There is a marketplace for ideas in Washington. The leading consumers are the president and other officials of the executive branch and members of Congress and their hungry, ambitious staff. The leading producers are so-called think tanks, a term that includes quasi-academic institutions and thinly-veiled partisan groups.
A 2011 report identified 1,816 think tanks in the United States, of a worldwide total of over 6,480. The federal government funds several think tanks of its own, including the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, and the Congressional Research Service. The Pentagon has a network of federally funded research and development centers [FFRDCs] like the RAND Corporation, Institute for Defense Analyses, and the Center for Naval Analysis.
For policymakers, think tanks are a valuable resource for developing, testing, promoting, and evaluating new policies. As John Hamre, former Deputy Secretary of Defense and now head of a think tank, says, “Bureaucracies do not invent new ideas. They elaborate old ones.”
Competition is often fierce among think tanks. They compete for funding from private patrons, large foundations, and sometimes the government. They compete for attention to their ideas. They compete to have their proposals adopted by policymakers. To market their ideas, they shape their products to appeal to their audience. A 4-page paper in memo form may be more effective than a 200-page book with charts and tables. Practical advice with feasible options is more welcome than theoretically pure but politically impossible proposals.
Even the best ideas somehow need to break through the attention barrier of senior officials. The more effective think tanks find ways to get their ideas on the radar screens of senior officials, either directly or through the news media. Each week I get a message from a group called Linktank that lists conferences, briefings, and talks in the DC area that are open to the press and some public. Even with government offices nearly empty for August vacations, there are several dozen events listed this week, covering such topics as "U.S. Drones Policy," "Challenges to U.S. Competitiveness," "Cybersecurity," and "Assessing the Implications of Venezuela's Presidential Election." Many other groups have member-only events not included by Linktank.
While competition is usually good for an economy, and I have long believed that well-structured debate can lead to better public policies, I see some reasons for concern in this competition among ideas. First, ideas and their advocates tend to need shrillness and simplicity to be noticed. Moderate or even-handed analysis seems too soft and mushy. Second, the think tanks that generate well-received ideas can't change their views without risking their funding. So they become defensive and argumentative -- and less analytical. Third, their competition for attention and funding makes them enemies of those who should be their policy allies, driven by the "narcissism of small differences."
I don't have any solutions to these problems, other than self-awareness. But I regret that these tendencies reinforce the shrill partisanship of the current election season and make it even harder for officials to reconcile differences --"compromise" is the now pejorative term -- in order to govern.