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Rethinking the think tank

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Roger L. Martin, Susan B. Glasser

Shiftdisturbers Episode #2: Rethinking the Think Tank

Transcript of the podcast:

David MacNaughton: The world has changed dramatically. In the 1988 debate in Canada around the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the Canadian public began to have some doubts. The government at the time reached out to the business community and to a number of think tanks, and said ‘please get out and talk about how important this deal is going to be.’ We had CEO’s of major corporations in Canada, both speaking about the importance of the Free Trade deal and taking out advertising. Public opinion shifted in favour of the Free Trade Agreement, and it did win the day. But I would simply suggest today that if that same approach was taken, that the numbers would actually go down rather than up.

Ian Gormely: That was Canadian ambassador to the U.S. David MacNaughton speaking at a recent event in Washington D.C. titled, Rethinking the Think Tank, which also happens to be the subject of the second episode of Shiftdisturbers.

Hello, and welcome to Shiftdisturbers, the MPI Podcast, where we highlight the people, research, and ideas that change the way that we think about the world. I’m your host Ian Gormely, writer and content producer here at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

On today’s episode we’re going to talk about how to rethink the think tank. There is a growing consensus that the traditional work of think tanks, identifying and studying a topic before making policy recommendations to government, is no longer effective in its current form. If the model is to continue we’re going to need to drastically alter the research and communications strategies that drive think tanks in the 21st Century.

In this episode you’ll hear from Hana Passen, associate director for the New America Foundation’s National network, Susan Glasser, editor at Politico, and MPI’s very own institute director Roger Martin. And in case you’re saying to yourself, hey, isn’t MPI a think tank? Yes we are which makes this topic particularly interesting to us.


So in that clip we just heard ambassador MacNaughton is acknowledging the role that think tanks once played in public discourse. But he’s also basically saying that not only do they no longer play that role, they can actually be toxic to the people and policies that they’re trying to champion. Now you might thin, so what? What do think tanks have to do with me or my life? Well, a lot actually. In the years following World War II think tanks are where a lot of laws that govern our day to day lives originated.

Here’s Hana Passen, associate director of the National Network at the New America Foundation, an American think-tank dedicated to “renewing American politics, prosperity and purpose in the digital age.” New America was an early champion for policies that led to both Obamacare and the recent net neutrality decision in Washington. Here Hana explains to us the original purpose behind think tanks and how that vision is becoming increasingly blurred.

Hana Passen: Basically, the idea of the think tanks originally was that you got all the smartest people in a room. They’d come up with a decision. They’d write it up in a report, get the decision to the right people in government, and they would take over and the right apparatus of government would see that policy decision through to the end.

But there’s been a proliferation of think tanks over the past 100 years. There’s been a proliferation of special interest money in think tanks, and it’s getting harder and harder to win the same sort of large policy measures, particularly with a fractured congress like we have right now. It started in the progressive era when machine politics were stalling, it was harder and harder to make grand bargains, and there was a sort of first round of think tanks, Brookings Institution, University without Students. Then there was sort of a second wave throughout the 60’s and 70’s. And then more recently there have been the smaller, more targeted boutique think tanks. And gradually, the line between think tank and advocacy organization is blurred a lot.

The Heritage Foundation, for instance has the Heritage Action Fund which is a lobbying group associated with the Heritage Foundation although separated of course for tax purposes. And because of the way that the think tanks have changed and their missions have become more and more targeted, it’s harder for any single institution to make an impact in the ecosystem.

IG: So not only are there too many think tanks, the motives and money behind them are creating an ecosystem where none can be fully trusted. Not only is that bad news for think tanks, that’s bad news for public policy and the marketplace of ideas, in general. That’s not to say that we need to do away with think tanks altogether.


Susan Glasser is editor of Politico, a politics-focused Media Company. She’s run into the work of think tanks a lot over her multi-decade career. She says that think tanks occupy a unique space in democracies and that news media, and by extension the public, are dependent on them for leading conversations around really important and often very complicated topics.

Susan Glasser: News organizations and magazine like Politico are very much in some ways dependent upon think tanks as major producers of ideas. They employ a lot of really smart people that explicitly see their mission as to be a part of the public conversation, both to participate in it but also to guide and to shape it.

There are many different iterations of what a think tank is and some of them are more explicitly partisan than others, some of them are more niche around particular policy subjects than others. And there have been many different models that have evolved. And it’s a unique strength, I think of Washington is that it’s not purely ‘here’s the government and here’s the press.’ That this unique form that marries policy research and entrepreneurialism and ideas is part of the connective tissue, I think between the institutions of government and private institutions like the media that seek to understand and interact with the government.

