Why Washington’s stuffiest institutions need to reconnect with America.

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.

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By Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ben Scott

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This artice first appeared in the November/December 2015 edition of Washington Monthly magazine