Letter from a think tank: Deliver us from deliverables

As many readers know, there’s a legal and P.R. battle going on for control of the Cato Institute, the libertarian think tank in Washington where I’m a fellow. The key issues in the dispute, both philosophical and personality-oriented, have been widely aired already. But one sidelight of the controversy, I think, may open a little window into the rapidly changing nature of the policy-oriented think tank world, a topic written about by Tevi Troy and others. In particular, I think it’s notable that the founder/donors who’ve filed the lawsuit aren’t just asking a court to decide who gets to vote in board elections; they’re also claiming that Cato as it stands now is not well managed.

This took me aback. I thought I’d heard every possible charge against Cato – that it’s the “intellectual lobby of capitalism-in-the-raw” (James Wolcott); that it’s a “neo-con riddled haven” (someone at Daily Paul); and so on. But “not well run” was something new. Cato’s reputation as one of the most strongly managed think tanks was an attraction when I joined two years ago, and nothing I’ve seen since joining inclines me to think otherwise. In the practical functions of a think tank – events, travel, press relations, publications, and so forth – Cato hums with efficiency. Fund-raising? The place is finishing up a $50 million capital campaign. Substance? Cato connects with a broad policy audience in dozens of subject areas. It even manages to cultivate among its scholars a recognizable Cato “style.”

The specifics, when I had a chance to examine them, seemed awfully thin. In a public statement, one of the eminent businessman/ philanthropists pursuing the legal complaint charged that Cato lacks “a system to ensure that all programs are effective and continuously improved.” He added that in its efforts to sway the public policy debate, the institute “could become much more effective in translating esoteric concepts into concrete deliverables.”

I’m sorry, but … concrete deliverables?

Part of my problem with this is that I write for a living, and the phrase concrete deliverables conjures up a procession of vehicles with rotating cement mixers arriving at a loading dock. A system to ensure that all programs are effective and continuously improved makes me think of the Gilbreth parents in the old Cheaper By the Dozen, the one with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, bringing up their large brood of kids with the aid of efficiency-expert methods from the factory floor.

I know, that’s not really fair. Plenty of people in the business world express themselves in stilted management jargon, and yet in practice are great at managing and even have a sense of humor. The real question it raised with me is whether the management methods that apply well to most other lines of work can realistically be carried over to a think tank engaged in what’s been called the Long Game of influencing public discussion.

* * *

On a personal level, I’m no expert on think tank management. I do bring one credential to the discussion, though, namely that I’ve spent more than a quarter century at two of the nation’s preeminent right- of-center think tanks (the Manhattan Institute and before that the American Enterprise Institute). In both cases I was lucky enough to be there during what you might call golden-age periods.

At AEI, seemingly every distinguished social scientist on the right was dropping by regularly for discussions. At Manhattan, a small band of us were bringing messages of free markets, urban rebirth, de- lawyering and smaller government to an initially skeptical New York media world. At both places, week after week, you had the chance to watch scintillating public intellectuals at the peak of their form, while matching wits with smart adversaries on the left who took your ideas seriously. In short, it was the kind of environment where it was clear our ideas could make a difference and a sense of wonder and exhilaration were part of the everyday experience.

Those two institutes had a number of features in common, and Cato as presently organized tends to share those same features.

To begin with, neither of them was governed by a “system to ensure that all programs are effective and continuously improved.”

Almost every word in that formula is somehow off. When a think tank of this sort is really on its game – when it has found the right intellectuals to back – its main job is not to improve their activities, but to enable them. Of course improvement does happen, even with the stars who shine brightest already. The think tank’s assistance can enable the renowned economist to learn how to be a good TV guest, the intuitively based writer to develop more rigorous research methods, and so forth. But though improvement did happen, no one insisted it be “continuous,” with the constant looking over of shoulders that implies. What was notable about successful think tanks of this sort was that – after devoting a great deal of thought to who should be at the institution – they then tended to take a hands-off stance toward how people did their work and interacted. No system could “ensure” outcomes – to back ideas is to place bets, with results that aren’t always within the realm of prediction and control.

It wasn’t anarchy: management did step in when a project floundered. Nor was it a sinecure: people left and projects closed regularly. The great thing was that we didn’t spend much of our time filing reports and attending meetings with higher-ups. One of the familiar horrors of today’s non-profit sector is the need to suspend work on matters of substance for days or weeks to write a proposal after some foundation exec expresses a vague interest. Usually, after all the running around, I gather that the foundation doesn’t give, or if it does, demands exhaustively detailed and frequent reports as a followup to its small grant. Successful think tanks, at least the ones I observed, tended to shield their idea people from being overly sucked into these sorts of paperwork.

