More on monitoring and evaluating influence

7 February 2011

I just read a fantastic quote that is worth sharing. On the evaluation of a given think tank in affecting an important change in public policy,  Murray Weidenbaum, in his book ‘The competition of ideas: the world of the washington think tanks‘, reports that John Hamre (from the Center for Strategic International Studies, CSIS) is reminded:

of the case of Anna Nicole Smith’s baby, where several men volunteered that they were the father. However, in the case of public policy there is no equivalent of a DNA test to declare the parentage with a comparable degree of certainty.

Other telling quotes on the same issue include one by Edwin Fueulner, President of the Heritage Foundation (recognised as one of the most influential DC think tanks), who accepts that:

…we still have no clear answers.

And David Frum, former resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (and a former White House speech writer, who provides a straight forward answer to the question of what may be useful indicators of think tanks’ influence:

None. You can’t measure influence.

This is also Weidenbaum’s view. In fact, he begins the book by stating that although:

Think tanks play an active role in the complex processes in which national public policy is made … The reader will learn that no think tank is as influential as it claims to be, especially in its messages to its financial supporters. Not every think tank researcher is brilliant or a person of great experience and judgement. Nor is every think tank report lucid or even relevant to the needs to the time.

Instead, he encourages a more nuanced exploration of the rich and complex world that is the US marketplace of ideas.