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Connecting Policy to the People

It's a long way between the desks where public policy is created and the desks where its effects are studied. WVU’s Institute for Policy Research was created to bring them together. 

Photo of Sam Workman

“The academy often has the perspective that state and local officials need to understand us better,“ said Dr. Sam Workman, the Institute’s new director. “The problem is that we don’t understand the context for their decisions. My job is to inform people on campus about the decisions those officials face every day, and to deliver the science that will help the officials in their day-to-day decision-making. They’re helping us define the research we do, and we’re helping them make decisions informed by quantifiable evidence.”

The Institute for Policy Research is housed in Eberly's John D. “Jay” Rockefeller School of Policy and Politics. Formed in the beginning of 2022, its mission is to provide non-partisan research to public officials throughout the state.

“We’re looking at how groups categorize topics and prioritize issues,” said Workman, “As well as how they use data and research to justify their decisions. That reveals agendas and solutions. We could be looking at statutes, hearings, city council meeting minutes or open-ended survey questions. But you can’t dispense with the humanistic elements. A computer can’t understand meaning.” 

By utilizing WVU’s academic resources, the Institute will create a symbiotic relationship between policymakers and the people they govern. Workman is an expert in deploying big data infrastructures to answer fundamental questions about public policy, governance and public priorities, and the Institute will use its data initiatives to develop solutions for state and local officials. However, he draws a clear line between providing data and guiding public officials.

“The role of an academic is never to steer policymakers in a given direction. The people of this state didn’t elect me. My only goal is to aid those they did.”

This summer, the Institute is engaging in a whistle-stop tour of West Virginia to assess the issues those officials face and the opportunities they see in their communities. They are also developing a fiscal tool to allow county officials to compare spending patterns and learn from one another. In the fall, the Institute will launch a major, systematic survey of citizens’ attitudes on a variety of issues. Its other projects include analyzing state emergency management data related to fire, health disparities due to opioids and assessing the prevalence and reporting of developmental disabilities for the state’s children.

According to Workman, by contextualizing past policy-making decisions, the Institute will help to guarantee West Virginia’s future prosperity and it will benefit future WVU students.

“We often talk about problems in rural areas like West Virginia, but there’s a lot of opportunities too," he said. "We have immense natural resources, which is easy to see with the legacy of coal — but it doesn’t end there. We have rivers, lakes, mountains, one of the best stocks of hardwood timber in the northeast. We need to think about how we’re going to manage these resources in a way that grows the economy and charts a future for the people of this state.” 

By engaging with the decisions being made across the state, Workman, a Fayette County native and WVU Tech alumnus, hopes to improve the lives of future Mountaineers — and maybe the lives of people across all of Appalachia. 

“Right now our efforts are statewide,” Workman says, “But I’d like to see them become region-wide someday. There are other policy research institutions in the region, but nothing says Appalachia like West Virginia.  

“How are we all going to coordinate and deal with problems that we all confront? That’s the American experiment in a nutshell.”