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Think Tanks: Public Power in Private Hands

By David J. Scheffer

"Yet in holding scientific research and discovery in respect at we should, we must also be alert to the equal end opposite danger that public policy could itself become captive of a scientific-technological elite." --President Eisenhower in his Farewell Address January 17, 1961

THE DRAMATIC LEAKING of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg '52 in June of last year caused many Americans to think that so-called think tanks aid the government in the logistics--and in many instances the formulation--of public policy. An uproar immediately ensued questioning the right of the RAND Corporation (which had employed Ellsberg and had been a contributor to the U.S. Air Force's participation in the Vietnam War) to decide the course of action in Vietnam without the knowledge or participation of the American people.

The immediate June reaction failed to encompass the real role of RAND in the Vietnam War. Although a number of think tank types participated in the historical analysis that produced the Pentagon Papers, their findings make clear that the formulation of actual policy was firmly in the hands of elected and appointed officials, not RAND consultants. And in no sense was RAND the "developer" of Air Force participation in the war. That honor goes to the Air Force, the Department of Defense and the White House, Certainly RAND is implicated, but along with "improved" methods of Air Force operation in Vietnam, other RAND Studies argued against the whole strategic bombing program.

Nevertheless, the awakening of the public's conscience to RAND's role in Vietnam soon spread to include the whole realm of the elite Research and Development groups known as think tanks. Americans are realizing that their government encompasses not only the executive, legislative and judicial branches, but a fourth branch of "brains" whose job is to think, analyze, determine and recommend. No one elects these "thinkers," and no analyst must defend himself before the public. Yet they wield and uncertain and highly explosive power: the ability to scientifically determine the present and even the future.

Of the thousands of research groups in the United States, about 600 qualify as think tanks. Approximately 75 of these are attached to the Federal government by annual contract. Created mostly by the executive branch, they include RAND and NASA's Bellcomm Inc. The Stanford Research Institute and the Hudson Institute are two of 200 leading independent or university-affiliated nonprofit institutions devoted broadly to the natural and social sciences. About 300 profit-making firms consult, study, conduct surveys, make recommendations, perform applied research and, generally think for a fee. These teams of "brains" include General Electric's TEMPO group and Arthur D. Little Inc. of Cambridge. Finally, there is a handful of think tanks whose clients are also their "public." Instead of government or industry support, they rely on themselves and their mostly private supporters, including foundations and individuals. Among these are the Brookings Institution (A second home of many Harvard economists) and the Institute for Policy Studies.

WITH THINK TANKS, diversity is the name of the game. Every conceivable interest group in the nation now has or has had at least one think tank working for it. Think tanks usually work on a whole range of problems at the same time: strategic weaponry, nuclear contingency plans, new ideas for preventing and fighting crime, stinging rebukes to Federal agencies, development of HoJo Cola, the Lark filter, freeze-dried foods, the location of Disneyland and thousands of other problems land desired innovations.

Why the sudden dependence on the intellectuals who band together, whether in a nonprofit or profit-making fashion, into groups whose sole products are paper reports? The answer lies within the past several decades. During and since FDR's presidency, the United States has witnessed revolutionary changes in its position in the world and in the operations of its governing system. Science and technology have exploded and placed instruments of vast destructive power in the hands of rulers and enormously increased the complexity of the policy process.

In the United States, policy formation is becoming more and more the domain of scientific and technical elites. "Public" and "private" have lost much of their traditional distinction as many private institutions (such as think tanks) take on public functions through administrative contract. Though Americas increasingly fear the military complex, that very organization is slowly being "civilianized" through the work of think tanks contracted by the Pentagon.

Yet the civilians who are refusing government and science, public and private institution, civilian and military personnel, and foreign and domestic policy are the elite "brains" in the United States. The populace as a whole still remains on the outside and enjoys little if any communication with the emerging decision making apparatuses known as think tanks. Decisions are made by the clients usually without the preliminary surveillance or knowledge of the people most often affected.

Peter L. Szanton, former president of the New York City RAND institute and now a lecturer for the Kennedy Institute of Politics, suggests that the current think tank "phenomenon" is related to a major change in the identity of the people governing us.

Until recently, lawyers dominated the top positions in government. Approximately 60 per cent of Congress and 50 per cent of America's governors were lawyers. The domination by lawyers was due in part to their characteristics, bright, well-trained, good generalists with useful and practical skills including advising, negotiating, drafting and procedure, Basically, a lawyer's outlook is operational solving.

Life is changing, however. The government is facing unfamiliar and technical problem. They need experts, not generalists Lawyers are unsatisfactory where expertise is involved. The nature of the government itself has changed. Before the Depression, the government intervened mainly through regulation by the courts and administrative agencies taxing, licensing and regulation. Here the lawyers found their proper place.

BUT WITHIN the last 20 years, the government has been operating and intervening more ambitiously by directing resources. Instead of regulation, the U.S now obtains results by heaving money into different areas. This has brought with it the rise of the economist and in particular the think tank, which enables the economist to exert his knowledgeable influence. In order to dig deeper into what makes a think tank tick, Szanton proposes that three questions economists often ask be explored: (1) What is being produced? (2) How is it being produced? (3) For whom is it being produced?

