Thursday, August 26, 2010

Disseminating Public Policy Ideas: 1969 vs. 2010

I first got into the public policy business in 1969 consulting on several aging projects for the former TransCentury Corporation in Washington, D.C. At that time there were three important newspapers (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post), three business magazines (Forbes, Fortune, Business Week,), three national television networks (ABC, CBS, NBC), a handful of prominent columnists who wrote on public policy, and a small number of influential think tanks (e.g., AEI, Brookings, Hoover, CSIS). Getting coverage in this small network of ideas gave one a good chance of being heard.

Fast forward to 2010. There are still only a handful of important newspapers. Business magazines have seen their page count fall by 80% or more to less than a hundred of which half is advertisements (the magazines are now principally digital). The number of columnists is well in the hundreds (Drudge has a long list). There are more than a hundred cable channels of which several are 24/7 policy and news oriented. There are some 600 talk radio shows with tens of millions of listeners, There are a thousand or so think tanks focusing on international, federal, and state and local government topics. An equal or larger number of policy centers have been established in America’s colleges and universities. The Internet and Blogosphere add hundreds of thousands more sources of information and chatter on public policy. Google’s rapid translation facility makes it possible to search foreign language sites.

The volume of digital publications is growing exponentially while sales of print books are slowly declining. Borders and Barnes & Noble are losing sales to Amazon and have responded by establishing their own e-book readers. Public policy institutions rely increasingly on the Internet to disseminate the ideas of their fellows, using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, RSS feeds, and other links. The number of people who have signed up to receive tweets or join a particular facebook page is an indication of the outreach of digital marketing efforts.

The following numbers represent a sampling of networks of political and media personalities and conservative (or center-right) and liberal (or center-left) think tanks as of August 20, 2010. (n.a. means not available on the web site.)

Name                   Twitter           Facebook

Newt Gingrich    1,309,088             81,454
Karl Rove              164,455             32,923
Bill O’Reilly            36,583            118,459
Glenn Beck            272,939        1,375,443
Sean Hannity           64,794           509,017
Rush Limbaugh             n.a.          454,000
Huffington Post      138,916           651,746
Daily Beast              56,454             35,057
MoveOn                  12,619             97,314
Daily Kos                 32,590              6,366
Brookings                    n.a.              2,035
Urban Institute          2,714               1,293
Economic Policy Inst.   216                  468
Heritage Found.       62,583            240,621
Cato Institute           51,292             64,927
Hoover Institution      3,855              1,900

The above numbers show that a handful of political personalities can overwhelm the think tanks in communicating with the policy-interested public. Should think tanks try to embed their research into these communication networks to reach a larger audience?. Not clear. There is a danger that the scholarly-based policy work emanating from think tanks embedded in the networks of prominent personalities would be instantly politicized and rejected out of hand by the broader public as biased or tainted.

What then becomes the business model of the research-based think tank? The pre-high tech model of transmitting a clear signal through static, itself difficult. has been replaced by pointing decision makers in the direction of finding diamonds in mountains of ore. Much harder. Moreover, in the next five to ten years, new technologies will be developed that further clog the arena of ideas. Much as the Internet helped elect Barack Obama as president, the fleet afoot will have a disproportionate influence on policy, while those clinging to the old approach will languish.

Those with the most creativity and innovation, coupled with good ideas that are easy to explain and understand, will emerge at the top of the policy pile. The contest in the space of ideas will become more vigorous and more interesting. Let the games continue.