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Not "Think Tanks", But "Policy Marketing Shops"

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I like Andrew Russo and I definitely appreciate the post in This Week in Education, but the claim that I've "transformed the notion of education think tanks... into nothing more than well-dressed sales assistants who are, on behalf of their funders, selling fancy-sounding ideas in tiny little high-priced shops" is a caricature. This is the third in a series of essays on the education "think tank." To get the most out of it, I urge you to review the first two (here and here) first. It is a bit of a read for a the blog consumer, but I hope it will help the reader understand that my intent is serious, and I do think these organization play an important role. They just aren't "think tanks".

Organizations are what they do. What they do is determined by how they spend time and money.

If we look at the so called “think tanks” working on education policy inside the Beltway, and set aside the non-trivial costs of putting a roof over their heads and providing back office support, it’s no surprise that the vast bulk of funds are spent on professional staff and consultants with policy backgrounds. The balance involves conference and other event planning, publications – including electronic publications, travel, and possibly public relations. If we turn our attention to staff and consultant time, in most cases we will see the bulk of an organization’s human resource devoted to writing editorials, articles, newsletters, memos, white papers and reports and doing the research behind it.

The word “research” covers a lot of territory, so let me clarify with the comment of a colleague: “Another big difference between RAND and say AEI is RAND's insistence on very detailed research, significant time and money for analysis, and high standards of evidence…. Most of what are now called think tanks engage in research-assisted punditry, not research.”

Almost all of these "research-assisted" products are put into the public domain. The next highest claim on time is either public speaking, to the media and at conferences and in other public fora; or planning and organizing press events, seminars and conferences. Close behind are private meetings, mostly with counterparts in other so-called think tanks, and various advisory panels and boards. A relatively small amount of time is spent in direct contact with politicians, government officials and staff. The allocation of time differs by individual staff member, but having built a few of these budgets myself at the project and organizational levels, and overseen the time allocation reports submitted to government, and reviewed others as a consultant, I feel pretty confident in this overall estimate.

In short, what these organizations do most is market their approach to education policy, a very small amount of selling those ideas to government, and maybe – based on accumulated sales, a bit more on customer service. They spend the vast bulk of their time in the Washington marketplace for ideas, conducting activities that let policymakers and their advisors know their ideas exist and demonstrate their attractive features. A tiny amount of their time is spent “closing the sale” – getting the policymaker or advisor to buy into the idea and decide pursue it inside the government’s decision processes. Once they’ve bought in, the advisor or decisionmaker has a call on the organization's time, but as compared with a real think tank, the requests tend to be fairly intermittent and superficial.

Who pays for this policy marketing and what benefit do they receive? Policy marketing is paid for, bought really, by private foundations, much as companies hire marketing firms to facilitate the sales of goods and services. The benefit they receive is similar, preparing the target audience – in the one case policymakers, in the other retail consumers - to accept and then use what’s being offered. Foundations fund education think tanks that further a philanthropy's political agenda, philosophy, or social program. The Walton Foundation funds the National Charter Alliance and the Center for Education Reform, not the Center on Education Policy because that foundation has a pro-voucher world view based on a profound dislike of the traditional education establishment. A similar pattern could be found with any foundation funding so-called education policy think tanks in Washington. I would be very interested to see readers propose a “strange bedfellows” pattern of grantsmanship here, or even one case.

Alexander Russo prompted me to write this series with the question “what about influence, not to speak of value?” If education policy “think tanks” are really policy marketing shops, that’s a bit like looking through any popular magazine and asking “what is the influence of advertising, not to speak of value?” In both cases the ready answer is that in a world where everyone is advertising – marketing, those who refrain from it will find selling much harder. The question of value comes down to the statement attributed to Lord Lever of the household product manufacturer Unilever, and department store magnate Jon Wannamaker, among others, about knowing that half of what he spent on marketing was a waste, but not being able to determine which half. Not knowing, resources tend to be spent on every possible medium. Foundations with a social mission are no different than companies with a business objective; they tend to spread their money around to outfits that appear to do a decent job of getting out the message.

The net effect in Washington is a cacophony of voices on education policy and a debate that only eduwonks in the community of policy marketing shops can possibly follow. Indeed the most important function of the education policy blog is to help its members keep up with each other. In this kind of a marketplace, what becomes important is brand. In education policy the brands capture very narrow audience segments, more like boutiques. Policymakers who can appreciate the difference between the Center for Education Reform and Fordham or between Fordham and AEI, are like retail consumers who can explain why they prefer Lilly, Gucci, or Pucci.

Every head of every one of these outfits in Washington would seriously consider trading a finger to have the power of RAND’s brand – regardless of what they think of its politics or work product. That’s one reason they have embraced the “think tank” appellation. It’s the same reason Maine lobstermen have fought so hard to ban the label from the langostino, and Champagne grape growers take legal action against those purveying sparkling wine products based on other grapes.

If you are selling a political agenda to government, you need to play in the Washington marketplace of ideas. Foundations need the policy marketing shop. But that is only the cost of entry; it buys you a right to play in the game, nothing more. If you want to get hold of policy, you need a real think tank, but that requires a department or agency ready, willing and able to pay for the advice itself. To stay in business, the policy marketing shop needs to convince only its funders that it is both part of the game and pushing their view. The Council on Basic Education and the Education Leaders Council couldn't, so they went out of business. The new lot Alexander Russo referred to have convinced their sponsors they can, and so they've got their seed capital.

Next: Some thoughts on the implications of that last paragraph.

1 Comment

Thought-provoking piece, as always, but a clarification is in order. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (our correct name) is grateful for Walton support, but we're also funded by outfits such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that have nothing to do with vouchers. And CEP itself, whatever its funding, is actually quite open to expansion of charter schools. No question that funders have agendas, but charter schools are attracting pretty wide support these days.

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