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Joelle Cook on the Bellwether Interview Methodology

I am Joelle Cook with Organizational Research Services (ORS) in Seattle, Washington. ORS designs, implements and coaches clients in outcome-based planning and evaluation. We specialize in advocacy and policy evaluation and our advocacy-related projects often include the investigation of changes in political will.

Through a demonstration session at the 2011 AEA conference, Steve Mumford and I shared our experiences using the Bellwether Methodology to assess changes in political will for two advocacy-related projects – a pre/post evaluation of a communication campaign promoting library funding to the public and, by extension, local decision makers; and a prospective evaluation of education-reform advocacy efforts. The Bellwether Methodology adds two unique features to basic key informant interviews: 1) the interview sample consists of bellwethers, e.g. thought leaders whose opinions carry substantial weight and predictive value in the policy arena; and 2) interviewees are not informed in advance of the specific policy focus of the interview and instead are told that the interview will discuss a range of policy issues.

Rad Resource: Julia Coffman and Ehren Reed write about the Bellwether Methodology, developed by the Harvard Family Research Project, in their paper: Unique Methods in Advocacy Evaluation. Also check out materials from our AEA presentation in the AEA eLibrary, where we shared experiences adapting and implementing the bellwether methodology and a sample interview protocol we developed.

Hot Tip: Because interviewees are not informed in advance of the interview’s policy focus, evaluators can more objectively assess where the issue is positioned relative to other issues, how decision-makers are thinking and talking about it, how likely decision-makers are to act, and what is realistic progress for the advocacy organization. Prospectively, interviews can inform messaging and communication strategies; retrospectively, they can shed light on the advocacy effort’s contribution to changes in political will.

Hot Tip: Figure out who is in the know about the policy interest but who also track a range of other issues. Bellwethers might be policymakers, media, funders, researchers/think tank staff, business leaders, community leaders or advocates. We worked closely with clients to develop the sample list; however, we had to rely partially on convenience sampling from the list because of bellwethers’ limited availability and turnover in public office.

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