June 13, 2016
Think tanks in the twenty-first century should be incubators of civic entrepreneurship. This is not jargon or theory. It is a call for a concrete method of collaborative policy development described by the term “civic enterprise.” Civic enterprise seeks to help government work better by organizing information and people to solve for the skill, knowledge, and relationship gaps of public institutions. It is not a new kind of organization. It is a method for collaboration in governance that applies the logic of entrepreneurial commercial development to the public service policy arena. How? Civic enterprise develops policy products quickly, tests these ideas with diverse experts and stakeholders, and then iterates them rapidly (including active implementation in the field) until achieving a breakthrough or a failure. In the idea testing process, civic enterprise also aspires to address one central source of the decline in democratic society: the growing distance between the government and the governed.
An extended episode of experimentation in the policy arena is overdue. The first public policy organizations that would come to be called “think tanks” were founded a century ago. Their central business models haven’t changed that much: Assemble smart people in capital cities to analyze public policy debates and offer government new ideas and technocratic expertise to solve problems. This model sometimes yields extraordinary results. But it isn’t enough. It is too often insular in its communications—relying primarily on an endless series of panel discussions and white papers presented to policy elites. And it is increasingly infected by the same maladies that plague government—too slow, too partisan, and too disconnected from the people it intends to serve.
Today, public policy think tanks should explore ways to do more than deliver knowledge to government. We must start thinking about policy research as a nonprofit product that makes governance better by leveraging topical expertise, strategic communications, and—above all— deliberative methods. These new methods are the key; they incorporate a diversity of thinking and engage the communities that will benefit from (or suffer under) policy change. Yes, the think tank business starts with policy research (or some other related form of content production). But this knowledge product must be combined with collaborative testing of ideas, technical analysis, diverse networks of experts and stakeholders, public service journalism, and community-based pilot projects. This package represents the tradecraft of a new kind of policy practitioner—let’s call this person a “civic entrepreneur.” A successful civic entrepreneur can deploy different constellations of these assets over time—tracking the arc of the political process from proposal to implementation and intervening persistently to steer the outcome. Results-oriented, fast-paced, and interactive, this kind of policy work will be in increasingly high demand as the fractures in democratic governance widen.