Research to Practice: Evaluating Assessing the New Federalism Dissemination Activities


Research to Practice: Evaluating Assessing the New Federalism Dissemination Activities


From the outset in 1996, the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism project and its funders considered dissemination an integral part of the overall project. This paper reviews the dissemination goals, objectives, and strategies the project established. The authors developed several new sets of data to evaluate how well the strategies worked and ANF reached its goals and objectives. Data developed included a survey of people using ANF analysis, a press clipping database, measures of publication reading ease, and web site tracking.

About the Series

Assessing the New Federalism is a multiyear Urban Institute project designed to analyze the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to the states. It focuses primarily on health care, income security, employment and training programs, and social services. Researchers monitor program changes and fiscal developments. Alan Weil is the project director. In collaboration with Child Trends, the project studies changes in family well-being. The project provides timely, nonpartisan information to inform public debate and to help state and local decisionmakers carry out their new responsibilities more effectively.

Key components of the project include a household survey, studies of policies in 13 states, and a database with information on all states and the District of Columbia. Publications and database are available free of charge on the Urban Institute's web site: This paper is one in a series of discussion papers analyzing information from these and other sources.

This project was funded in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families under grant 90PA0002/01 and in part by the Assessing the New Federalism project. The Assessing the New Federalism project is currently supported by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and The Ford Foundation.

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From the outset in 1996, the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism project (ANF) and its funders considered dissemination an integral part of the overall project. The project understood that welfare reform—and the devolution of responsibility for policy making that was a central tenet of the new law—put new responsibilities in the hands of stakeholders at the state level. We wanted to make sure that stakeholders' policymaking activities benefited from the latest research and data on cash assistance, child care, child welfare, child support, health insurance coverage, access, and use, Medicaid, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, and the health safety net more generally.

To that end, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation invested significant resources specifically for dissemination. The grant supported a wide variety of activities to build upon Urban Institute's existing public affairs capabilities including networking with national and state stakeholders, expansion of electronic communications, speaking opportunities, and media outreach. The 2002 Kellogg Foundation grant funded an evaluation of these dissemination activities. This report presents the results of that evaluation.

ANF Dissemination Goals, Objectives, and Strategies

To reach our goal—integrating ANF research and data resources into the policymaking process in the states—we established several objectives.

  • Establish ANF data and analyses as credible by all sides of the policy debate.
  • Reach a broad range of national and state stakeholders, including elected officials, agency administrators, advocates, service providers, and professional and trade associations.
  • Incorporate ANF data and research into national and state policy discussions.

ANF adopted several strategies to meet these objectives.

  • Promote ANF data and analyses on an "equal opportunity" basis to a wide variety of stakeholders on all sides of the political debate. We used several tactics to implement this strategy: maintaining transparency in our survey methodology; eschewing value judgments when describing data; suggesting both positive and negative outcomes from policy choices; promoting access to and use of the data by others; and issuing summaries—press releases in the project's early days—for all ANF publications.
  • Make research available in a variety of formats intended to meet the differing needs of various stakeholders. For instance, state policymakers have limited time and resources to review research. Publications targeted to them must be short, focus on one issue, highlight conclusions, and link the research to policy implications. Researchers, on the other hand, want more detail.

The project released research in four formats.

Policy briefs analyze a specific, policy-relevant issue. They use simple statistical tools, emphasize charts and graphics rather than tables, and are designed for stakeholders to read in about 30 minutes. ANF issued its first policy brief in January 1997. The "A" series briefs, of which there are currently 62, analyze many types of data. The "B" series briefs, inaugurated in August 1999, rely exclusively on NSAF data. There are 55 "B" series briefs so far.

Occasional papers are more detailed. They probe topics more deeply, require more complex analysis of the data, or report on qualitative data. Most of the papers that describe how the safety net adapted to welfare reform, based on our site visits to the 13 focal states, were published as occasional papers. ANF issued the first occasional paper in July 1997. There are currently 71 in the series.

In addition to these two major publication types, ANF issued three sets of Snapshots of America's Families to announce the first findings from each round of the National Survey of America's Families. Snapshots provide a first look at such topics as health insurance coverage, poverty and work, family structure, family environment, and child well-being.

