Increasing Relevance, Diminishing Access Require Unchanging Values for a Changing Audience

Chapter in The Future of Think Tanks and Policy Advice in the United States, edited by James McGann, published by Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

January 16, 2021

Like many longstanding institutions in the United States, think tanks face unusual challenges coping with an environment that did not exist even a decade ago. The collapse of faith in experts and expertise and the increasing distrust of insiders pose one set of problems. But the Peterson Institute for International Economics and its sister institutions also face dramatic changes in the way that public officials in authority communicate to the public.

A necessary process of rethinking our role and the way we communicate is especially urgent for think tanks with headquarters in capitals, and Washington DC, in particular. It is in the nation’s capital that think tanks have long relied on interaction with officials, ex-officials, and politicians to influence policy decisions. That was also part of how we got our ideas out to the public. We also became admittedly comfortable after many years of having our fortunes tied to a sort of golden era of the liberal consensus and a relatively open-minded US and European government structure. Leaders of think tanks and their backers have all meant well, but they never did question enough what had worked as an insider’s game.

Now that authoritative voices are not as dominant as they once were, getting your voice out is difficult. So is getting funding. I think many of our colleagues in this collection of essays will recognize that there is a new demand for metrics and deliverables from funders, including individual philanthropists and new and old foundations. The successful funding of malaria nets by the Gates Foundation set a standard for measurable outcomes and direct impact that many donors now seek. They are less interested than they used to be in funding applied research. And to the degree that donors are interested in funding research on policy, they increasingly tend to seek it in-house, in their foundations and affiliates, or at universities that have moved into the policy space.

The Peterson Institute is determined to face these difficulties while living up to our mission. We wish to serve this mission of strengthening prosperity and human welfare in the global economy through expert analysis and practical policy solutions, as an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. So how have we gone about meeting these challenges?

When I was appointed president of the Peterson Institute in the summer of 2012, I had made clear to our board of directors that we had to adjust our direction and focus beyond Washington and even Western capitals. We had to make our content more accessible and change the kind of issues we were looking at. I consciously moved us substantively more into issues of inequality, human welfare, and political economy, for example. Of course, it goes without saying that we cannot compromise our quality or our objectivity in reaching these objectives, but we can change when the times demand that we change.

This obviously becomes the biggest issue in the communications sphere. First, reaching out to other parts of the world instead of focusing solely on Washington has great advantages. In some ways, it makes us more attractive as an employer because it gives our fellows a bigger audience and more and richer intellectual stimulus. Broadening the areas of research, I think, is exciting for people in the economics profession. But it has been a necessary adjustment.

As for our communications strategy, we have been fortunate to have support from the Peterson Foundation and other backers to make many changes. For example, the Peterson Institute used to rely on what we would call the traditional book model to disseminate our scholarship. Every senior fellow used to have a book project or two on something like a two- to three-year cycle, and their books were reviewed in a few prominent publications. The authors would be in charge of promoting their books with speeches to select audiences and other forms of outreach. In these cases, the authors were responsible for producing anything more accessible to wider audiences derived from their work.

Like other think tanks, we have changed that model by increasingly bringing in communications experts, data visualization specialists, and editors to work with scholars in producing accessible products and off-shoots, including blogs, infographics, explainers, social media content, and audiovisual versions of their work for broader outreach. We have done this while paying constant attention to the integrity of our scholarship, and we have achieved a good balance between traditional and nontraditional forms of communication.

Another area of recent innovation is in providing materials for educational institutions. PIIE had long thought about expanding in this area, but it was always decided that it was not our comparative advantage or the most impactful thing in terms of influencing policy debates. But we are now committed to engaging at this broader level as well. We do not want to wag the dog by producing trendy materials on the world economy to maximize clicks. But we have committed in the last couple of years to new efforts to develop curriculum and self-education materials for the general public, in particular for higher education students.

We are also working to address the challenge of listening to voices beyond white Western capitals. From the time I started in this game in 1997, I have felt very privileged in the old sense. My native language is English, my degree is from a brand name US university, I have contacts from my policy experience, and therefore I have been invited to all kinds of places to hold forth. But think tanks and more importantly governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) outside the rich world are now rightly trying to promote their own countries’ voices.

It is part of a rightful rebalancing of the share of voice and of advisory opportunities. For example, if you look closely at the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) surveys, there is a healthy profusion of think tanks throughout the world. Of course, the selling propositions of some of them include providing access and currying favor. The think tank market is not perfect. But this broadening reflects a positive trend, and we can play a role by participating in these changes. Just as there are universities around the world and NGOs around the world, there should be think tanks around the world. I would also hope that the Peterson Institute for International Economics over time becomes increasingly considered not just an American think tank with global interests but a global public good.

To be frank, the current US administration as well as some other governments in the world are making that objective easier for us even though they make our policy objectives harder to achieve in other ways. Throughout Democratic and Republican administrations in the Peterson Institute’s nearly four decades of existence, we never played favorites, we never pandered, and yet we generally got a hearing in the highest US officialdom. I hope we never took that for granted, and we certainly never felt entitled to that status. We always knew we had to earn it. But until this administration, we were always seen as being a part of the Washington establishment, and with that came a desire by top officials to engage with us.

Today, however, to the degree that we were viewed around the world as a way into the US government, some may see us as having gone down in value. But this also means that our standing up for the policy issues we care about in a consistent way, in an objective way, and in a transparent way, I believe, earns us more credibility around the world. And to some degree, standing up gets us better access in other governments, particularly international organizations like the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. That access comes even when some of our work is about reforming them (unlike, at times, agencies run by elected officials).

In the final analysis, I do take some satisfaction that, even though I did not know how fast things were going to change, we in many ways did anticipate these shifts and were in favor of adapting to change. I have recruited both research and other professional staff with that in mind. The competition for talent and funding is extremely tough right now. But we have very strong backers, and our core backers are secure. In addition, because of our special focus on international economics, we are nearly unique among think tanks in our neighborhood. Other institutions cover a whole range of topics. That is their strategic choice. Our choice is to have a staff of senior fellows who broadly can understand what each other is doing and have a dialogue about it. Given our substantive focus, we also have a brand and a role that are very clear. That makes our identity and my job easier—and also, frankly, more fun.

This status still gives us latitude to do some rethinking about both macroeconomic and trade policies, to broaden our perspectives, and to be more realistic, both in human and practical terms. This is a time when economics has become increasingly technical and mathematized. The field of economics increasingly requires not just specialized knowledge but specialized technique. I have long believed that the academic parts of the research profession have tended to reward creativity and cleverness and technique over relevance and robustness of work, which I believe are more important for public policy. And from the day I got here—well before I was president—I have tried to attract people to this institution who are at least open to that view.

So, consistent with our mandate, we view economics as a field of study connected to the issues of human welfare and material well-being. We have always been a home for economically literate political scientists and political economy experts of different stripes, and practitioners have been as much a part of our mix as distinguished economic academics.

Overall, the nationalism and skepticism we face today mean that think tank economists must approach the challenges I have outlined here with a bit of humility. We are trying to catch a moment when policy can move. We are trying to catch influential people’s ears as well as those of the public. We are stuck too much of the time trying to kill bad ideas. In the end, we have the honor of trying every day to advance ideas and policies that will prove beneficial for the people of the United States and the world.