Who Influences Whom? Reflections on U.S. Government Outreach to Think Tanks

Jeremy Shapiro at Brookings: “The U.S. government makes a big effort to reach out to important think tanks, often through the little noticed or understood mechanism of small, private and confidential roundtables. Indeed, for the ambitious Washington think-tanker nothing quite gets the pulse racing like the idea of attending one of these roundtables with the most important government officials. The very occasion is full of intrigue and ritual.

When the Government Calls for Advice

First, an understated e-mail arrives from some polite underling inviting you in to a “confidential, off-the-record” briefing with some official with an impressive title—a deputy secretary or a special assistant to the president, maybe even (heaven forfend) the secretary of state or the national security advisor. The thinker’s heart leaps, “they read my article; they finally see the light of my wisdom, I will probably be the next national security advisor.”

He clears his schedule of any conflicting brown bags on separatism in South Ossetia and, after a suitable interval to keep the government guessing as to his availability, replies that he might be able to squeeze it in to his schedule. Citizenship data and social security numbers are provided for security purposes, times are confirmed and ground rules are established in a multitude of emails with a seemingly never-ending array of staffers, all of whose titles include the word “special.” The thinker says nothing directly to his colleagues, but searches desperately for opportunities to obliquely allude to the meeting: “I’d love to come to your roundtable on uncovered interest rate parity, but I unfortunately have a meeting with the secretary of defense.”

On the appointed day, the thinker arrives early as instructed at an impressively massive and well-guarded government building, clears his ways through multiple layers of redundant security, and is ushered into a wood-paneled room that reeks of power and pine-sol. (Sometimes it is a futuristic conference room filled with television monitors and clocks that give the time wherever the President happens to be.) Nameless peons in sensible suits clutch government-issue notepads around the outer rim of the room as the thinker takes his seat at the center table, only somewhat disappointed to see so many other familiar thinkers in the room—including some to whom he had been obliquely hinting about the meeting the day before.

At the appointed hour, an officious staffer arrives to announce that “He” (the lead government official goes only by personal pronoun—names are unnecessary at this level) is unfortunately delayed at another meeting on the urgent international crisis of the day, but will arrive just as soon as he can get break away from the president in the Situation Room. He is, in fact, just reading email, but his long career has taught him the advantage of making people wait.

After 15 minutes of stilted chit-chat with colleagues that the thinker has the misfortune to see at virtually every event he attends in Washington, the senior government official strides calmly into the room, plops down at the head of the table and declares solemnly what a honor it is to have such distinguished experts to help with this critical area of policy. He very briefly details how very hard the U.S. government is working on this highest priority issue and declares that “we are in listening mode and are anxious to hear your sage advice.” A brave thinker raises his hand and speaks truth to power by reciting the thesis of his latest article. From there, the group is off to races as the thinkers each struggle to get in the conversation and rehearse their well-worn positions.

Forty-three minutes later, the thinkers’ “hour” is up because, the officious staffer interjects, “He” must attend a Principals Committee meeting. The senior government official thanks the experts for coming, compliments them on their fruitful ideas and their full and frank debate, instructs a nameless peon at random to assemble “what was learned here” for distribution in “the building” and strides purposefully out of the room.

The pantomime then ends and the thinker retreats back to his office to continue his thoughts. But what precisely has happened behind the rituals? Have we witnessed the vaunted academic-government exchange that Washington is so famous for? Is this how fresh ideas re-invigorate stale government groupthink?..”

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