IG: But like Hana, Susan also understands where the criticisms come from. And it seems that we’re at an inflection point where, like so many other industries it’s time for think tanks to adapt to the times or face extinction.

SG: It is a fair critique to say most of these think tanks don’t look like America. They’re not drawn from a representative sample of people. They’re not economically diverse, never mind racially diverse, or geographically diverse. Sometimes there’s a conversation of insiders and that is a risk inherent in the culture we have here in Washington to begin with. We do kind of live in this Washington bubble. On the one hand it’s filled with a lot of sophistication and these are really smart people. On the other hand if you sort of shut yourself up inside a fish tank, even a nice big smart one, eventually the oxygen begins to sort of fizzle out of it. And that is a real genuine risk of course if you’re detached from those you seek to serve with your ideas. 


In general, the big hierarchical centralized institutions of the industrial era are under assault or being disrupted by the new technology and tools and connections that we have with each other in this digital moment. And that’s true of old newspapers, which are basically industrial era factories that have been disrupted. And it is true of think tanks. And, of course, it’s going to be true of these large government bureaucracies as well. The fragmentation and ideas being thrown into a vacuum is one very concrete concern. A second very concrete concern, from my vantage point as a journalist, is around the transparency or lack thereof of the political or partisan agendas that are underwriting the creation or promotion or circulation of these ideas. And not all think tanks are created equal. So how do we make sure that our policy debate are informed by the most independent and rigorous information.

IG: While many people see think tanks as just another brick in one very large ivory tower, others including MPI’s institute director Roger Martin, and Anne Marie Slaughter, Hana’s boss at New America, are looking at ways to make the work of think tanks more relevant to your average person. For Roger this means always keeping real people, what he calls the end user, in mind when designing policy.

Roger Martin: I’m interested in doing the think tank thing a little bit differently than it is generally done. Lots about the way think tanks work feels like a wasted effort. Lots of time sitting away from users or potential beneficiaries of whatever policy you want, creating what you imagine to be the perfect policy, and then trying to sell it through some system that has a lot of yield loss. And I’m interested in how can you have a greater amount of positive outcome for the work that’s being engaged in.

And I’m interested in a couple of things. One is making sure that when we’re developing policy we’re not developing policy for theoretical, conceptual people, people the way we imagine they are or wish they were, but rather real people who are reflective of the kind of people you’d find in America. I think if we keep focused on those users of policy we’ll be better off than taking a very distant academic stylized view of those people.

IG: Anne Marie takes this a step further. In her work with New America as, Hana explains, she argues that think tanks not only have to have the end user, the general public in mind, they need to be physically on the ground examining problems at the most grass roots level.

HP: I think there’s a feeling that government is exclusive, elitist, and not inclusive of the general population’s feelings. And that’s why we’re so focused on the broad public conversation. Our events, our writing, we’re trying to get to a place where we listen as well as talk. And I think if think tanks are going to succeed I think everyone is going to have to start thinking about ways of engaging with people that are…that’s another reason why we’re going to go outside the beltways. If we’re writing about education policy in Arkansas, we should probably maybe have somebody on the ground in Arkansas. Probably traditionally think tanks would say hey, I see this problem. We have a great answer. Let’s push it through. And then in sort of the next step you see, oh that didn’t work so well. These were the flaws with it.


And I don’t want to say that there’s never been engagement with the communities that we’re trying to serve. But I think New America is taking a more tailored approach to doing that early and frequently. And energy strategy for the country, advocating for say wind power country wide doesn’t make a ton of sense if you live in a place that doesn’t have a ton of wind. The Pacific Northwest is a great place for hydroelectric power but that’s because they have a lot of rivers. You can’t really advocate a hydro strategy in Oklahoma. I think there’s got to be nuance in everything that we’re doing, and I think most think tanks are probably coming up to this conclusion on their own.

IG: True to their nature, both MPI and New America have not only identified the problem, think tanks are out of touch with their constituents they’ve also come up with solutions. For Roger and MPI this means applying the intervention design approach he uses in business consulting to policy research. This, he argues is how think tanks can look at problems from a perspective other than their own researchers. Appropriately, he uses some business jargon to explain his ideas. Talking about the artifact, what he calls the end goal, and the intervention, the process he used to get to that goal.

