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Reimagining public policy organisations as portals of democracy

March 21, 2023 #Insights
Reimagining public policy organisations as portals of democracy
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Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of ‘think and action tank’ New America, offers a vivid and electrifying vision for the future of public policy organisations: how they orient and relate at a structural level.

A colleague of mine here at New America, Molly G. Martin, wryly identifies herself on Twitter as someone who “thinks in a tank.” 

That description of think tanks captures the problem that so many of us are trying to solve. If organisations dedicated to solving public problems are to succeed in their mission, thinking can no longer be sealed off from doing. 

The concept of a “think tank” equates public problem solving with the research and analysis of policy problems – social, economic, and political problems that are to be solved by the proposal, adoption, and implementation of new or amended government policies, expressed as legislation or executive regulation. 

The people intended to be served by these policies are subjects of research and objects of government action. They are not direct participants in the self-governance that should be their birthright in a democracy.

The people intended to be served by these policies are subjects of research and objects of government action. They are not direct participants in the self-governance that should be their birthright in a democracy.

Many experiments are afoot to remedy that deficiency. As Tara McGuinness and I described in 2019, a “new practice of public problem solving” is emerging. 

This new practice applies software development techniques to diagnosing where and why current policies designed to benefit different groups of people are not in fact delivering. It also develops new practices and technologies that do deliver, and then feeds the resulting insights back into the policymaking process. 

In this spirit, for example, the New Practice Lab at New America was set up. It works with national and state government officials to ensure that government benefits, for instance, actually reach their intended beneficiaries. 

The new practice is intertwined with the application of a range of technologies to improve government services (although it is critical to start with people rather than software). 

An entire field of public interest technology has grown up over the last decade, fuelled by nearly 50 universities participating in the Public Interest Technology University Network, and evangelised by a wide range of civic technology pioneers. 

The question now is how to bring these many different actors and organisations together to institutionalise an approach to effective democratic governance that puts people at the centre of policymaking and implementation.

A new ecosystem 

Imagine a world in which the public problem-solving ecosystem in any particular country included organisations headquartered in national, provincial, and state capitals. Imagine that these organisations were as directly connected to people across the country as elected legislators are: real-time, two-way channels of information, ideas, and experimentation. 

How would or should these organisations connect to one another? How would or should they be funded? How would or should they connect to the broader democratic public in ways that would secure their impact as essential gears in the machinery of an effective and successful democracy?

To begin with, they should be connected to one another as flotillas, or constellations. That is, loose enough to allow for genuine autonomy and individuality, but joined enough to be able to adopt common missions and metrics. 

That ecosystem exists, in part, in many countries where think tanks are tied to specific political parties at the provincial and state levels. Alternatively, think/action organisations such as New America often put together coalitions of like-minded thinkers and activists to accomplish a specific legislative goal, such as “net neutrality” or “building an infrastructure of care.” 

What would be different here is the idea that public problem-solving organisations would be performing a range of functions (at New America we break our capabilities down into policy, product, platforms, and practice) all while acting as a civic intermediary between people and government. 

The “flotilla” approach requires that all boats be sailing toward the same agreed destination and that their progress toward that destination be measurable.

The ideal would be independence from specific political parties, combined with clarity about the specific political, social, and economic values or principles that each organisation seeks to advance. They should be able to come together with a range of like-minded organisations of different types for a range of different goals. 

As one illustration, New America has created the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeships (PAYA). Based in our Center for Education and Labor, PAYA brings education, workforce development, and labour policy experts together with local partnerships of schools and employers.

The programme works on the ground with 15 communities across the country and maintains a larger, peer-learning network of nearly 50 communities. All of these are supported by learning hubs where those providers can exchange information and build communities of practice. 

Consistent with the philosophy of a constant flow of information and advocacy from policy to implementation and back, PAYA leverages its partnerships with communities to develop and advocate for public policies that address common challenges faced by practitioners. 

For example, PAYA convened a group of national organisations to develop a definition of “youth apprenticeship” that recognises the specific needs of young adults. The PAYA definition has been adopted by multiple state agencies and has helped shape expansion efforts in California, Colorado, and Indiana. At the national level, PAYA has continued to advocate for a federal definition of youth apprenticeship and to guide future investment and policy activity, including on the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021.

The right infrastructure

For coalitions and partnerships such as those described, money matters. Funders must be willing to provide large, multi-year grants with plenty of discretion for the partnership coordinator to decide on disbursements. 

Non-profit organisations compete fiercely not only for project support but above all for general operating funds; the ability of a partnership coordinator to provide even relatively small amounts of such funds (US$10,000-US$25,000) can go a long way toward greasing the wheels of collaboration. 

It is key here for funders to remember that, in the civic sector, maximum efficiency is not the goal; in addition to the resilience provided by multiple organisations operating in the same space, the nature and strength of civil society depends on its density

Broad networks of multiple partners are preferable to large centralised organisations, as long as each partner is large enough to achieve measurable impact. 

“Measurable impact” are the magic words that every funder longs to hear. Developing common metrics of impact is indispensable for the kind of networked collaboration that a people-centered ecosystem of public problem solving requires. 

In the civic sector, maximum efficiency is not the goal; the nature and strength of civil society depends on its density

The “flotilla” approach requires that all boats be sailing toward the same agreed destination and that their progress toward that destination be measurable – no matter what route and under what kind of power they choose to sail.

Many “idea” organisations are understandably nervous about spelling out specific impact goals for books, articles, blog posts, and other ways of injecting ideas into the public conversation. 

But a constellation of organisations will bring many different capabilities together, from the number of people served by a particular benefit to the number of experiments launched to legislative or regulatory progress. Funders should not only demand these collective metrics but also be prepared to reward their achievement. 

Portals of democracy

Ideas matter. Thinkers – academics, independent scholars, policy experts of many different kinds – have all had occasion to quote John Maynard Keynes’ famous aphorism:

Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.

In an era of anti-intellectualism, it is no time to denigrate thinking.

Still, think tanks emerged in the United States in the first couple of decades of the 20th century as part of the technocratic good government movement, with the aim of putting expert brains to work on solving hard public problems. The policies that they have nurtured and helped birth over a century have done great good on many issues and in many countries. 

Think tanks have a chance to reinvent themselves, as so many are doing. 

At the same time, once again, they are “tanks,” too removed from the people they seek to serve in an era of instant communication and the ability to engage people in real time on an ongoing basis. Those people would traditionally have been “subjects of research,” just as they are all too often objects of policy.

With the new practice of what one designer calls “product-driven policy,” policy customised to provide the solutions that people say they need and want, combined with the potential to create large consortia, constellations, and coalitions of many different kinds of partners, think tanks have a chance to reinvent themselves, as so many are doing. 

I propose that we think of ourselves not as closed spheres but as open portals – to ideas, to practice, to government, and to the people the government is elected to serve. We can be thinkers, doers, connectors and collaboration managers: hubs of positive change. 

As portals or hubs, however, we must be connected to a much larger ecosystem of partners and funders. We must learn how to be simultaneously independent and collaborative, innovating in the service of common goals. We must become expert in the art of putting people first. 

Image credit: Remy Penet on Unsplash.


Anne-Marie Slaughter is the CEO of New America, a think ​and action ​tank. She is also the Bert G. Kerstetter ’66 University Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. From 2009–2011, she served as director of policy planning for the United States Department of State, the first woman to hold that position. Prior to her government service, Dr Slaughter was the Dean of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs (formerly the Woodrow Wilson School) from 2002–2009 and the J. Sinclair Armstrong Professor of International, Foreign, and Comparative Law at Harvard Law School from 1994-2002.

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