Community leaders have a need for timely, comprehensive and neutral information and analysis to inform their decision-making about the best approaches to addressing issues facing their organizations and community.
Meanwhile, engaged students often need similar policy information to gain a better understanding of the underlying causes, current programs, and potential solutions to the issues they are working on through their community service placements.
In response, we have developed a strategy that mobilizes college students to research and share policy research with their community partners and with other students.
The PolicyOptions Wiki is a platform for researching and sharing public policy information at the national, state, and local levels. The wiki format of the PolicyOptions Wiki gives us the flexibility and ease of user entry/editing/searching to allow the site to evolve as an effective local information hub.
The issue briefs on the wiki help frame a policy discussion by providing information on Scope of the Problem, Past Policy, Current Policy, Proposed Solutions, Glossary, and Sources.
The big goal of the PolicyOptions network is to fill an important gap in our public life: the availability of accurate, balanced, comprehensive information and analysis about the issues that we care about and hope to impact through public policy and civic engagement. We believe colleges and universities can help bridge the divide between engaged citizens, community-based organizations, policymakers, and researchers.
Our approach is similar to the Buffalo Commons, a “repository for action-oriented research created and maintained by Partnership for Public Good and Cornell University. This hub of knowledge, ideas, and tools for citizen engagement is a modern expression of a democratic ideal — a shared resource in which every member of the community has an equal interest.”
LINK TO STUDENT IMPACT
Bonners and other students who research and produce PolicyOptions Issue Briefs gain valuable experience in a) identifying information sources, b) interviewing local and other policy experts and practitioners, c) analyzing and organizing data and other policy research for public consumption in a usable format.
This research, writing, and presentation experience helps students prepare for professional settings where academic papers are not the preferred writing style.
For other students who receive this research through their orientation, training, and other issue-based discussions, the issue brief format provides an overview of the need, current approaches, and a range of potential solutions to consider. Along with the directory of key organizations at the local, state, and national level, this information helps students better understand the larger systemic nature of the issues they are confronting through their direct service, service leadership, capacity building, and social action roles.
LINK TO CAMPUS IMPACT
The PolicyOptions Issue Briefs and public-facing wiki provide a specific means for mobilizing the community-engaged scholarship interests of students, faculty, and staff to meet community-identified research and information needs.
Berry College has developed a model where Bonner issue-based teams research local issues, present their issue briefs at a campus-wide undergraduate research fair, and then organize campus-wide forums featuring discussion with local community leaders addressing the issue.
And, Siena College has developed a fellows program that engages public policy and other students across campus in local policy research internships. Siena’s Academic Service Learning Center partners with their political science department to co-host the Community Policy Institute which mobilizes teams of CPI Fellows to respond to requests for issue briefs and other policy research questions.
LINK TO HIGHER EDUCATION IMPACT
The PolicyOptions Issue Briefs and wiki provide a platform for cross-campus information sharing and dialogue on the public policy issues students face in their community engagement.
More than 500 students from more than 25 colleges and universities have taken courses that have incorporated PolicyOptions Issue Briefs as a major research assignment. Using a wiki platform allows the students to collaborate with others on this research not only at their institution but nationally.
Each PolicyOption Issue Brief is made up of three sections:
- Issue Overview - for each issue brief topic the overview page contains the following:
- Goal Statement - one sentence that further defines the topic
- Scope of the Problem - factual statements on the extent of the problem in the past, current, or future, with footnotes references data sources;
- Past Policy - legislation, funding, evaluation, and major reports that signify key milestones related to changes in policy related to the issue;
- Current Policy - summary of current policies in the form of legislation, programs, and funding levels;
- Profiles of Policy Options or Model Programs - grouped in categories based on distinct approaches, we profile each (see below)
- Key Organizations/Individuals - contacts for government, non-profit, advocacy, and research organizations addressing the issue.
- Glossary of Terms - key words or phrases that the layperson needs to know to understand this issue
In this process, we are seeking to work with faculty and civic engagement center staff to train Bonners and other students to research local issue briefs on topics related to their community service placements. In this process, students will edit and manage a local PolicyOptions Bureau page on the PolicyOptions Wiki (see example below).
To encourage discussion of local issues and different approaches to addressing them, we will be working with Bonner Programs to adapt Berry College’s Bonner model for issue-based education. Berry’s issue-based service teams research a policy question related to their community service placements, then present their research at a campus-wide undergraduate research poster session, and at some point in the year host an issue forums open to the campus community which feature discussions with local community leaders.
Our long-term goal is to recruit campuses to adopt the Community Policy Institute model developed at Siena College. Siena’s Academic Service Learning Center partners with their political science department to co-host a Community Policy Institute which mobilizes teams of CPI Fellows to respond to requests for issue briefs and other policy research questions.
We currently have more than 180 issue brief topics started on the PolicyOptions Wiki. However, they are of varying quality and completeness. So, we are now in the process of soliciting issue experts to serve as “contributing editors” to help ensure the quality of the issue briefs. We will be piloting this effort with the non-partisan Congressional Hunger Center.
The PolicyOptions Wiki has guides on how to research an issue brief and add it to the wiki.
The Bonner Resource Wiki has campus examples on the use of PolicyOptions.
Below are some articles on the topic of community information needs and platforms:
- Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy
- Digital Literacy and Citizenship in the 21st Century by Common Sense Media
- Re-Imagining Journalism; Local News for a Networked World by Micheal Fancher
- Civic Engagement and Community Information: Five Strategies to Revive Civic Communication by Peter Levine
- Creating Local Online Hubs; Three Models for Action by Adam Thierer
- Rethinking Public Media; More Local, More Inclusive, More Interactive by Barbara Cochran