RM: Policy people tend to focus more than is in their interest on the artifact. What is the piece of policy that would make whatever problem they’re aiming at go away? What would be the artifact that would make it all work? And they don’t pay enough attention to the intervention that would bring whatever artifact you happen to come up with into operation. You need to rejig that balance and actually not think about the intervention as after we’ve come up with brilliant policy we then have to have a plan for how to get people to buy into it. That’s too late. You’ve committed the original sin already which is thinking that in isolation from real beneficiaries of the artifact, and all the people necessary to bring the artifact into existence, you can create the perfect artifact and then convince people. So you think about designers, the artifact is the next smartphone.

The questions is, are you creating an intervention that will cause that artifact to end up being used, or are you going to do it in a way that the person has to greenlight it at the end of the process as, hmm, nah, I don’t really like this. Back to square one.

The process by which you create the artifact actually has a huge impact on whether that artifact actually sees the light of day or not. So the question is, how can you think about the intervention as soon as you even think about the artifact rather than say its artifact and then get buy in for it.


IG: New America, on the other hand is getting their hands dirty, setting up shop in some of the constituencies they see as being crucial breeding grounds for new innovative ideas that they believe will drive policy in the coming decades.

HP: What we’d really like to ideally do through this whole reinvented think tank process, is we’re imbedding locally in four cities across the country. We’ve opened a hub in California. We have a location in New York. We are starting a community engagement arm here in D.C. and we are looking to open a Chicago office within this year.

And our goal is that by embedding locally we’ll have access to some of these sort of on the ground grassroots green shoots innovations that people are developing in their own communities to solve their problems. And our theory is that by seeing places where these ideas are working and having been tested, we can then feed them into our policy proposal process and work that into the feedback loop with the federal process.

You know we’ve picked these four pilot cities. We are looking at the sort of things that would identify the next, sort of set of new America cities. And we’re really looking for green shoots, positive deviants. There’s the whole rust belt and certain cities are doing really well in what used to be the rust belt. And some cities are not. And we really want to get a sense of what are those things that are working really well. And if they are working really well, can we connect them to places that aren’t doing them well, and help sort of foster an ecosystem outside of the traditional government frameworks.

IG: So. while these two think tanks are taking slightly different approaches, both see the writing on the wall. Though the think tank world isn’t in its death throes yet, now is the time to change if they want to remain relevant in the 21st Century. After all, it’s pretty hard to get ideas turned into policy when even bought-in bureaucrats like ambassador MacNaughton are no longer onside.

HP: I think there’s definitely still a role for the ‘get people in a room and come up with the right answer.’ But I think it’s an inflection moment to see whether or not the other things that we do are that important and make as much as an impact as they used to


RM: The only thing that keeps any form of organization in business is if they produce great output at a reasonable cost. If think tanks spend a whole lot of money coming up with policy that nobody actually takes action on, then the value to cost ratio is poor. Whenever that’s the case somebody else will figure out how to come along and deliver either the same value at a lower cost or higher value at the same cost. To the extent that think tanks aren’t producing enough positive forward action they would risk being replaced by something else.

IG: That does it for this episode of Shiftdisturbers. Thanks to Roger, Hana and Susan for their time.

Roger Martin’s latest book written with Sally R. Osberg, Getting Beyond Better; How Social Entrepreneurship Works, is available now.

You can check out Hana Passen’s work with New America Foundation at

And, of course Susan Glasser’s work with Politico is available in many different forms, the most up to date being

Thanks for listening to Shiftdisturbers. If you want to know more about what’s going on at the MartinProsperiT; note the lack of a ‘y’ at the end there.

And to make sure you never miss an episodes of Shiftdisturbers, please click on the subscribe button. I’m Ian Gormely. Thanks for listening.

This podcast was produced by the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School in 2017.

Roger Martin HeadshotRoger L. Martin is professor emeritus of strategic management and former dean at the Rotman School of Management. In 2019, Roger was named the world’s #2 management thinker by Thinkers50, a biannual ranking of the most influential global business thinkers. He served as the institute director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship and the premier’s chair in productivity and competitiveness. From 1998 to 2013, he served as dean. In 2013, he was named global Dean of the Year by the leading business school website Poets & Quants.
Headshot of Susan B. GlasserSusan B. Glasser is an American journalist and news editor. She writes the column Letter from Trump’s Washington in The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer. She has previously served as editor of Politico during the 2016 election cycle, founding editor of Politico Magazine, and editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, which won three National Magazine Awards during her tenure.