The public really does not know very will what is being produced by think tanks. Paul Dickson's book Think Tanks offers a good survey, but other than this so much of the think tanks' paper products are classified or private that most Americans are left in the dark. The new technology developing into think tanks is less than what the public imagines Rather, they deal with communication and information handling. Efficiency questions compose more than one half of the work. The best analysts, though, tend to turn efficiency questions into effectiveness questions. Instead of trying to find the cheapest solution to a client's problem, analysts are beginning to recommend the outlays of larger amounts of time and-or money in order to reach ends determined not by cheapness but by results. Methodology, studying the principles of procedure, and the exploration of different theories--both political and scientific--are possible only within the large rich think tanks such as RAND and on the whole account for only 2 to 3 per cent of the work.

How do think tanks produce their products? The old answer involves putting several specialists into a closed environment to review the client's problem, gather and analyze the date, and produce a concise conclusion. The specialists work under a clearly defined division of functions and perform the analysis, leaving the decision-making to the client.

This process, though, establishes a counter productive we they relationship between the thinkers and the doers. It assumes that advice as well as action are acts. Both are processes that go on over long periods of time. Analysts stop after analysis because beyond it is the quagmire of politics and administration, yet their advice is dependent upon these very processes and vice versa.

It is necessary to unite both the clients and the researchers in analysis and implementation. The Center for Community Economic Development, a think tank based in Cambridge, already fuses its staff with the people of the communities it serves. Also, the New York City RAND Institute attempts to draw its municipal clients into the research and to allow the researcher to take part in the implementation of the research. The result is an improved recommendation from the think tank that evolves with the client, insuring a better likelihood of action from a client who is wiser and more competent from his participation in the research process.

FOR WHOM DO and should the think tanks work? The government, of course, is the largest and most powerful employer. But it is mostly the executive brand, and even further the top levels of the executive agencies which rely upon the economists, analysts, researchers and specialists. However the current development within think tank into become one's own client. In other words, think tanks by contracting several clients, are obtaining freedom to become their own client since they are not totally responsible to one client. This has its advantages. Working for only the top levels of the government is like writing in the sand. High officials too often fall to the tide of appointments, and elected officials' priorities constantly fluctuate. The limits of time play too risky a role for the think tank to lay all its bets on the instability of government officials.

Analysis is also an instrument of power. Although legislatures hold the purse strings, access to think tanks should move toward working and co-cooperating with the legislatures across the United States, including the U.S. Congress.

How will people accept the increasing intrusion of think tanks into the government? If the think tanks are allowed to become a constructive part of the policy-making process and if there is a fusion between analyst and decision-maker, the probability is that the public will accept it with eagerness. There are four reasons" (1) Elected officials remain responsible for their actions in their own minds and the minds of the public. A high-level official, being human, has no desire to cede authority to anyone else.

Therefore, a strong check on outside decision-making remains. (2) Even if authority is ceded to certain analysts, the authority is usually being ceded by appointed officials. They have no greater legitimacy than any other appointee. (3) The benefits of the analysts outweigh the disadvantages. Analysts are more scientists than politicians. Scientists leave a trail-they leave records that tell you why. Consequently, the public can become aware of their decisions more easily than of the politicians' acts. (4) Concurrently, a radical strengthening of the democratic process results. Scientists bear accountability for their own actions. They make the public decision process more explicit--and this is far more compatible with democratic theory than the incidents in American history when politicians' trails have lain hidden under mounds of bureaucratic red tape or trapped in the minds of silent government officials.

Eventually, though, a balance of power must be struck between the government, including the think tanks, and the government. If we want general participation in policy analysis and execution, effective means of participation must be supplied. Although steps have been taken in this direction by particular think tanks, the government and all analyst groups should provide means through which interest groups can avail themselves of the analysis. There must be an opening of channels of communication between the think tanks and the citizens whom their decision affect.

IF THE PUBLIC does not take advantage of its own intelligence, the management of public opinion will be left to the media. As a result, the top analysts and political leaders will end up talking only to themselves. Advantage must be taken of the awareness and self-steering mechanism of the electorate.

By exerting their influence upon those organs of the government which employ think tanks, mostly within the executive branch, citizens can grasp--feebly but surely--the strings of power that blow in bureaucratic winds. The Pentagon Papers was a beginning. The press has a responsibility to seek out and then inform the public of abuses within the decision-making process of the government. Then, through the force of popular opinion and at the polls, Americans can accept or reject the government's and in particular the think tanks, course of action, or, as with Vietnam, refuse to participate in implementation of policies. The interaction between the public and public policy deserves more definition.

Today, the highest responsibility of the think tank is not to solve problems but to raise the level of competence of its client. Tomorrow, the think tank's supreme responsibility will lie in raising the level of competence of its most important client, the public.

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