Why MFTs struggle to influence public policy

George Hodan / PublicDomainPictures.net / Licensed under Creative Commons 0As marriage and family therapists, we have a vast body of knowledge supporting our work with families and communities. Many of the pinciples and interventions from this body of knowledge could be utilized in public policy, to great positive effect. As two examples, family breakdown could be reduced, and juvenile crime recidivism decreased, both in ways that actually save taxpayers money. Politicians of all parties should be chomping at the bit for such policies.

Except that they don’t. And the April 2009 Family Relations journal helps us to understand why not.

In “The voice of experience: How social scientists communicate family research to policymakers,” authors Bettina Friese and Karen Bogenschneider discuss why family research is not as utilized as it could be in policy, carefully avoiding blame and focusing instead on those practices that have been shown to work — in the rare instances in which they’ve been used. For example, the seemingly obvious step of taking “the initiative to contact policymakers or policy intermediaries” had been taken by only one of the 49 participants in the study. And these were 49 leaders in applying research to policy, who had actually taken part in Wisconsin’s “Family Impact Seminars” for legislators and their aides.

So, just as MFTs could gripe that policymakers are not putting our work into policy, policymakers could just as easily complain that we’re not reaching out to them with anything useful.

The other recommendations show similarly pragmatic ways MFTs can improve information delivery to make it more useful (and influential). “Conceptualize policy work… as developing relationships” rather than providing one-shot informational pieces seems to be good advice, as does “Communicate research findings in ways that meet policymakers’ information needs.” On the latter point, if researchers don’t help, legislators may rightly feel the need to do it themselves. This publication, essentially a content analysis of abstinence programs, seems like it ought to have been done by a non-governmental agency.

The article’s final recommendation, “Be patient and self-rewarding in defining success,” shows most starkly the difficulty educators and researchers have in gaining support from their universities to assist in policy discussions:

According to seven researchers from land-grant universities that are expected to translate research for public consumption, policy work is time consuming and too often considered “an extracurricular activity.”

In spite of the barriers, there is room for optimism here. MFTs can and do influence public policy, and professional associations AAMFT and NCFR have made infusing research into policy discussions a key element of their work. And these associations are generally eager to enlist willing MFTs in the effort, especially at the state and local level. All that’s needed is the energy and interest to be part of the discussion.

Editor’s note: Originally published June 8, 2009. Updated and republished July 4, 2018.