Rethinking the Think Tank

Weekly Article
Nov. 12, 2015

The debilitating weakness in our democracy today is the growing disconnect between government and citizens. Most Americans now believe that our political system is broken. It is indifferent to the views of the majority. It is captured by monied interests. And it is rarely able to deliver solutions to big problems. The grand bargains of yesteryear’s politics are gone, replaced by the politics of protest.

A hundred years ago, American government was in similar crisis. Civic leaders responded to social inequalities and toxic politics by building the Progressive Movement. Reformers from the right and the left sought to overhaul machine politics and address the tremendous social challenges created by the economic transformations of the Industrial Age. It was in this context that the nation’s first policy research organizations, later known as “think tanks,” were created. Their contribution to the cause of good government was to offer nonpartisan, independent analysis to policymakers. The outputs of these “idea factories” enabled progressive reform for decades by delivering expert counsel and innovative ideas. From the Marshall Plan to USAID to the end of don’t ask, don’t tell, think tanks have helped shape modern America.

Today, it is not enough. Objective research from think tanks can still play an important role in federal policymaking. But the think tank as a policy institution has not adapted fast enough to escape the dysfunction of Washington. Even superb policy analysis seldom results in policy change. One reason is that expert positions in many debates are alien to the mobilized bases of both parties. (Technocratic insiders in D.C. gravitate toward compromise positions that can achieve a result within realistic political constraints.) Another is that the desire to score partisan points trumps the effort to get something done irrespective of whether the “right answer” is served up on a silver platter. Meanwhile, a plethora of specialized research institutions funded by trade associations, corporations, and partisan donors on both right and left have led many to question the objectivity of the policy positions adopted.

It is time to propose rethinking the think tank to meet these evolving challenges. The central mission is the same—to help solve public problems—but the form and function of the work must adapt. The theory of action of the traditional think tank is that change comes from the top-down adoption or abolition of laws and regulations. Papers and reports advocating specific changes are, of course, directly influenced by bottom-up political movements, from labor organizing to interest group coalitions. But the energy of such movements is typically harnessed to pass or block laws in a legislative process that is removed from direct engagement with people. Today, that model is too elitist, too narrow, and too slow.

People no longer feel included in self-government. Government is something that happens to citizens, not because of them. The dysfunction in the relationship between politicians and their constituents yields alienation, skepticism of even the best-intended Washington solutions, and a poisonous irrationalism in the political culture. We need a new process of public problem solving that can reconnect government to citizens by getting outside the Beltway, engaging with the problems of communities in those communities, and working to develop ideas together and turn them into action.

We propose a new model of civic enterprise. “Civic” because it engages citizens as change makers—conscious members of a self-governing polity that expects government to be at least part of the solution to problems that individuals cannot solve on their own. And “enterprise” because of the energy and innovation involved in actually making change on the ground. Civic enterprise blends conventional policy research with local organizing, coalition building, public education, advocacy, and bottom-up projects that generate and test ideas before, during, and after engagement in the policymaking process with government. It is a heady brew of what makes America great—a deep commitment to self-government plus an insatiable spirit of private enterprise to invent solutions without waiting for permission or help.

The concept of civic enterprise is built on a century of history and tradition. The first think tanks were founded by elite members of American society and dealt with multiple issues. They were formed with the intent to build consensus on national strategy and to fill the gap in expertise for a growing government that was taking on new and wider responsibilities. For example, in 1916, the first full-service think tank, the Institute for Government Research (later the Brookings Institution), formed to help prepare the American economy for World War I. Similarly, in 1921 the Council on Foreign Relations emerged from a group of scholars, journalists, and business leaders originally tasked with advising President Woodrow Wilson on a foreign policy strategy for the postwar world. These organizations became key hubs in the system for political appointees moving in and out of a growing American governmental bureaucracy.

The second wave focused more on directed policy research. The RAND Corporation—which took its name from “research and development”—got its start from a project undertaken by the Douglas Aircraft Company to connect military planning with R&D. It then spun off as a separate organization producing mostly private, requested reports to policymakers on focused research topics ranging from nuclear strategy to monetary policy. RAND is far from alone in that space, and many of its contemporary brethren were university-based policy centers. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, for instance, which started life in 1962 as part of Georgetown University and became an independent think tank in 1987, has made its mark by hosting blue-ribbon commissions often requested by some part of government to provide answers to thorny problems.

The underlying theory of public problem solving that animates these institutions was captured by John F. Kennedy in his 1962 Yale commencement address. He declared—perhaps with some wishful thinking—that “the central domestic issues of our time … relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology, but … [are] subtle challenges for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.” Not surprisingly, Republicans had a different view of what JFK saw as “technical answers”: the 1970s saw the creation of the conservative Heritage Foundation and the libertarian Cato Institute, explicitly founded to provide an intellectual base for their respective political ideologies and parties and to influence legislation more directly. At the same time, a wave of issue-oriented advocacy organizations emerged, including Human Rights Watch, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Public Citizen, many of which produce high-quality reports aimed at policymakers. The ideal form of “independent, nonpartisan research” increasingly depended on the eye of the beholder.

