Shadow Government

Why the government needs think tanks and academics

We are pleased to run this guest post from Nadia Schadlow, a friend of Shadow Government and a valued member of the security studies expert community.

By Nadia Schadlow 

Is government likely to be more successful by cutting off outside sources of information and expertise? The answer is no. While Rajiv Chandrasekaran's recent Washington Post article covered a range of concerns regarding the influence of two think tank analysts, the wider think tank community should reflect upon the implications of the article before Washington starts the holiday season with too much schadenfraude in the air. Anyone who has worked in or closely with the government knows that its reactions and counter-responses are hardly nimble, and that the tendency is toward overreaction. It would be a shame if Washington drew the wrong lessons from the profile. However one might view specific policy ideas offered by particular analysts, efforts by government officials to reach out to experts outside of their organizations should be actively encouraged. The U.S. military, like any government agency or private-sector corporation, does not have a monopoly on wisdom.

The husband and wife Kagan team profiled in the article are controversial figures for their role in advocating for a surge of troops first in Iraq, and then, in Afghanistan. As we know, wars are profoundly political events -- both at home and where they are actually fought -- and most anyone involved in thinking and writing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been caught, at some point, in the ensuing maelstrom. While the Kagans' ideas might have been controversial and disputed and even wrong, it would be short sighted for the government to make it yet more difficult to interact with outside experts.

Although the White House website has over 20,000 "hits" for public-private partnerships and although virtually every major foreign-policy (and domestic policy) initiative of late lauds the importance of such partnerships, the government is in fact schizophrenic about these relationships. I have yet to talk to someone who has said working with the government in any formal capacity was easy. 

Yet as the government faces cuts all around, it is scrambling for ideas: ideas to make its programs run faster, smoother, better. Ideas to save money, gather better data, and yes, often, to save lives. It does so with the help (if not the lead) of a rich and varied think tank and academic community. Every major government program, from Obamacare to tax reform to defense budget realignments, has benefitted from the research and analysis of analysts who work at think tanks and in academic centers. If experts on health care or on Pakistan are not reaching out to non-government experts, they are not doing their job. And since these experts need to make a living, they must raise money for the institutions in which they work; They, unlike the government, do not have a tax base upon which to draw.

Think tanks are one of the great strengths of this country. They provide a dynamic environment of intellectual inquiry that helps to refine ideas and translate academic arguments into policy-relevant recommendations. They allow individuals who have been fast-paced operational practitioners some time to sit back and consider the history or politics of a country more deeply, and then go back and work the long hours with greater context. They provide a way for younger individuals to gain knowledge and then "deploy" that knowledge once they enter government. 

Unlike the British executive branch, in which senior civil servants serve at the undersecretary level and hold the collective national wisdom in their expertise, the U.S. government populates the executive as far down as the office director level with short term political appointees. In our system, the think tanks and many in the academy constitute the collective national expertise, and every administration rightly calls upon them when weighing policies and making decisions. Many of the more successful high-level government officials today came from this community.

President Obama and other White House officials recognize that think tanks and universities generate debate and that is why they choose to speak at them. That is why White House and other officials cite non-government reports and books, often. That is why even during the last series of presidential debates, both candidates identified outside studies written by individuals who sought to influence debates about tax rates and health care and Iran.

Why shouldn't think tank and academic analysts -- who spend months on the ground gathering information -- form opinions and seek to influence policy? Journalists spend months and months in a war zone, expressing their views in books and articles. Completely by chance I am halfway through Mr. Chandrasekaran's book, Little America. The book is filled with often sad and frustrating stories about how government officials failed to listen to outside experts. The author devotes pages and pages to how one USAID official stubbornly refused to listen to any outside agricultural experts, much to the detriment of may Afghan lives and to the U.S. effort there.

Most who work in this field know that the government, particularly the intelligence community, can make it difficult to hire individuals who have spent long periods of time in specific countries. A friend, who runs a defense firm, makes an effort to hire the excellent candidates who have been rejected for spending too much time, in say, Asia. Should government officials be concerned about calling an analyst who has written an interesting report, and asking for further information? Perhaps even regularly? Are we to assume that high-ranking general officers and senior officials do not have the independence of mind or enough critical thinking skills that they cannot reject weak arguments? Should they avoid spending time with smart people who offer different viewpoints? Are staff officers or mid-level government mangers so threatened by different and even disagreeable views, that they cannot counter them?

