This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.
Sigmund Freud said that “thought was action in rehearsal.” If this is true, then the action that is implemented in U.S. public policy is first rehearsed mainly in, where else, our think tanks.
Think tanks are unique organizations born as a result of a need created by our system of government. Washington is home to the vast majority of think tanks in our country, and in so many ways, this reality shapes the intellectual landscape of the city. This has been illustrated once more in the way that the Center for American Progress, headed by John Podesta, has been instrumental in feeding policy studies and intellectual content to the incoming Obama administration.
Technically speaking, think tanks are public policy research and development institutions where specific programmatic activity – research, publications, roundtables, conferences – provide the common structure that generally identifies them as a genre. What differentiates them? Their mission and vision, of course. Or, who funds them and for what purpose.
There are think tanks of the political right, such as the Heritage Foundation, and think tanks of the political left, such as the Institute for Policy Studies. There are industry-focused think tanks (i.e., the Information Technology and Innovation Institute) and think tanks focused on geographical regions (i.e., InterAmerican Dialogue) or specific themes like immigration (i.e., Center for Immigration Studies) or urbanization (i.e., The Urban Institute). There are think tanks dedicated to a political philosophy, such as the libertarian Cato Institute, and others tied to major educational institutions, like Stanford University’s Hoover Institution (or more accurately, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace).
Where did think tanks come from? While there is some debate as to whether some 19th century institutions in the U.K. could be considered “think tanks,” most scholars of the subject agree that certainly the first such entity emerged in the United States – and to this day, one of the most distinguished and respected of all think tanks is the Brookings Institution, appropriately located at 1775 Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C. Originally founded as the Institute for Government Research in 1916, it was the brainchild of Robert S. Brookings, a noted industrialist and philanthropist from Baltimore who became active in the World War I preparation efforts during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. Some of his experiences with these wartime initiatives convinced him of the need for a non-governmental institution where public policy research could be done unhampered by the tensions inherent in our system where the three independent branches of government checked and balanced each other to avoid dominance of one over the other. He was right, and Brookings, as well as many of the other think tanks that followed, provided a forum where members of Congress, the Judiciary and the Executive could come to discuss and debate public policy issues without having to be concerned about whether they were conceding powers or privileges that the Constitution had granted their specific branch.
But in the perception of the general public, think tanks are often identified with their original founders and their current financial supporters. This is often tied to specific public policy partisan agendas. While Brookings is seen today as primarily a centrist institution, for many years it was classified as a liberal organization where the Democratic Party went to look for ideas and ammunition to use in future electoral campaigns. Often, it became a home for former cabinet officers and other party influentials when they were not in office.
This reality fueled the need for conservative forces to want to have their own think tanks, and hence the American Enterprise Institute (1943) and later the Heritage Foundation (1973) were born. The latter in particular became a breeding ground for the conservative agenda and a home for future members of the Reagan and Bush 41 and 43 administrations.
For us in the business intelligence community, the most important aspect of think tanks has to be their focus on public policy research. You cannot do this credibly without engaging in substantial business intelligence efforts. If you are the Urban Institute, you are waist deep in data related to demographics, income distribution, housing and crime statistics in our major cities. If you are the World Economic Forum, you have created a competitiveness index based on dozens of economic, demographic, sociopolitical and technological variables. If you are the Center for Strategic and International Studies, you are tracking numbers of casualties in terrorist attacks, guerrilla wars and other asymmetrical conflicts in order to obtain insights into their causes and resolutions.
In all thorough instances of developing public policy directions, one must build a solid case that starts with establishing a hypothesis and attempts to prove it or disprove it with data. Does capital punishment deter serious crime? Do school vouchers improve public education? Will a flat tax work better than our current progressive tax system? To attempt to answer these, or any other difficult public policy problem, one must formulate the right question, determine what specific variables are involved and how they should be measured, design an experiment, collect the data and then analyze it to make sure that it is statistically solid. Then you can interpret the results and hopefully spin them in the way that supports your argument. These last two steps are often linked to the think tank’s agenda, and each organization is certainly more likely than not to carry out research that will address issues of their interest and possibly fund experiments that are likely to provide results that favor a specific interpretation.
Is this bad or good? This is very good. None of the really hard public policy questions have easy answers. The problems are often almost intractable because of the many variables involved and the myriad of second and third-order consequences that derive from many of the solutions. Hence, we need to look at each and every one of these issues from many different points of view; we must analyze all the data sets available and collect even more; we must debate the interpretations until a societal consensus emerges on the way to go.
We need more think tanks, not less. And we need more and better business intelligence tools and programs in each on these institutions. This is a fertile ground for cooperation between the public policy mavens and the BI experts. Should we be taking some initiatives in this area? I, for one, am open to it and would welcome your suggestions.
Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.
Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at email@example.com.
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