In the 1980s and ’90s, yet a third wave of research organizations emerged: boutique think tanks dedicated to specific clusters of issues, such as education policy, budget policy, trade policy, environmental policy, and so on. These specialized think tanks have been instrumental in developing innovative policy solutions, including contributions to reforming health care, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and expanding access to technology. Meanwhile, the private sector entered the lists of think tanks. The McKinsey Global Institute launched in 1990 with the mission “to provide leaders in the commercial, public, and social sectors with the facts and insights on which to base management and policy decisions.” It has spawned a number of imitators sponsored by banks and private equity funds. This proliferation of research institutions with high fixed costs (buildings, fellowships, and faculty “chairs”) has also meant a ferocious competition for a relatively limited funding pool. New funding models lean more heavily on corporations and foreign donors to provide those all-important unrestricted funds, opening the door to accusations of corruption and bias.

The decades of growth and expansion in the think tank sector have resulted in an explosion of production— multiple policy white papers are released virtually every day in Washington—some of it extraordinary in quality and depth. But inevitably, our think tanks reflect (and sometimes amplify) the partisanship, compartmentalization, and money in politics that cut against the mission of these organizations to support evidence-based good government. And even the best of us are disconnected from the communities our ideas are developed to serve. As such, the Progressive Era model of think tanks as extensions of technocratic governance is no longer sufficient to make meaningful, large-scale progress in resolving public problems. Policy reports for a specialized Washington audience can still influence executive orders and occasionally actual legislation if the congressional stars align, an increasingly rare event. Some of these decisions can be historic, but those are exceptional.

We find that in today’s America, a great deal of the most meaningful change is happening far outside Washington, in cities and towns across the country. It is happening in places that are tackling the deeper problem of democratic distrust and disaffection by re-forging the links between citizen demand and government response. It is this spirit that animates the new forms of public work and institution building that we characterize as civic enterprise. These new forms of public problem solving bring the business of needs assessment, deliberation, and policy development into communities and then seek to deliver the results back to decision-makers at the local, state, and federal levels.

Civic enterprise describes a broad way of working, but a number of existing organizations exemplify, at least partially, what we have in mind. The Lown Institute, for instance, is a hybrid think tank/advocacy group that is tackling the problem of overtreatment and poor quality in the health care delivery system by mobilizing doctors, nurses, faith groups, and others to create grassroots pressure for reform. Another example is Voice of the People, a nonprofit promoting “deliberative democracy.” VOP pulls together representative panels of average citizens who, aided by technology and a bipartisan group of experts and facilitators, think through solutions to thorny public policy problems and present their collective ideas to decisionmakers and the public. At New America we have our own experiment in civic enterprise, Opportunity@Work, which is aimed at “rewiring” the job market by rethinking traditional ideas of hiring by credentials in order to implement new methods for matching talent to jobs.

Opportunity@Work will research the problem, prototype solutions, test them in the field with partners in companies and job centers, and accelerate the process of policy change by demonstrating what is possible.

Civic enterprise does not replace independent policy research—on the contrary, it is an incubator to engage community stakeholders to refine the ideas and turn them into action. In the hyper-partisan, pay-for-play environment of Washington policy development, civic enterprise is a way for the best ideas to get traction.

Civic enterprise can also take the form of coalitions, networks, and partnerships among different kinds of policy research institutions, advocacy organizations, community organizers, social enterprise, and more traditional service organizations working directly with clients. But we see three hallmarks that will distinguish the work. The first is the engagement and amplification of new voices. If we are going to reconnect government to the people, the participants in the process of policy change must reflect the diversity of the public. Even at an institution called New America, we look much more like old America: largely white, majority male, and almost entirely upper middle class. Think tanks operate with career ladders that recruit in elite universities, privilege advanced degrees, leverage political connections to move people up the ranks, and ultimately perpetuate institutions that look nothing like the rest of America. The problem is evident across the Washington policy ecosystem: the people most engaged in thinking, regulating, and legislating do not actually represent the citizenry.

Connecting government to citizens requires filling the political stage with a more inclusive cast: ethnically, racially, geographically, and economically. A commitment to inclusivity will ensure that the policy deliberation is democratically robust and that local pilot projects are built with and not for the community. Of course, that doesn’t mean that civic enterprise is primarily about hiring all kinds of Americans to join Washington think tanks (although expanding diversity is critical). This is about taking policymaking out into the country and meeting people where they are. It is about convening people in their own communities to work on the issues that matter most to them. And it is about combining local knowledge and practical experience with the expertise, communications skills, and leadership networks of D.C. think tanks. The cross-pollination will enrich the ideas of both groups and help ensure that something happens (locally and nationally) that makes these meetings more than just talk.

Here’s an example. In 2012, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard held a workshop on the public interest benefits of wireless technology designed for resilient, low-cost communications. Boston police and firefighters sat across the table from law professors, hackers, and D.C. policy wonks. Through a collaborative process of discussion and iteration, the group built proposals for using these technologies to support first responders. Some of these ideas have since been deployed in the field, and the results have informed policy decisions in Washington to promote these tools.

The second consistent feature of civic enterprise is the collaborative development of ideas. A system of self-government that requires people to come to politics will fail. We must create opportunities for participation, knowledge exchange, and learning that find citizens through a decentralized network. And taking a page from the innovator’s playbook, the civic enterprise policy development process will be intentionally iterative. The first step is to develop networks of trusted partners that stretch across sectors (business, civil society, academia, and government) and then to create collaborative processes to engage them. Getting all the players to come together is not always easy, but our experience is that people will play if they see a genuine chance to make a difference. The perceived value of that chance will be backed up by the reputation of the civic enterprise and its track record over time.

Part of showing participants that civic enterprise projects are worth their time is moving fast to produce useful ideas. The initial goal will be to put forward as quickly as possible a “minimum viable policy product” with a problem definition and hypothesis for change. That’s a meaningful bit of jargon that adapts a hugely successful Silicon Valley concept of bringing products to market just as quickly as they can be built in a semi-usable form. Spending years debating a policy problem without concrete proposals for change can alienate people. We have to be quicker to offer proposed solutions. But the virtue of this method lies not in the speed to production, but in the pace of adaptation. The basic idea is to offer up options for policy change and then adapt them rapidly once they are debated and piloted by the community. The purpose of the initial policy proposals is not to create supporters for a set of already developed ideas. It is instead to workshop an initial set of hypotheses, to discuss and refine them, and to co-create a better set of answers that reflect different public points of view and command a wider range of support.

Think of it as “pre-partisan” activity that seeks to reestablish the lost arts of compromise and collaboration in American politics. These methods of cross-sectoral participation, transparent process, iteration, and co-creation of policy ideas has virtue beyond inclusivity. They are also far less susceptible to the appearance (or reality) of quid pro quo funding. Moreover, we believe the commitment to community engagement will make this work appealing to more and different kinds of foundations, adding the support of community and family philanthropists to the investments from national foundations and the coffers of corporate social responsibility.

The third major distinction of civic enterprise is dedication to broad public debate and education. This alters both the products that think tanks build and the markets they target for promotion. In our traditional business model, we publish specialized reports aimed at decisionmakers. They either take it or leave it. For a civic enterprise, content production is not an end in itself. Sharing content is a tool to help people move from being informed to being active. This argues for shorter, more frequent, and lower-density publications as interventions in policy debates tailored to reach diverse audiences. Long-form academic research still has its place, but why not publish best-selling books or articles in mass-circulation media? Similarly, a well-placed op-ed can still make a difference, but online videos, data visualization, social media, and creative live events are all increasingly important channels. The point is to expand beyond the language of politics and policy—the language that intimidates, bores, and thus excludes the majority of citizens. Good content should be published in whatever form is most likely to spark debate and encourage readers to keep reading or clicking—and, ultimately, to start responding.

The Progressive Era model of a think tank was a celebration of technocracy—the separation of an elite policy class dedicated to finding the “right answers” for a majority of citizens from a culture of backroom deals brokered by political bosses. The value of genuinely independent research remains, particularly in an era of broad access to big data. Moreover, political activists and direct service organizations typically do not have the time, skills, or inclination to step back and see their work in a larger context, much less make the connections to the policy experts and politicians so often needed to take their work to scale.

The pendulum of American political history is swinging toward “democratizing technocracy,” giving people more opportunity to participate in self-government. This is particularly powerful in an era when many citizens doubt the power and value of their vote. Civic enterprise is about knocking down the walls and partitions that have grown up between the policy class and the citizens we purport to serve. Most Americans have no idea what a “think tank” is; the formal name “policy research institute” does not help much in the explanation. But as consumers and business owners, they certainly understand the nature and power of private enterprise to provide for our private needs. As citizens, they can understand the value of civic enterprise to ensure that government provides for our public needs.

In the cracks of our broken system, we see people and organizations across the country taking matters into their own hands and working together to solve their community’s problems, from education to jobs to eldercare. These innovations can be institutionalized into civic enterprise to take new forms of public service to the next level of impact. It is an ambitious project—nothing short of rethinking the relationship between the people who make public policy and the people for whom they make it. At our most optimistic, we can see a bipartisan civic movement emerging with the same reach and impact the Progressive Movement once had. We cannot see all the ways that civic enterprise will evolve. But we are certain that thinking alone is not enough.

This post originally appeared in Washington Monthly.