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. 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.
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.
The authors go on to note that the past decades of growth and expansion in the think tank sector have resulted in an explosion or production of white papers. They say, however, that inevitably, think tanks reflect (and sometimes amplify) the partisanship, compartmentalization, and money in politics. She adds that even the best think tanks and think tankers are disconnected from the communities that the ideas are developed to serve.
The authors then tout NAF's own community engagement - Opportunity@Work, which they say researches the problem, prototypes solutions, tests them in the field with partners in companies and job centers, and accelerates the process of policy change by demonstrating what is possible.
She also calls out her own think tank, saying this:
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.
Ben Scott, one of the co-authors, is a Senior Adviser to to NAF's Open Technology Institute (OTI). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung in Berlin, Germany.
More about Opportunity@Work, which was launched by NAF in March 2015, can be found here. Its co-founders are Byron Auguste (former Deputy Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council under President Obama) and Tyra Mariani (former Chief of Staff to US Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration).