Yesterday, I posted answers to the question: What is a think tank? Today, I asked those same think tankers the question: What do think tanks do?
Think tanks are normally but not always national in focus. They evaluate current national policies, strategies and initiatives and provide resources for scholars to research and suggest alternatives. A good think tank will do the thinking and analysis that policy-makers do not have the time to do themselves.
Not all think tanks are the same. Increasingly, Washington has seen the growth of Europe-style party political think tanks whose explicit aim appears to be to bolster, promote and cheer for the party in power (at any given time). Some of the older institutions, AEI among them, remain driven by ideas and principle – bastions of independent thought, regardless of party. These are the ones that will be here in fifty years, as they have for the last half century.
Think tanks are supposed to be incubators for ideas. With the executive and legislative branches largely consumed with the crisis of the moment, think tanks are places where policy communications strategies can be developed outside the daily pressures of Congress or the White House and without the overlay of personal political imperative that the staffs of the President and Members of Congress constantly worry about.
The best think-tanks are grounded in the real lives of real people. They listen to the challenges of regular residents and community leaders – and are led by those voices. The best think-tanks take their skills and talents at crafting public policy and conducting research and use them to tackle the problems of real people. They go beyond their towers and their silos and bring the concerns and ideas of the community to their work. They look to local policy innovations to see what could be useful for other areas, either by replicating it or by drawing on its core principles. In short, they believe in Lifting Up What Works – which is the core PolicyLink mission.
In practice, think tanks do far more than simply provide expert policy analysis. While disseminating scholarship through publications and events is a core think tank function, many have branched out to other activities geared toward influencing governments, other experts, and the general public. For instance, think tanks often sponsor unofficial diplomatic negotiations between states, termed “track 2,” simulated domestic or international crises, and in-house fellowships or other specialized training for government officials or the private sector. A growing number even engage in more overt political activity via subsidiary or sister organizations with non-501c3 tax status.
Let 'em rip -- the scholars and thinkers, that is -- and help get their ideas out to a variety of audiences in a variety of ways.