Building the Policy Wave: The Power of Data-based Storytelling

In his classic book on public policy, John Kingdon (2017) likens policy advocates to surfers waiting in the ocean for the right wave at the right time to ride their boards to shore. With hundreds of policy ideas waiting for their time to come, it’s an apt analogy. Like surfers looking for that perfect wave, advocates and policymakers await the timely confluence of public energy and politics to bring those policies to shore. Yet the likeness Kingdon describes doesn’t quite go far enough; it leaves out the power of the wave. How the wave forms and which surfboards it pushes to shore matter, too.

If we layer the surfing analogy onto the process of connecting research with policy, it frames two different approaches to influencing and informing policy decision making. Our most common picture of the process is the direct line from research findings to policy actions—reflected in the design of the surfboard itself. This direct influence is uncommon. Policy demands and research production exist in different contexts and along different timelines. The distinctly harried and quick-moving world of politics is disconnected from the deliberative landscape of research.

Still, when a direct line of research influence works, policy change can happen comparatively quickly. Research on the effects of student absenteeism (Allensworth & Easton, 2007; Balfanz, Herzog, & MacIver, 2007), for example, and the creation of a predictive “chronic absenteeism” measure (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012) made their way into mainstream thinking in just a few years. Studies and reports on chronic absenteeism were common in the late 2000s. By 2015 the term was included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—and 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico identified chronic absenteeism as a school accountability measure (Bauer, Liu, Schanzenback, & Shambaugh, 2018).

We also see efficient translation from research to practice in the familiar use of early warning indicators in high schools across the country and the identification of high schools as “dropout factories.” This research had the advantage of simply measured variables and easily understood concepts. In these cases, the surfboard design was relatively straightforward and readily constructed.

Far more indirect and time consuming is the buildup of the ocean wave. Caitlin Farrell and Cynthia Coburn have described an approach to understanding research use that is akin to a wave. Based on the ideas of Carol Weiss (1977, 1982), this conceptual use alters how people approach their work, influencing their ideas and orientations to the world. Observing district leaders as they revised school improvement policies, Farrell and Coburn explain that “the conceptual use of research does not inform one specific decision directly. Instead, it influences what district leaders prioritize and focus on as they do their work.” Research shaped the context in which district decisions were made.

Policy-influencing research enlightens the ideas, beliefs, and actions of policymakers and consequently informs policy. This part of the analogy is the clearest description of my own experience in policy positions at the U.S. Department of Education and as a fellow in a U.S. Senate office. One day we were trying to determine how best to spend $50 million annually to support states in implementing ESEA provisions and the next we were creating a grant program on high school redesign. While research didn’t speak directly to either scenario, it did inform the priorities and direction of both programs.

As a policymaker, research mattered to me not because it provided evidence for policy formulation, but because it described the way the world works. It provides the context in which policymakers create policy using the legislative vehicle at hand (e.g., federal education law). As Mark Moore (1988) notes in his essay, What Makes Public Ideas Powerful?, “Ideas matter because they establish the context in which policy debates are conducted, organizational activities are rendered coherent and meaningful, and people’s actions are animated and directed.”

Ideas matter because policy decision making is not an isolated event: it happens over a long period of time. Good policymakers recognize that policy is not an answer or solution. Essentially, like research and practice, policymaking is a form of theory testing and theory building. Policy tests a proposition about how the world works and how to change it. Stories and theories shape discourse. Researchers have stories and theories.

Research is data-based storytelling. Because policy is informed through relationships among policymakers and researchers, the data-based stories that researchers tell are critical to supporting smart policymaking. From this perspective, it is important for researchers to consider telling the story of their research findings in terms of ideas, not just outcomes. Rarely in my experience did a researcher supply a fact that changed the policy I was helping to draft. Instead, they told stories that shaped how my colleagues and I understood education.

In her book on personal narrative, Vivian Gornick (2001) makes the distinction between a situation and the meaning that is made of it. As she suggests, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” Somebody must explain the meaning; somebody must translate the facts into an explanation. This means that researchers can add to the understanding of events by explaining the story from their position of expertise and scientific inquiry, and with a full understanding of its caveats and limitations.

Research on the long-term outcomes of children in the Perry Preschool Project and the Carolina Abecedarian Project provide a very clear example (Heckman, Moon, Pinto, Savelyev, & Yavitz, 2010). Although academic gains faded over time, investments in high-quality early childhood education paid later dividends by positively affecting incarceration rates, teen pregnancy, average education level, average income, and other outcomes. That is a story. It is also a theory of how the world works: namely, that investment in young children’s education has the potential to change the trajectory of a child’s life. The research does not tell us what the particulars of the policy ought to be, or whether Head Start or preschool is the better approach. But it does tell us how we ought to be providing more resources to young children. And the idea has spread. In recent years, states and the federal government substantially increased their investments in early childhood education.

There is a downside in policymaking to an over-reliance on ideas rather than empirical research. Weiss points out that the ideas that diffuse into the policy sphere may unfairly grab the limelight, lack an evidence base, or not converge to provide useful guidance. Addressing these challenges, and others, rests with policymakers as much as researchers.

Policymakers constantly search for answers to problems. As we get better at crossing the research-policy gap, research directly informs policy more consistently. Rather than forcing direct policy implications based on findings, researchers offer tremendous value to policymakers by describing more precisely the way the world works. It takes time for a story to take hold. The quick and direct research-to-policy path may, at times, be about the “last mile” of policymaking—the pressured, political, media-covered back-and-forth final stage—rather than the years and months that led up to it.

Being in a policymaking role is about the struggle to connect a policy vehicle and a good idea about how to proceed. At the risk of riding the surfing analogy into the rocks, researchers are essential to shaping the waves that move those ideas along.

Elizabeth Grant is a professor of education at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development.


Allensworth, E. M., & Easton. J. Q. (2007). What matters for staying on-track and graduating in Chicago public high schools: A close look at course grades, failures, and attendance in the freshman year. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research, University of Chicago.

Balfanz, R. & Byrnes, V. (2012). The importance of being in school: A report on absenteeism in the nation’s public schools. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools.

Balfanz, R., Herzog, L., & MacIver, D. (2007). Preventing student disengagement and keeping students on the graduation path in urban middle-grades schools: Early identification and effective interventions. Educational Psychologist, 42(4), 223-235.

Bauer, L., Liu, P., Schanzenback, D. W., & Shambaugh, J. (2018). Reducing chronic absenteeism under The Every Student Succeeds Act (The Hamilton Project strategy paper). Retrieved from

Gornick, V. (2001). The situation and the story: The art of personal narrative. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Heckman, J., Moon, S. H., Pinto, R., Savelyev, P., & Yavitz, A. (2010). A new cost-benefit and rate of return analysis for the Perry Preschool
Program: A summary
. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series.

Kingdon, J. W. (2010). Agendas, alternatives, and public policies, 2nd Edition, (Longman Classics in Political Science). New York, NY: Pearson.

Moore, M. (1988). What makes public ideas powerful? In Robert B. Reich (Ed.), The Power of Public Ideas (78). Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

Weiss, C. H. (1977). Research for policy’s sake: The enlightenment function of social research. Policy Analysis, 3, 531-545.

Weiss, C. H. (1982). Policy research in the context of diffuse decision making. The Journal of Higher Education, 5(6), 619-639.

Post Categories: