The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

How Nonprofit Advocates Use Evidence In State Policymaking: The Case of California's Effort to Extend Foster Care to Age 20

Friday, January 18, 2013: 8:00 AM
Marina 1 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer E. Mosley, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Mark E. Courtney, PhD, Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
BACKGROUND: How evidence is used in social work practice is a common concern of researchers, but how evidence is used in policymaking has received comparatively less attention.  Advocates use many types of evidence: quantitative summaries of effectiveness, testimonial evidence, and evidence about potential costs are just a few.  Knowing more about what kind of evidence is most effective in different policymaking scenarios is important if we are to improve policy outcomes.  These issues are particularly important in the difficult advocacy climate brought about by state government budget shortfalls. This paper explores a rich policy case—the passage and implementation of California’s historic 2010 law to expand foster care to age 20—to shed light on these issues. The specific research question addressed is: what kinds of evidence do advocates use at different stages in the policymaking process, and how is that evidence interpreted by policymakers?

METHODS: The analysis depends primarily on 38 in-depth interviews in order to understand the role and perspective of multiple stakeholders.  These interviews were held both in person and over the phone, and lasted approximately an hour.  Those interviewed included state legislators and their staff (N= 6), state administrators (N=13), judicial staff (N=3), and advocates and funders (N=16).  All interviews were recorded and transcribed for later analysis.  Other sources of data include in-person participant observation at stakeholder meetings and conference calls, and document review of the legislative history, press releases, and other communications.

RESULTS:  At the legislative stage, policymakers reported wide consensus that the policy made sense “on its face.”  Thus, advocates focused primarily on mobilizing legislators to care about the issue enough to override concerns about costs. This did this by investing heavily in emotional testimonial evidence from former foster youth and cost-benefit analysis, as opposed to evidence about effectiveness.  Importantly, cost-benefit evidence did not exist, but was able to be produced quickly due to established relationships between advocates, foundations, and researchers.  These relationships were critical in producing evidence in the right time frame for it to be useful. Research was used even more sparingly during implementation planning. This was primarily due to lack of government capacity.  Advocates were highly involved in implementation planning because of staff shortages in the state administrative agency and a need for regulations to be produced quickly. Because advocates had a lot of control over the process they generally relied on their own policy preferences that may or may not be based in research.

CONCLUSIONS: Findings indicate that for research to be effective in shaping legislative decisions it needs to be more timely and geared to policymakers concerns than what is generally produced by academic researchers.   Efforts to forge ongoing connections between sectors may help resolve this mismatch. Researchers should also consider producing more evidence about the cost benefits of policies, as that evidence may be particularly useful in the current budget crisis. Use of evidence may be compromised during policy implementation, due to time constraints, lack of government capacity, and advocates relying on their own policy preferences.