Formal government programs exist -- from White House fellows, to the Council on Foreign Relations fellows, to the Franklins fellows at USAID -- to allow individuals with expertise to share their knowledge with the government. Many of these fellows, who spend a year working closely with high-level government officials, have worked at banks, technology-related firms, and for the foreign aid complex. They have existing professional relationships and these fellowships are often funded by outside parties. 

I work for an organization that has supported writers and analysts at think tanks (as well as academia) from across the political spectrum: from the Brookings Institution, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute and yes, the Institute for the Study of War. All of these organizations -- as well as countless others -- enrich our public policy debates.  Hopefully, a philosophy of governance that appreciates the value of such interactions and discourse will continue to flourish. 

Dr. Nadia Schadlow is a senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation. She is a former member of the Defense Policy Board. 

Serge Melki

Shadow Government

Making room for children in adversity

Yesterday was a good day for children. Hard to believe it, given recent events and the news of death, violence, and the suffering of children around the world. Millions are living in adverse conditions, barely surviving, often completely alone. In response, on Wednesday USAID launched a "whole of government" approach to this global challenge in the form of the first ever U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity. This new framework for international assistance targets children who are affected by HIV/AIDS, orphaned, trafficked, exploited for labor, recruited as soldiers, neglected, or in other vulnerable states. It has the potential to dramatically increase the impact of our assistance to improve the lives of highly vulnerable children, especially those living outside family care, by coordinating efforts across multiple U.S. agencies and allowing greater collaboration with civil society. One year ago on this blog, I advocated for a bipartisan initiative, along the lines of PEPFAR, to improve our response to the pressing child protection needs around the world. Though the recently launched initiative sadly does not come with significant new funds, I am delighted to see the White House hosting its launch.

Two recent events highlight the importance of the current focus on child protection. The first, of course, is the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. As our country mourns the loss of innocent life, grieves for the families of victims, and tries to explain why this happened to our children, we understand, perhaps more than ever, the need to protect children from adversity or help them recover from it. The children who died at Sandy Hook were clearly loved by their families, their teachers, and their community. One of the teachers, Kaitlin Roig, gave an interview describing her experience saving several of her students by hiding in a bathroom. She made sure to tell them that she loved them all very much, because she wanted that to be the last thing they heard in case they died. There are millions of children in the world today who witness or directly experience horrors similar to the Newtown shootings but have no family or other adults to know their pain, mourn their loss, or comfort their fears.   

The second event was the untimely death to cancer of Rwanda's Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, Aloisea Inyumba, at age 48. Mrs. Inyumba was, among many honorable achievements, a superhero for children. In 1994, immediately after the Rwandan genocide, she was a young cabinet minister in her twenties who knew that children, especially traumatized ones, belong in families. She worked tirelessly in intense circumstances, to ensure that the vast majority of the 100,000-plus children separated or orphaned by the genocide were reunited with their families or placed with new families through a national adoption campaign. After reassuming the role of Minister of Gender in 2011, she led the country to set as a policy goal the closing of all orphanages in Rwanda through placement of all children in families.

What the Sandy Hook teacher and Minister Inyumba knew to be true is also backed up by science. Research developments in neuroscience, health, and child welfare increasingly show the detrimental effects of "toxic stress", created by many types of adversity, on a child's development. Research also shows the importance of the love, care, and protection a family can provide to mitigate the effects of toxic stress and improve outcomes for children into adulthood. The Action Plan's primary objectives of building strong beginnings, putting family care first and protecting children will help all stakeholders focus on the most effective ways to improve outcomes for children. It is not just the right thing to do. It is the most strategic investment we can make with our foreign assistance and charitable giving. 

The Action Plan also includes calls for more evidence-based research and child protection system strengthening. Both require new tools to enumerate children living outside family care and to help those working with the children to better keep track of their case histories and find solutions for each of them. That is the mission of a new organization I founded called Each Inc. We join many civil society groups across the political and religious spectrum in supporting the Action Plan that prioritizes partnerships and provides a way for all of us to work together. As we prepare for the holidays, many of us ponder the first Christmas when there was no room at the inn for Jesus. My hope this season is that more of us will make room in our hearts and homes for children suffering alone right now. If we do, the world will be better for generations to come, and we will be blessed. 

ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images