As a pioneer in broad-based marriage initiatives, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI) has charted new territory. Recognizing that there was little prior information to guide implementation designs and strategies for pursuing its goals, OMI planners enlisted the help of a range of research experts from around the country. These experts did not necessarily have ready answers to the challenges faced by the OMI, but were willing to help analyze emerging issues and provide input based on the best available information. This advisory panel has remained engaged since the OMIs beginning, with its function adapting to evolving needs. With the panels guidance, Oklahoma was the first state to conduct a statewide survey of its citizens attitudes and behavior with respect to divorce and marriage. Survey findings were used to inform OMI program decisions and to educate Oklahomans about marriage and divorce in their state; they also may be used as a baseline against which to compare later outcomes. As the initiative has unfolded, the OMI has used research to assess and inform progress, continue expansion, and explore outcomes.
As the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative was being developed, its planners made a commitment to rely on research to guide its development. Research has been integral to its evolution, starting with the findings on family structure that first stimulated the idea for the initiative, to the development of subsequent strategies and approaches for implementation. Since 2001, the OMI has been guided by a panel of state and national experts on marriage, divorce, and low-income families. This interdisciplinary Research Advisory Group (RAG) includes academic scholars, university-based practitioners and researchers, and policy experts and evaluators who meet annually and sometimes contribute to other OMI research activities throughout the year. Their ongoing activities, including, for example, conducting small-scale studies of OMI programs and assisting in the development of dissemination materials that translate research findings for a broad audience, have two main benefits: they provide data on which the OMI can base continued development and improvement of program operations, and they lend credibility to and build awareness of the OMI within and outside of Oklahoma.
As the initiative has developed and matured, the research advisory group has considered strategies for assessing the effects of the OMIs overall approach on Oklahoma families. Given the interest in obtaining evidence about statewide change, OMI planners have considered an assessment of broad shifts in attitudes toward marriage and reductions in nonmarital childbearing and divorce rates. More recently, OMI staff have begun to sponsor studies of short-term outcomes and participate in evaluations of the long-term impact of OMI services on particular targeted populations. These latter, more rigorous, evaluations are assessing the impact of services on the quality and stability of couples marriages and relationships and the well-being of their children. OMI officials also view research as a resource for providing information about families, marriage and divorce to the broader population, as exemplified in the series of tip sheets they have issued.
This brief describes how the OMI has used research in planning, ongoing operations, expansions, and evaluation of outcomes. It also discusses the creation and use of a research advisory group and the development of strategies for incorporating research in the context of a dynamic, evolving, broad-based initiative.