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Why the government needs think tanks and academics

Why the government needs think tanks and academics

We are pleased to run this guest post from Nadia Schadlow, a friend of Shadow Government and a valued member of the security studies expert community.

By Nadia Schadlow 

Is government likely to be more successful by cutting off outside sources of information and expertise? The answer is no. While Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s recent Washington Post article covered a range of concerns regarding the influence of two think tank analysts, the wider think tank community should reflect upon the implications of the article before Washington starts the holiday season with too much schadenfraude in the air. Anyone who has worked in or closely with the government knows that its reactions and counter-responses are hardly nimble, and that the tendency is toward overreaction. It would be a shame if Washington drew the wrong lessons from the profile. However one might view specific policy ideas offered by particular analysts, efforts by government officials to reach out to experts outside of their organizations should be actively encouraged. The U.S. military, like any government agency or private-sector corporation, does not have a monopoly on wisdom.

The husband and wife Kagan team profiled in the article are controversial figures for their role in advocating for a surge of troops first in Iraq, and then, in Afghanistan. As we know, wars are profoundly political events — both at home and where they are actually fought — and most anyone involved in thinking and writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been caught, at some point, in the ensuing maelstrom. While the Kagans’ ideas might have been controversial and disputed and even wrong, it would be short sighted for the government to make it yet more difficult to interact with outside experts.

Although the White House website has over 20,000 "hits" for public-private partnerships and although virtually every major foreign-policy (and domestic policy) initiative of late lauds the importance of such partnerships, the government is in fact schizophrenic about these relationships. I have yet to talk to someone who has said working with the government in any formal capacity was easy. 

Yet as the government faces cuts all around, it is scrambling for ideas: ideas to make its programs run faster, smoother, better. Ideas to save money, gather better data, and yes, often, to save lives. It does so with the help (if not the lead) of a rich and varied think tank and academic community. Every major government program, from Obamacare to tax reform to defense budget realignments, has benefitted from the research and analysis of analysts who work at think tanks and in academic centers. If experts on health care or on Pakistan are not reaching out to non-government experts, they are not doing their job. And since these experts need to make a living, they must raise money for the institutions in which they work; They, unlike the government, do not have a tax base upon which to draw.

Think tanks are one of the great strengths of this country. They provide a dynamic environment of intellectual inquiry that helps to refine ideas and translate academic arguments into policy-relevant recommendations. They allow individuals who have been fast-paced operational practitioners some time to sit back and consider the history or politics of a country more deeply, and then go back and work the long hours with greater context. They provide a way for younger individuals to gain knowledge and then "deploy" that knowledge once they enter government. 

Unlike the British executive branch, in which senior civil servants serve at the undersecretary level and hold the collective national wisdom in their expertise, the U.S. government populates the executive as far down as the office director level with short term political appointees. In our system, the think tanks and many in the academy constitute the collective national expertise, and every administration rightly calls upon them when weighing policies and making decisions. Many of the more successful high-level government officials today came from this community.

President Obama and other White House officials recognize that think tanks and universities generate debate and that is why they choose to speak at them. That is why White House and other officials cite non-government reports and books, often. That is why even during the last series of presidential debates, both candidates identified outside studies written by individuals who sought to influence debates about tax rates and health care and Iran.

Why shouldn’t think tank and academic analysts — who spend months on the ground gathering information — form opinions and seek to influence policy? Journalists spend months and months in a war zone, expressing their views in books and articles. Completely by chance I am halfway through Mr. Chandrasekaran’s book, Little America. The book is filled with often sad and frustrating stories about how government officials failed to listen to outside experts. The author devotes pages and pages to how one USAID official stubbornly refused to listen to any outside agricultural experts, much to the detriment of may Afghan lives and to the U.S. effort there.

Most who work in this field know that the government, particularly the intelligence community, can make it difficult to hire individuals who have spent long periods of time in specific countries. A friend, who runs a defense firm, makes an effort to hire the excellent candidates who have been rejected for spending too much time, in say, Asia. Should government officials be concerned about calling an analyst who has written an interesting report, and asking for further information? Perhaps even regularly? Are we to assume that high-ranking general officers and senior officials do not have the independence of mind or enough critical thinking skills that they cannot reject weak arguments? Should they avoid spending time with smart people who offer different viewpoints? Are staff officers or mid-level government mangers so threatened by different and even disagreeable views, that they cannot counter them?

Formal government programs exist — from White House fellows, to the Council on Foreign Relations fellows, to the Franklins fellows at USAID — to allow individuals with expertise to share their knowledge with the government. Many of these fellows, who spend a year working closely with high-level government officials, have worked at banks, technology-related firms, and for the foreign aid complex. They have existing professional relationships and these fellowships are often funded by outside parties. 

I work for an organization that has supported writers and analysts at think tanks (as well as academia) from across the political spectrum: from the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute and yes, the Institute for the Study of War. All of these organizations — as well as countless others — enrich our public policy debates.  Hopefully, a philosophy of governance that appreciates the value of such interactions and discourse will continue to flourish. 

Dr. Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation. She is a former member of the Defense Policy Board.