Many people say the best way to influence government is to give policymakers practical solutions to problems they care about. According to this perspective, academics and think tanks scholars can get it wrong by spending too much time analysing problems and their causes. Policymakers don’t care about theory, they just want policies and programs that work.
Applied to think tanks, this pragmatic approach means identifying the most important problems policymakers are dealing with and producing products that explain how best to solve them within the constraints of electoral politics, institutional structure and government budgets. In Australia, the Grattan Institute seems to embody this approach. It promotes itself as a source of "Independent, rigorous and practical solutions to Australia’s most pressing problems."
The trouble with this view is that think tank scholars have sometimes succeeded by doing exactly the opposite. For example, Charles Murray is widely acknowledged as one of the most influential think tank scholars in the United States. His accent to influence began in the early 1980s with Losing Ground, a book that rejected the conventional understanding that poverty was the problem and welfare was the solution. According to Murray, welfare dependency was the problem, entrenched poverty was one of its symptoms and the solution was to abolish government welfare programs.
Losing Ground is packed with data and graphs, but most of the book is an analysis of the problem of welfare dependency. It discusses the history of anti-poverty policy and offers a theoretical explanation of why these programs and policies failed. The sketchiest part of the book is the part about what government should do. Murray presented his solution as a ‘thought experiment’. It began with the idea of "scrapping the entire federal welfare and income-support structure for working-aged persons, including AFDC, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, Worker’s Compensation, subsidized housing, disability insurance, and the rest" (p 228). After thinking his way through the experiment, Murray adds back Unemployment Insurance and concedes a role for locally run welfare programs.
None of this was a solution to any problem Washington policymakers wanted to think about in the mid-1980s. According to Thomas Medvetz, the author of Think Tanks in America:
… the Reagan administration had shown no interest in comprehensive welfare reform as a policy priority. As Murray himself puts it, “The people in the Reagan administration were actually quite scared of Losing Ground. Because , you know, the Reagan administration’s line was that the problems were welfare queens who were cheating and you had to stop the cheating. They didn’t want to have a radical rethinking of the whole welfare structure. There simply was, in the Reagan administration, zero policy to back it up with.”
The influential part of Murray’s book is his discussion of the problem not its solution. He provided scholarly support for conservative claims that welfare programs created a culture of dependency that encouraged out of wedlock childbearing, crime, drug abuse and work avoidance. With support from the Manhattan Institute and aided by Murray’s accessible and engaging writing, the book attracted widespread media attention. And despite the fact that academics raised serious questions about Murray’s analysis, the book became influential within the policy community. According to Manhattan Institute President Lawrence Mone:
The book was the subject of countless editorials, columns and articles. Slowly, but surely,over the course of the next ten years, it totally flipped the conventional wisdom on welfare. And that flip led ultimately to the Welfare Reform bill of 1996. President Clinton himself acknowledged this, when he said, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, and I quote: "[Charles Murray] did the country a service… his analysis is essentially right."
Clinton’s welfare reform bill was designed to "end welfare as we know it" and attracted strong criticism from liberals like Peter Edelman, and even Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who is sometimes called a ‘neoconservative’. The bill was a huge victory for conservatives.
Of course Murray wasn’t the only think tank scholar who helped lay the ground for welfare reform but it’s impossible to deny that he had an influence. The history of welfare reform in the US shows that think tanks don’t have to focus on practical policy solutions to have an influence. And they don’t have to cater to the most pressing concerns of the current administration. Sometimes influence is about changing the problem rather than suggesting solutions. And sometimes that takes time.