A blog about a blog

17 April 2018

[This post was originally published on Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe blog on April 3, 2018.]

The audience for think tanks such as Carnegie faces a daily avalanche of analysis and information. To remain effective, think tanks need to update the way they communicate.

From the start of this month,Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe blog will appear twice a week (on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Why? Our key audience—decisionmakers—receive so much daily information from so many outlets that they crowd each other out. More is no longer better.

This may sound counterintuitive. A daily blog has served us well in many regards. The number of our readers has grown steadily, and Strategic Europe now reaches one million unique visitors a year. We might lose some of them when we switch to two issues a week.

But this is the right thing to do. It strengthens our ability to do our core work.

There are many kinds of think tanks, but most would agree that their primary job is to help policymakers make better, more informed decisions. Some come close to lobbying for a particular interest but most—Carnegie Europe included—essentially serve to improve the quality of decisions. We exist because governments and institutions do not always have the time or the capacity to understand all the options before them, or their consequences. Those who understand the issues at stake do not always understand the policy process. We bridge those two worlds.

To do this job well, think tanks need two things above all: access (their insights must be received); and trust (their insights must be seen as well-grounded and impartial). Trust is built over several years—or, in the case of the Carnegie Endowment, over a century—of providing patient, reliable advice. Access is a more fleeting commodity. It comes from understanding how policymakers operate and their capacity to make use of advice. There are very good think tanks and analysts that have less impact than they should because they fail to find the right way, the right time, and the right language to deliver their insights.

This has always been a challenge, but recently the world in which decisionmakers operate has been turned on its head. The speed at which policy is made has grown exponentially, under pressure from media and publics that receive news the minute it happens and expects governments to respond equally quickly. Ask ministers and prime ministers about their job and they will tell you they are reforming healthcare over breakfast, landing new investment in underprivileged regions over lunch, and sorting out war in the Middle East over dinner.

The other thing that has changed is their access to information. Only a few years ago the goings-on in the streets of, say, Tehran or Sanaa were visible only to a few journalists, diplomats, and spies. Today, thanks to the marvels of the iPhone, Telegram, and VKontakte, everyone is a witness to anything that he or she is curious about, immediately.

This ought to be empowering—surely more information is good? Except that, for decision-makers in particular, things are not so simple. The combination of the deluge of news, and the expectation that it be acted upon right away, can paralyze institutions. How do you know that the first response that comes to your head is the right one? How do you think through second- and third-order consequences when you have only minutes or hours to act?

It is here where think tanks such as Carnegie Europe must help. They are no better at making complex decisions at speed, but unlike officials, they have time to think of underlying trends. In the era of information overload and manic policymaking, their main contribution is to take a step out of the torrent of news and dredge through it in order to make sense of things. What are the underlying trends? What is signal and what is noise? This is a complex task that requires careful and measured analysis.

That brings us back to our blog. We believe that the last thing most decisionmakers need is more daily information; they have too much already. What they need is to understand the direction of travel in the given policy area and the main drivers. That way, when they need to make an instant decision, it is rooted in a better understanding of which course of action leads to the intended outcome.

Such big-picture thinking has always been part of think tanks’ research portfolio, but we are choosing to invest even more into it. You will see us releasing papers soon on the holes in EU migration policy, on how to better use development aid in Syria, and on trends in defense policy. The reduced blog run will create space for us to craft, edit, and publicize these studies even more diligently than we used to, so that they stand out in a crowded information environment. The blogs themselves will be more tightly linked to upcoming decision points in the life of European governments and institutions, so that we can deliver guidance when it is needed the most.

Many of our readers will miss the old blog, and we do not take that lightly. Many things remain: the high editing standards, the counter-intuitive take on things, the name, the “Judy Asks” feature, and—most importantly—the creator and editor, Judy Dempsey. We hope that they understand the reasons for the changes we make, and thank them for their loyalty.