"Fast Facts" highlight factoids from ANF publications. Most focus on a specific piece of information—differences in sanction policies in each of the 50 states, changes in health insurance coverage among low- income adults, or kin foster parents as a percentage of all foster parents. A few provide an overview of a broader topic—highlights from the ANF SCHIP evaluation or issues in TANF reauthorization. "Fast Facts" exist only on the web site; they are not printed. Thus far, ANF has issued 43 "Fast Facts."

  • Use electronic communications to promote use of the web site and increase contact with stakeholders. When the project began in 1996, many stakeholders had limited access to e-mail and the Internet. Since that time, the capacity of ANF's audiences to use electronic communications has become universal.

    Electronic communications are designed to give target audiences immediate access to the materials they choose. Stakeholders can access documents attached to e-mails or use hyperlinks to receive specific documents instantly. When ANF sends hard copies via bulk mail delivery takes one to three weeks.

    ANF recognized that the ability of stakeholders to access the Internet is not even. To fit the capabilities of a broad range of stakeholders, we make our publications available as html documents as well as pdf documents. Html documents are easier for stakeholders with dial-up connections to use. Those accessing reports via the web site use both formats fairly equally.

    Encouraging stakeholders to access publications via the web site allowed ANF to reduce printing and mailing costs. This reduced publication expenses by about two-thirds.

    ANF used contact-management software to build and manage a dissemination network with more than 1,300 contacts. The software tracked the interests of each participant, kept a history of their involvement with the project, and automated personalized e-mail contact with many people in the network simultaneously. ANF uses Act!, Automated Contact Tracking, software to manage this database.

    To alert a broad range of end users about new reports, ANF established an e-mail publication called Hot Off the Press from ANF (HOTP) in May 1999. HOTP provides short (100-150 word) summaries of new ANF publications. Unlike traditional abstracts that describe the topics a paper covers, HOTP summaries provide specific data highlighting the top-line findings. The reader gets something substantive about the research by reading the blurb. A link to the full report on the web site follows each description. To keep HOTP short, ANF limits each issue to 3 items. HOTP is distributed no more than once a week to avoid over-burdening stakeholders with e-mail. Ninety-one editions of HOTP have been issued so far. An independent contractor manages the listserv.

    ANF created the listserv by pulling e-mail addresses from the Urban Institute mailing list. ANF also surveyed people receiving hard copies of our reports to see if they preferred receiving notice of reports via e- mail. Those that did were added to the listserv. New subscribers are added through referrals, conferences, and direct contact.

  • Network with national and state organizations to educate their members about new ANF data and analysis. Stakeholders receive an overwhelming amount of policy-oriented materials from many different organizations. Stakeholders belonging to national organizations often give materials coming from those organizations first priority. To encourage the use of ANF research, ANF established relationships with the top two or three national organizations covering specific constituencies or issues. Through these relationships, ANF researchers placed articles in stakeholder newsletters, spoke at their conferences, and identified state and local contacts to add to the network.
  • Provide opportunities for stakeholders to use the research. To encourage stakeholders to pay attention to ANF research, we developed a "commentator" strategy. The strategy involved stakeholders in dissemination and gave them a vested interest in the research. It created an incentive for stakeholders to become familiar with the research. Many commentators want to speak with reporters to promote their agenda. Since ANF does the legwork, it is easy for "commentators" to participate. If commentators know that they may receive a call from a reporter on ANF research, they are more likely to take the time to read the report. Once they read the report, we believe, they are more likely to use it in other ways.
  • Encourage media coverage of ANF research to communicate broadly about the new research. Working with the Urban Institute's Public Affairs office, ANF sought coverage in national media outlets. This included general news media, trade and association publications, and professional journals. ANF also targeted media outlets in the 13 states the project studied intensively (Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin). As the project evolved, ANF expanded outreach to black, Hispanic, and faith-based outlets. Most media outreach activities were directed at print outlets, but ANF did issue several radio news releases and appeared in numerous television news stories.

    Media outreach activities sought to protect ANF's reputation as a credible, nonpartisan, objective source of data and analysis. Working with "commentators" enabled ANF to offer a reporter a contact that could discuss the policy implications of the research and what the data means in terms of real people. This made it easier for ANF researchers to focus on the research findings.

  • Update the dissemination strategy in response to the changing environment and feedback from stakeholders. ANF changed its dissemination priorities and updated its outreach strategies to meet new challenges and opportunities, including growing reliance on e-mail and the web (as described above), altering the focus from state implementation to TANF reauthorization, and building the capacity of stakeholders to use datasets created by the project.
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