* * *

Which brings us to “deliverables.” At one level, the idea here is obvious and unexceptionable. If your current project is a monograph, you have to actually see the thing through to publication, or your effort will be wasted. If your job is campus outreach, you need to clock plenty of time in the presence of students or faculty, and so forth.

Cato certainly doesn’t lack for deliverables. As a group, my colleagues write and publish millions of words a year, in forms ranging from lengthy books down through Twitter posts; they talk to reporters, resulting in thousands of press clips; they testify regularly before Congress and state lawmakers, and so forth.

As the truism goes, however, management derives from measurement, and the things you can measure in the time horizon of a reporting cycle aren’t necessarily the things that matter most in the long run. Immediate buzz — yes, that you can quantify pretty well. But what of the rest?

A management that emphasizes concrete deliverables is going to get more of those deliverables: more bookings on radio shows as opposed to time spent on background reading, more op-ed placements as opposed to time spent in the company of senior thinkers in one’s field. If thinkers are pushed too hard to focus on relevance to bills being considered by the legislature that term – which in any case will soon tend to collide with the tax bar on lobbying – there’s an incentive to be less visionary about what the laws should be, as one is pulled into the often dispiriting details of compromise.

* * *

At the risk of being self-aggrandizing, let me share a few examples from my own experience.

I suppose I count as a recognizable think-tank type. Over the years I’ve written four books and who knows how many millions of words of magazine, blog and newspaper work, along with the usual trimmings: policy advice to lawmakers, broadcast appearances and so forth. Like most, I’m proud when my work sets off an immediate reaction in the right quarters, whether it consists of an intelligently favorable book review or a letter from someone at the White House. And yet if I were asked to draw up a list of twenty ways in which I’m most confident my work has changed the world for the better, I suspect at least ten of them would be examples of influence I didn’t know I was having until years after the fact.

For instance: I learned from one of the judges directly involved that my writing had helped sway a key area of the law in a large state, which had in turn proved influential in other states and contributed to the turnaround of a vital national body of law that (in my opinion) had been previously heading in exactly the wrong direction. But by the time I heard about this, it was years after I’d written the passage in question.

Or again: I was gratified to see one of the nation’s best business journalists embark on a series of outstanding investigative exposes of abuses of the litigation system. After complimenting him on the work, I added that I hadn’t realized we thought so similarly about the issue. “Well, at first we didn’t,” was his response. “But over the years you sort of convinced me.”

You might expect the projects with long-term impact were the same ones that had made a big splash in the short term, so that by measuring one you’d indirectly be measuring the other. But not always. Fairly early in my career, I put a good bit of effort into a piece that tried to explain how lack of transparency in fiscal affairs on the state level enabled political irresponsibility and waste. The piece drew virtually zero reaction at the time, even though it ran in a national outlet, and I more or less gave up on the topic as one to which my talents didn’t seem well suited. A decade or two later, the same problems had begun drawing much more discussion, with a number of scholars engaged in first-rate work. Talking to one of them, I said he probably didn’t realize it, but I’d tackled the subject myself once years earlier. Of course I realize it, he said; did you imagine no one saw that piece of yours? In fact it got several of us to comparing notes about how we needed to do more work in this area so the public would understand the need for reform.

And modesty forces me to admit that the opposite happens regularly too: something you write will make a big splash at the time, but the passage of years leaves less reason to think it made a real difference. Stendhal famously observed that to write a book was to take out a ticket in a lottery, the great prize of which was to be read a century hence. In the policy business, it might be more realistic to adopt a time horizon of 25 rather than 100 years. Instant Lotto, though, it’s not.

So if most of the possible concrete deliverables don’t always capture what one is after, what’s the alternative? That brings me to the last element of the mix, the tendency of successful institutions to have someone in charge with a comprehensive critical capacity to evaluate the institution’s output. Ideally, the person in charge, or at least someone who closely advises that person, will be the one with the sharpest eye for the difference between good and bad work, and the way to account for one’s absorption of salary, space and oxygen is to drop one’s latest book or stack-of-articles on his or her desk and say: “Here it is. Is it as good as you hoped? Is it going to be one of the things you’re proud of having published when you retire?”

All the rest is just deliverables.

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include overlawyered.com. Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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