Magazine article USA TODAY

Washington Think Tanks Had Better Start Thinking Harder-And Fast

Magazine article USA TODAY

Washington Think Tanks Had Better Start Thinking Harder-And Fast

Article excerpt

THE MAJOR independent Washington, D.C.-based think tanks constitute a vital, but poorly understood, component of the public policy process. Public understanding of these important organizations needs to be raised--and their effectiveness enhanced. In a nutshell, think tanks am less influential than they like to portray themselves in their reports to supporters, but much more influential in public policy formation than many agnostic academics are prone to admit. More formally, the "tanks" often are referred to as public policy research institutes. The Italy independent one--those not affiliated with a government agency, business firm, or even a university-will be the focus here.

Essential to enhancing their long-term effectiveness is for the think tanks to focus, not on advancing any specific cause, but to help reconcile the many vital and competing interests of society. After all, good public policy is arrived at not by the uncritical adoption of the positions of any self-proclaimed "white hat," but by the competitive give-and-take among the various interest groups in the marketplace of ideas.

The think tank "marketplace" is very open and fluid. There is a continuous ebb and flow of ideas, people, and influence in the Washington policy community. Individuals move from a think tank to a government position and return to the think tank world, although not necessarily to the public policy organization with which they previously were affiliated. On occasion, researchers and analysts move from one think tank to another. These organizations am anything but static in their operations, effectiveness, or market position.

The differentiation of think tanks from universities is substantial. To cite the obvious, universities am geared to the education of students; think tanks focus on influencing public policy. At a more general level of abstraction, universities and think tanks sham a common fundamental objective. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, "The task of the university is the creation of the future." In that spirit, think tanks and universities may represent a division of labor in a grand effort to achieve a common objective.

Thus, it is with a combination of sadness and reluctance that I note the surprisingly limited role of the Washington think tanks in responding to the difficult and challenging policy environment of the last several years. It may not he too harsh to contend that they muffed an important opportunity to influence the future course of events in the U.S.--one that rarely arises. Certainly as viewed from beyond the Beltway, the major Washington-based think tanks have not been an important participant in developing responses to the complex array of extremely serious economic and political challenges that face American society in dealing with the Great Recession.

Yes, individual researchers have offered useful insights and advice in dealing with some issues, such as the collapse of the government-sponsored enterprises in the housing area (notably Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) but, on the whole, I am struck by how little help to the nation's policy decisionmakers came from the talented staffs of the think tank world. On the basis of past experience, I had anticipated tar more attention on their part to the central issues of monetary and fiscal policy, the troubled relations between the Executive and Legislative branches of government, and the changing roles of government, business, labor, and other key interest groups. Surely, the task of dealing with the huge budget deficits and the unprecedented rise in the public debt merited more than an ephemeral op-ed in the national media.

In contrast, individual academic analysts at least tried to wrestle with the key problems facing society. Indeed, they apparently were more frequently invited to participate in the ongoing policy debate than their counterparts in the Washington-based think tanks. Events seemingly overtook the tanks' research agenda, not that academic responders exactly covered themselves with glory while the housing mess was developing and as governmental decisionmakers were developing their responses. …

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