is becomes the norm,” says Johnson.

Even the most well-intentioned and carefully constructed research can be marred by faulty assumptions, sometimes with disastrous consequences. History is littered with examples in science, medicine, and education.

Countervailing research plays an important role in challenging the underlying assumptions and purported outcomes of existing research. For example, the Arkansas State Department of Education once reported ACT scores by high school size and made the argment that larger schools produced greater academic achievement. Their analysis failed to account for differences in the student population (socioeconomic status, race, and the number of times taking the test all influence scores). When the scores were reexamined by Rural Trust researchers using a model that statistically controlled for student characteristics, a very different story emmerged: smaller high schools were outperforming larger high schools.

Research can sometimes present or support an alternative narrative persuasive enough to change public (and policymaker) opinion. More often, however, research is most influential when an issue is not considered settled or when people don’t know very much about the issue and are open to information. Data, by itself, is rarely enough to persuade firmly held beliefs.

“Research is most effective at influencing non-researchers and leading to changes in policy and practices when it has an emotional hook,” says Johnson. “It needs a ‘story’ and effective advocates to help spread that story. Without them important research can sit on a shelf and make no difference at all.”

The role of organizing in policy making

Organizing is the intentional effort of advocates to change something. “There are several models of organizing and all of them involve conecting people over time to agitate for the change they want. They work together until they reach the level of power to effect the change they seek,” says Page McCullough, Field Services Manager for the Rural Trust.

Successful citizen organizing efforts marshal the interests of ordinary people around an issue in ways that enable them to act collectively. “Organizing can cause policymakers to sit up and take notice. It communicates that a constituency is seriously concerned and activated,” says McCullough.

Research is an important tool for organizing because it lends legitimacy to the organizer’s perspective on the issue at hand. For example, McCullough points to the efforts of the Formula Fairness Campaign to address inequities in Title I funding in high-poverty small and medium-sized school districts. “The research, publicity, and work in Congress that Marty Strange did around Title I funding demonstrates that focused, effective research and advocacy can bring an issue to public attention. Even if you don’t win immediately, you help people understand, and you lay the groundwork for more action in the future.”

While research is an important tool for citizen organizers, it is most effective when advanced by cohesive, well-informed groups. And that takes time to develop. “Organizing is labor-intensive and long-term,” says McCullough. “It takes a lot of skill and people on the ground, talking directly to other people, bringing information, strategizing, building bridges, settling conflicts. It can feel risky to people, especially those who worry that involvement in the issue will cause retaliation or negative repercussions for themselves or others.”

McCullough identifies school discipline policy as an example. “Parents and community residents may see that local school discipline practices are harmful and unfair. But if parents fear their child will be targeted because they as parents stand up, they may look for other ways to protect their children. Sometimes parents just don’t have much political power to influence local policy decisions. That’s especially true when economic resources are very unevenly distributed in the community. A lot of times the people who do stand up are so drained by the needs around them that they don’t have time and energy to keep at it.”

Those realities are important examples of the need for organizing efforts that bridge communities across a state or region and engage citizens who are less vulnerable to retaliation.

Rural challenges

Rural communities face challenges related to both research and organizing. Few research efforts address rural issues directly. "Many traditional research designs are intended for investigating large populations and are not easily modified for use with small population groups. Likewise, some of the available national data sets are not constructed in ways that support rural-specific research," says Johnson. 

Organizing around rural issues is especially difficult because rural people are diverse and scattered and do not constitute a demographic majority.

Yet rural people, especially rural minority and low-income residents who are particularly under-represented in most states, deserve a seat at the policymaking table. Rural residents bring important insight and experience and their communities are often the bellwether for emergent issues not yet recognized in more urban places.


Read more from the November 2012 Rural Policy Matters.