Does Connecticut need a think tank?

Would regional government save money for Connecticut taxpayers?

How should the state attempt to close the educational achievement gap?

In light of rising sea levels, should new construction be halted along vulnerable parts of the shoreline?

When faced with major questions such as these, policymakers in some other states turn to their independent, nonpartisan public policy research center to study the issues. Though Connecticut has entities that do policy research, it does not have a central, general-purpose research center, sometimes called a “think tank.” Indeed, until recently the state was considered a “data desert,” where good information was hard to come by.

That is changing, though not at the speed of light. There is a new online data repository to share information with the public. A public policy center also may be in the offing, if advocates can decide how to structure it, where to put it and how to pay for it.

The main idea behind a nonpartisan policy center is to provide lawmakers with the best information on which to base decisions. In late 2014, several civic leaders, including Stewart “Chip” Beckett III, chairman of the Capitol Region Council of Governments; William Cibes, chancellor emeritus of the Connecticut State University System; and Lee C. Erdmann, a former Hartford chief operating officer, asked the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to further the discussion.

“All too often in Connecticut the public sector has lacked strategic and long-term thinking,” the writers stated, adding  “…many policy decisions are made in an ad-hoc, pressure-cooker legislative environment with little understanding of the long-term implications and lots of special interest groups suggesting the best way to proceed.”

“Policy centers can make a big difference,” the writers asserted.

One possible model

The Foundation responded with two forums, one last fall with people from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth School of Public Policy and a second this spring with representatives of the Rhode Island College & University Research Collaborative, known as The Collaborative.

The Massachusetts model, not unlike one that once existed at the University of Connecticut, uses university researchers. It’s executive director, Dr. Michael Goodman, has earned an excellent reputation over the years for depth and objectivity. But while Massachusetts has a history of policy research within its university system, some university-based think tanks (such as UConn’s) sometimes struggle to maintain independence, relevance and financial support.

The Rhode Island model, which has piqued interest here, has a central staff that coordinates with government leaders and with scholars at the state’s 11 colleges and universities.

Program director Amber Caulkins said her staff meets with policy directors from the governor’s office, the House speaker and the Senate president several times a year to reach a consensus on what research areas will inform their policy priorities.

Then Caulkins and her staff connect with their “research network” of scholars at the colleges to identify researchers to study the particular issues. Researchers are paid $1,000 to $25,000 per project, depending on its length and complexity. When a research project is completed, it is turned into a concise policy brief. For example, a brief by two University of Rhode Island scholars on the economic impact of Medicaid expansion has only eight pages of text.

Created in early 2013, the Collaborative has initiated 39 studies, some of which are still in progress. They cover manufacturing, infrastructure, workforce issues, energy, higher education, regional competitiveness (eight studies) and municipal services. One, on the economic impact of the arts in the state led to passage of a $35 million bond referendum for arts and cultural groups and activities. Some other studies have dissuaded legislative action, Caulkins said.

The Rhode Island model has drawn attention from a half dozen states, in part because the annual budget is a relatively modest $300,000, which in the Ocean State comes from foundation, state and university contributions.

But wait…

Connecticut is not bereft of policy research capacity; indeed there is a good amount of study going on here. It’s being done by:

With these and other organizations doing research, why does the state need a public policy center?

Coordination

Though the list may look impressive, most of the research entities are small and not lavishly funded, so do studies intermittently.

Also, there isn’t extensive coordination of the research that is going on. The Hartford Foundation does an annual study, called Metro Hartford Progress Points, that looks at employment, education and neighborhood data in Greater Hartford. In 2015, the second year of the report, researchers detected an increase in suburban poverty. They wondered why, and whether anyone had studied this issue. They didn’t learn until months later that UConn geography professor Thomas Cooke had studied it, said Scott Gaul, the foundation’s community indicators project director.

The process for getting a major study underway can be cumbersome. This year the MORE Commission, a group created to find regional cost-saving measures, proposed a bill in the legislature that would have empowered the University of Connecticut’s Transportation Institute to study school transportation in the state using modern GIS mapping. It was based on programs that saved money on routing and resource sharing for the states of Oregon and Washington.

The bill didn’t pass, but a modified study by the state Department of Education was folded into another bill. John Filchak, a MORE Commission member and executive director of the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, said he believes that if the state had an independent policy institute, the development of research studies “could be done in a much more efficient manner.”   

Also, a central policy center could serve as a reviewer of other studies produced in the state. For example, the Yankee Institute issued a policy brief last year saying that from 2011 to 2013, more than 27,000 people left Connecticut, taking $3.8 billion in income with them.

But Michelle Riordan-Nold, executive director of the CT Data Collaborative, responded with an analysis of hew own, challenging the conclusion. She pointed out, among other things, that most people don’t take their jobs with them when they leave the state. Other people take them.

Alignment

Perhaps the major raison d’être for a policy institute is to help align policy with research. What often happens now is that a study will appear, hang around for a news cycle or two, and then make its way to the shelf. 

For example, the New England Public Policy Institute, which is aligned with the Boston Fed and is considered one of the region’s premier research institutions, did a study last year with the Legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee that measured the nonschool fiscal disparities among Connecticut’s towns and the factors driving the disparities. The study found that 78 of the state’s 169 towns don’t have the revenue capacity to pay for the services they provide.

But nothing has been done to address the disparities; the study “just sat there,” said Riordan-Nold.

Perhaps more glaringly, in 2008, CERC’s vice president for research, Jeff Blodgett, presented findings indicating the state was facing a future of “chronic fiscal deficits.” He said demand for public services was increasing while slow population and economic growth were resulting in shrinking resources.

“Without significant policy interventions, the underlying structural factors that have been changing over time will result in the state’s financial obligations outstripping its revenues,” he prophetically predicted.

When state employee givebacks in 2011 along with tax increases failed to right the ship, significant policy interventions – deep spending cuts – were initiated this year, to the detriment of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s approval rating.

What impressed Gaul and others about the Rhode Island model was the idea of reaching consensus on what issues the researchers would delve into. If the lawmakers are invested in the subject, they are more likely to use the research to craft policy changes, not let it become a SPOTS (strategic plan on the shelf).

Challenge

For all of their potential advantages, policy centers are challenging. Credibility is the family jewel, and centers need to fend off pressure from funders and others to maintain it. “You have to ask if your funders want good research or a good outcome,” said Bob Santy, executive director of CERC.

Goodman of UMass said policy centers at state universities “should be headed by a tenured faculty member,” lest there be pressure from above. He also noted that some issues are so emotional or political — casinos in Massachusetts was one —  that politicians and sometimes voters don’t listen to the research.

There is as yet no actual proposal for a policy center in Connecticut; no decision on how it might be structured, where it would be located and how it would be paid for. 

Nonetheless, the idea seems to be gaining momentum. It feels like part of the movement in industry and government to use more and better data to drive decision-making. “In God we trust,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is said to have once told his senior staff: “All others bring data.”

Editor’s Note: William Cibes is co-chair of the board and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving is a supporter of the Connecticut News Project, parent of The Connecticut Mirror.

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