Improving the Practice of Public Policy

Public policy is so frenetic nowadays that it is hard to focus beyond the latest proposal or… tweet. But talking strategically was my assignment as a plenary speaker at the recent Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) conference in San Diego. Admittedly, I appreciated the challenge to think about effective public policy development, the bigger picture and the long term—perspectives that have become scarce here in Washington.

The diversity of people we serve and complexity of problems we seek to address demand we recognize and break free of our silos

An examination of public policy addressing the digital divide is especially timely as it expands in new dimensions. In particular, advancing economic opportunity, such as enabled through the sharing economy and entrepreneurship, depends on the ability to integrate and leverage digital tools and services with the physical world—and ameliorating this digital divide is a major new focus here at the American Library Association.

The Ideal State

The best public policy is informed by the most current and relevant research. The realities of everyday practice in providing digital services, whether by leading-edge community institutions or their struggling counterparts, also should be fully reflected in public policy analysis and recommendations. Thus, colleagues in the worlds of research and practice should be close collaborators of policy folks as we develop and advocate for effective public policy.

In an ideal world for public policy, we could, for instance, advocate for each locale’s specific need for high-speed broadband at libraries (and in other community anchor institutions) with inadequate network capacity—both immediately and in the long run. We’d have accurate estimates for the cost of deployment of this capacity by geography and density. Then we’d have well-developed scenarios and plans for how this increased broadband capacity would enable the creation of technology centers at libraries to advance small business development, entrepreneurship, job skills development, and coding and STEM learning for youth.

Unfortunately, we are not at the ideal state, for libraries or any other sector.

The Reality of Public Policy Advocacy

Public policy advocacy on the digital divide runs on data and stories. Unfortunately, most of us need to operate in a reactionary mode. An issue arises, and we search for the research and examples that match our particular needs on the fly, especially targeted to states or congressional districts of interest. We pull together what we can, but frequently it is far from the ideal.

Researchers may not be producing the information needed for policy, whether from a lack of awareness of the critical policy questions at play or insufficient support by funders, conference organizers, or other influencers who set research directions. Relevant research may also be produced but then not well publicized or disseminated to decisionmakers. For example, a 2014 World Bank study found that almost one-third of its archived research reports never had been downloaded. Clearly there’s a disconnect.

There are notable cases from which we can learn. A prime example is the process through which the National Broadband Plan was developed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). To complement and bolster the FCC’s capabilities, noted researcher John Horrigan and the Social Science Research Council were recruited to strengthen research firepower. About two dozen separate formal solicitations for input were issued by the FCC (and I recall many a day working on submissions, which included obtaining the views from library practitioners from across the country). In-person workshops were held by the FCC to obtain further input. So yes, policy makers can indeed effectively engage with the research and practitioner communities, but it does take concerted action.

Our “non-policy” digital divide colleagues looking in at the policy process can see a mess and thus be reluctant to engage. The making of public policy is sometimes described as sausage-making (and with apologies to the nation’s sausage makers). To be sure, the policy process often unfolds unpredictably as policy windows open and close and policy people move around in different jobs within the branches of government, think tanks, advocacy groups, corporations, law firms, and other organizations.

Policy making is also subject to factors such as ideology, deals, politicians’ instincts, and structural inertia as some stakeholders prefer the status quo notwithstanding compelling arguments to the contrary. So helping our non-policy colleagues better understand how, when, and where they may engage effectively will encourage more participation in it.

Making Progress

Researchers, practitioners, policy analysts and advocates need to be engaged in this work and interconnected to effectively address policy goals and therefore enabling significant progress to be realized.

There are some near-term specific interventions that may be undertaken to improve the interconnectedness of research, policy, and practice. Knowledge brokering and evidence mapping could be employed to sift through research and identify likely application and relevance to particular policy topics. Or our greater use of non-resident fellows (as think tanks routinely employ) would help to connect us. To be most effective, systematic efforts would need to be instituted, perhaps facilitated through a philanthropic initiative.

However, to develop the research—policy—practitioner ecosystem truly needed to forcefully address critical public policy challenges will require more fundamental change. The place to begin is a summit or major convening by national leaders to assess the current state and develop a vision, strategy, goals, and, ultimately, recommendations for evolving this ecosystem. As policy issues continue to become more complicated and inter-sectoral, the need to improve our means for addressing complex challenges together only increases. The diversity of people we serve and complexity of problems we seek to address demand we recognize and break free of our silos.

Such a systematic, deeper meeting of the minds would serve both to develop our understanding of the challenges and barriers, and the improved outcomes if they are mitigated, as well as to come up with the direction for the future.

Alan S. Inouye leads technology policy for the American Library Association. Previously, he coordinated the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee in the Executive Office of the President, and directed information technology policy studies at the National Academy of Sciences.

By Alan Inouye.