The different actors involved in the American policy enterprise (a term I like to borrow from the report Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy) have different forms of marketing their brands as authoritative sources for policy makers and the media. The more traditional legitimation of a Think Tank is the claim that its work is intellectually pure, independent and scientifically valid. With its motto of quality, independence and impact, Brookings is the classic example of an institution that understands itself as being super partes and exerts its influence through the autonomy from ideological affiliation. Credibility is understood as neutrality and balance. On the other side, activist organizations like Heritage to the right or the Center for American Progress to the left brand themselves as organizations with an immediate impact, thus the label of marketing Think Tanks (Rich, 2004). In this case, their credibility is seen as partisan effectiveness.
A third approach to the construction of a relevant form of credibility is exemplified by the Bipartisan Policy Center, officially founded in 2006. As its name declares, BPC is neither a neutral, nonpartisan nor a one-sided partisan organization. The activities of this Think Tank largely consist in the work of different specialized commissions that include members of the two parties. When I spoke to BPC’s Director of the Democracy Project John Fortier, who was incredibly generous with his time in spite of the then upcoming midterm elections, he pointed out that it takes an important effort to build truly bipartisan groups of experts — and to communicate that vision to the outer world. Indeed, he argued, it would be very easy to engage moderate Republicans who sometimes vote with Democrats and more conservative Democrats who vote alongside Republican lines in certain issues and have them collaborate on easily agreed upon recommendations; but that line of work would not be representative of any of the two parties, which may view them as points of poor leverage and excessive compromise. Instead, BPC’s commissions recognize the ideological differences between blue and red and facilitate towards solutions that may satisfy important priorities from both sides. BPC experts engage the agency officers and politicians with whom they work by providing useful knowledge taken from their research background.
In BPC’s model, credibility is the dynamic balance of conflicting interests that recreates very closely the strenuous mechanisms of democracy. In fact, Dr. Fortier admitted external criticism is frequent. Since empirical balance is never the same from one group to the other, some of their recommendations are targeted from different groups as either too conservative or too liberal.
When asked about the possibilities of replicating the institution in other parts of the world, Mr. Fortier replied that the basic inspiration of bringing together a large range of stakeholders is subject to very different implementations, and cited California Forward as a significant effort in this sense. In other words, context may give you very different pieces and cultures of participation; but the decision to build an organization that understands credibility as a dynamic balance can be universally inspiring.
Because of its declared dedication to a more understanding and collaborative political climate in the country’s capital and the foundational balance between the parties, the BPC doesn’t consider their financial transparency an issue of priority and defend that a certain degree of confidentiality in their meetings is an important ingredient for the success of their project.
Even though specific amounts are not disclosed, the annual report contains easy to read and important financial information, including the total funding, its breakdown and a comprehensive list of donors with only two anonymous funders. BPC received a total of $ 24 million in 2013, 71% of which corresponds to foundations, while the remaining 29% is the sum of corporations and individuals.
In the next post I will make an in-depth analysis of the recent Washington Post’s piece on Brookings, which has very interesting consequences for the debate on Think Tank accountability, currently shifting towards the problem of activist philanthropy.