State of Think Tanks: There's a World Outside Washington

The traditional think tank model is dead.

In 1916, Robert S. Brookings founded what would become the Brookings Institution —one of the nation’s first private public policy research organizations and where I now serve as vice-president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program.

Through the 20th century, the think tank model was established and perfected: conduct research, write a memo, walk it to the U.S. Capitol, and watch it become law. Indeed, Brookings has a number of crowning achievements including aiding the formation of the Marshall Plan and proposing the creation of the Congressional Budget Office.

But that model has been seriously disrupted, forcing institutions like Brookings to adapt and evolve.

First, the locus of policy innovation has shifted from Washington DC to cities and metropolitan areas across the country. With Congress and the President mired in partisan gridlock, local leaders have been forced to grapple with super-sized national challenges — sluggish economic growth, rising inequality, the climate imperative — largely on their own. How are we at Brookings responding? By getting out of Washington DC and going to the places where innovative policy solutions are happening.

Second, the sources of productive investment are shifting from the public sector to a broader mix of public, private and civic investors. Over time, the federal government will be a less reliable investor in our economy. As federal funding shifts to mandatory programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, critical investments in national competitiveness like infrastructure, innovation and human capital will necessarily fail to keep pace with demand. As a result, think tanks will need to get smarter – a whole lot smarter – about how to design, finance and deliver what the nation needs to prosper. The search for capital will only be resolved by accessing a mix of public, philanthropic, and private funding and leveraging market mechanisms to the max.

Third, as policy work moves from the national to the local and from “public” to “public/private/civic,” new modes of communication must be maximized. In the past, the think tank model was to write a report and send it to the three networks. With technological innovation, the conduits for reaching key audiences have multiplied exponentially. Brookings has replaced the press release with a raft of new products in order to communicate our research to broader audiences — from interactive data visualizations and an iPad app, to long-form, narrative Brookings Essays.

The 20th century think tank was a product of a certain moment in American history. The 21st century think tank must respond to a diffusion of power and a broad network of problem-solvers. Make no mistake: data-driven, rigorous policy research is more critical than ever. But the days of “I’m just a bill on Capitol Hill” as the sole conduit for national change are long over.

This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn as part of a series in which LinkedIn Influencers analyze the state and future of their industry.