Trust Magazine

Informing Public Debate

Evaluations of Pew’s work provide lessons for effective communications and other strategies that engage the public and contribute to meaningful policy changes.

Pew’s evaluation team commissions external experts to examine our past work, seeking not only to highlight successes and failures, but to provide lessons that can inform the institution’s ongoing and future projects. Our evaluation team also analyzes these reviews to look for effective practices that have been used across a number of Pew’s projects to identify broader lessons that can help guide future work. One of these recent cross-topic reviews provides a window on the ways Pew has successfully influenced debate on important topics that have led to improvements in public policies.

The review identified three key approaches that can influence public debate in ways that promote progress toward solutions: raising the profile of issues, especially those that have not previously received much attention; developing language that can describe issues in ways that can overcome barriers to dialogue; and finding and amplifying diverse voices to help carry relevant messages to policymakers. 

Raising the profile: Pew’s research can contribute to increasing an issue’s visibility and salience, presenting data in a clear and compelling way that draws audiences.

An example of this is Pew’s work on public retirement systems that began in 2007 and has called attention to the financial issues that state governments were facing from their pension obligations for their workers. According to an evaluation of this work, Pew’s early research on pensions brought some of the first national attention to funding gaps and investment risk-taking, which was sustained over time as media outlets continued to cite Pew’s work, particularly in states that had some of the largest funding problems.

This research helped Pew to be seen as a neutral, expert partner. Policymakers from both parties invited Pew into specific states and jurisdictions to provide custom analysis that addressed the cost-effectiveness of various solutions unique to their location. Pew’s reputation for high-quality, nonpartisan research allowed Pew to build a fact-based foundation for the reform process among policymakers who were normally at odds.

Similarly, Pew research on clean energy raised the profile of that issue by presenting clear and accessible information on a technical and complex subject. An evaluation showed that readers of project reports appreciated their focus on the state-level details of clean energy policies. News reporters plumbed the reports to write stories of local and regional interest, and advocates used them to create talking points personalized to the states and districts of members of Congress.

And key messages derived from research reports were often conveyed by highly respected experts and retired military leaders, increasing the reports’ credibility and helping to reach high-level officials who might not have had time to directly review the underlying reports.

“Raising the profile … is not a specific policy win,” one of the outside evaluators noted about the clean energy communications efforts, “but it underlies all progress made and that will be made.”

Enabling productive debate: When those with differing views hunker down and resist change on an issue, it often helps to reframe the debate and find common ground that allows new thinking about an old issue.

An example of this was Pew’s approach to reforming criminal corrections policies and practices. That work began in 2005 when mandatory minimum sentences and “three strikes and you’re out” laws were at their apex and political candidates were concerned about being labeled as “soft on crime.”

Pew’s strategy was to help people think about the United States’ criminal justice system in a different
way, by developing research that conveyed the costs to states for the corrections system, drivers of prison growth, and effects on public safety.

A 2008 Pew report documented the growth of incarceration since the 1970s and the associated costs to taxpayers. It powerfully conveyed for the first time what was happening in the nation’s justice system: One in 100 adults in the United States were in prison, a statistic that became a reference point for the media and policymakers.

Pew also helped reframe the national dialogue about corrections by engaging groups that favored fiscal conservatism and used traditional language about the need to be “tough on crime.” The evaluation of that work showed that engaging these groups helped generate a bipartisan approach to build support for evidence-based approaches to justice reform and narrowed the gap between the right and left on how such reform could be achieved. Victims’ rights groups, the business community, and evangelicals joined the call, and media coverage began to change. In 1995 a Dallas Morning News story stated: “Texas must continue being tough on crime.” By 2010, a headline in Austin American-Statesman asked “Tough on crime? Check. Smart on crime? Not so much.”

Still another example of how to effectively frame debate around an issue was Pew’s work to ensure that the votes of U.S. military members and other citizens living overseas were counted. A 2009 report documented how the existing voting system simply did not provide these voters with enough time to acquire, complete, and return ballots. The report offered practical, feasible recommendations that would give military and citizens overseas the time to vote and more options for transmitting ballots. The evaluation of that project found that Pew’s study was effective not because it offered new solutions to the problem (it didn’t), but because of the directness and clarity of its presentation, including a first-ever analysis showing which states failed to provide their military members with adequate voting time.

The evaluation also noted that the framing of the issue was effective because it identified a specific group—the military—which helped to bring both parties to the table; removed partisan overtones by focusing on flaws in the system rather than placing blame on individuals; challenged assumptions by providing facts; and kept the message simple.

In the end, the work motivated influential senators to support reform legislation.

Finding and amplifying diverse voices: While data and research are fundamental to Pew’s approach, compelling personal narratives often bring facts and figures to life, especially when they come from individuals who have been previously overlooked by policymakers. The evaluation review showed that Pew’s experience in seeking out those voices often helped influence policy debates.

A good illustration of this was Pew’s safe food project, which sought to reduce health threats from foodborne pathogens by strengthening federal authority and enforcement of food safety laws. The project found and enlisted victims of foodborne pathogens and brought them to Washington, D.C., to tell their stories to members of Congress and federal regulators.

An evaluation found that the stories told by these victims helped to cut through the politics of food safety and demonstrated that anyone, in any congressional district, could contract foodborne illness, helping to prompt new food safety legislation that was signed into law in 2011. After the enactment, Pew continued to support broad participation in the rulemaking process at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration so that affected individuals could participate in public meetings—a process sometimes dominated by concerns raised by the regulated industry.

On a completely different topic, Pew used a comparable approach in enlisting under-represented voices. Pew’s efforts to conserve U.S. public lands regularly seeks local constituencies who are closest to the landscapes that need protection and who appreciate the environmental, recreational, cultural, and economic value these places provide to local communities and the nation.

A decade ago, Pew worked with a coalition of environmental groups and Indigenous communities to seek a plan that balanced habitat protection with guidance for the oil and gas industry in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. In 2013, the federal government decided to restrict oil and gas development on 13.4 million acres of the reserve where the Inupiaq people rely on migratory caribou for traditional subsistence. (In June, however, the Trump administration proposed expanding the area open to development by nearly 7 million acres.)

The evaluation of that work showed Pew was a key intermediary and negotiator between members of the local coalition, and decision-makers in Washington, D.C. And it noted that Pew’s gathering of “authentic expressions from native villages were respected in the planning process more than letters that could simply have been sent by conservation groups.

A lesson for our strategy team is that we should work with our program and communications colleagues to make more deliberate and conscious choices about when “influencing the conversation” on an issue will be key to a strategy’s long-term success. 

The ultimate yardstick for measuring the success of any project is whether it reaches its goals. But the analysis of these evaluations shows that influencing public debate can be a significant achievement for a project—and help lay the foundation for its ultimate success.

Les Baxter is vice president at The Pew Charitable Trusts, leading work ranging from generating ideas for new projects and larger bodies of work to strengthening program strategies and initiatives. Nicole Trentacoste is Pew’s director of evaluation and program learning.

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