David Brook’s column last week “The Thought Leader” set off some interesting discussion (at least until, squirrel!, an ex-DC journo took to Politco to decry the state of journalism). Some reaction was predictable and some quite interesting. Most readers got the joke, but Brooks was also getting at a real issue that warrants some discussion. A few thoughts from where I sit:
- We use this term at Bellwether but don’t love it and are actually in the midst of a lively internal debate about changing that aspect of our descriptor since it captures only part of what our policy-oriented practice does (most of which is the more mundane but valuable work of policy analysis and research). Like many labels, so much now flies underneath the term that it’s increasingly imprecise. On the other hand, part of what we do is to develop new ideas, approaches, and ways of thinking about problems so the term also works to some extent, even if imprecisely.
- If he sought to make the point beyond the joke I wish Brooks had been more specific about who and what he is getting at here. It might not have been so nicely stylized but would have more teeth. Is the it the big name talkers at the marquee big think events? The Ted talkers where after 20 minutes you’re blown away by the quality of presentation but often have learned little (and less than you would have through a good article)? I hope it wasn’t the mid-level analyst in DC. Because reading it I wondered how someone like New America’s rising star Anne Hyslop or Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman would see themselves in this column? They’re thought leaders, sure, but they’re doing real work that has real impact (Anne released an important paper on No Child Left Behind waivers the day the Brooks column came out and Chad led the launch of a new website on the teacher pensions issue the same week). Or what about someone like Bob Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities? He’s undoubtably had positive impact on public policy, is a thought leader, but how does he fit in to Brooks column? It’s all too broad.
- Most people I know and work with think there is an ick factor to a lot of the big think events (and that there are too many of them so the CW just gets passed around like pollen), a sentiment I share. Despite that, however, some of these gatherings do lead to important outcomes even if only via the networking that goes on. Getting people together who can do more to advance micro-finance for women in the developing world, for instance, or increase access to eyeglasses because a telecomm company realizes that it has common cause with an NGO does improve the human condition. In education I’ve seen partnerships formed by a few days of physical proximity, sometimes between adversaries, that do move things forward. Even in an increasingly virtual world there is not a good substitute for gathering people together to discuss problems. They have their problems, but to imply these gatherings are entirely a waste of time is too easy.