As Anne-Marie Slaughter and Ben Scott of New America explain in an important contribution to the new issue of the Washington Monthly, the “think tank”–or politically involved research institution–was originally a byproduct of the Progressive Movement, designed to help hidebound governing institutions respond to the popular demand for solutions to big national problems. But more recently, think tanks have become part of the problem rather than the solution.

[T]he think tank as a policy institution has not adapted fast enough to escape the dysfunction of Washington. Even superb policy analysis seldom results in policy change. One reason is that expert positions in many debates are alien to the mobilized bases of both parties. (Technocratic insiders in D.C. gravitate toward compromise positions that can achieve a result within realistic political constraints.) Another is that the desire to score partisan points trumps the effort to get something done irrespective of whether the “right answer” is served up on a silver platter. Meanwhile, a plethora of specialized research institutions funded by trade associations, corporations, and partisan donors on both right and left have led many to question the objectivity of the policy positions adopted.

I’d add as an alumnus of the Washington think tank world that proximity to Washington, originally a feature of such institutions in comparison to self-focused academic centers scattered around the country, has now become a bug. Indeed, many think tanks have been struggling to “decentralize” by recruiting and publishing policy thinkers from far beyond the Beltway. But Slaughter and Scott think something more fundamental needs to change:

We propose a new model of civic enterprise. “Civic” because it engages citizens as change makers—conscious members of a self-governing polity that expects government to be at least part of the solution to problems that individuals cannot solve on their own. And “enterprise” because of the energy and innovation involved in actually making change on the ground. Civic enterprise blends conventional policy research with local organizing, coalition building, public education, advocacy, and bottom-up projects that generate and test ideas before, during, and after engagement in the policymaking process with government. It is a heady brew of what makes America great—a deep commitment to self-government plus an insatiable spirit of private enterprise to invent solutions without waiting for permission or help.

The article goes on to analyze three discrete “waves” of innovation in the think tank world that have run their course while in some important respects laying the groundwork for what comes next. And perhaps a new wave is already building:

Civic enterprise describes a broad way of working, but a number of existing organizations exemplify, at least partially, what we have in mind. The Lown Institute, for instance, is a hybrid think tank/advocacy group that is tackling the problem of overtreatment and poor quality in the health care delivery system by mobilizing doctors, nurses, faith groups, and others to create grassroots pressure for reform. Another example is Voice of the People, a nonprofit promoting “deliberative democracy.” VOP pulls together representative panels of average citizens who, aided by technology and a bipartisan group of experts and facilitators, think through solutions to thorny public policy problems and present their collective ideas to decisionmakers and the public. At New America we have our own experiment in civic enterprise, Opportunity@Work, which is aimed at “rewiring” the job market by rethinking traditional ideas of hiring by credentials in order to implement new methods for matching talent to jobs.

Opportunity@Work will research the problem, prototype solutions, test them in the field with partners in companies and job centers, and accelerate the process of policy change by demonstrating what is possible.

Civic enterprise does not replace independent policy research—on the contrary, it is an incubator to engage community stakeholders to refine the ideas and turn them into action. In the hyper-partisan, pay-for-play environment of Washington policy development, civic enterprise is a way for the best ideas to get traction.

None of this is more revolutionary than the emergence of think tanks a century ago as the help-meet of activist government–and ultimately the protector of the status quo. But at a time when the public’s loss of faith in governing institutions has reached critical proportions, returning think tanks to their original mission as an external source of fresh new ideas is more necessary than ever.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.