As any parent can tell you, children will do things, including negative things, to attract attention. Attention is the currency of childhood. Children tend to do more of whatever attracts attention. This is why effective parents and teachers devise strategies to attend to desirable behavior and ignore (to the extent possible) undesirable behavior.
Unfortunately, the adult world of policy analysis has become like the playground of children. There is a competitive race for attention among a growing group of think-tankers, academics, and journalists. They aren’t competing for attention by doing the most professional work with the most thoughtful analysis and clear-headed conclusions. They are competing by saying ridiculous things, saying them loudly, and saying them repeatedly
Of course, these attention-starved policy analysts occupy the world of Twitter. Where else can they satisfy their obsessive need to blurt out an endless string of superficial claims? Unfortunately, they are not confined to Twitter. They increasingly occupy the halls of academia, control the institutions of journalism, and dominate the beltway.
The problem is that like the poor parenting of an ill-behaved toddler, they are receiving a lot of attention for their outbursts. Diane Ravitch tops Rick Hess’ ranking of “influential” edu-scholars not because of her balanced reasoning and careful consideration of evidence but because of her hyperbolic and outrageous claims. Vox has 193,000 followers on Twitter despite its error-plagued, shoddy journalism precisely because of its reckless desire to offer “click-bait” instead of responsible analysis and information.
These out-sized toddlers may be attracting a lot of attention, and even a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean they actually have influence. I highly doubt Diane Ravitch has altered any policy outcome given that she is unlikely to have changed anyone’s mind about anything. She may occasionally mobilize her army of angry teachers, but those teachers were likely to be mobilized anyway by the more grown-up teachers unions.
And Vox may get clicks and even raise large sums from venture capitalists, but who in the world cares what Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias or the rest of the Vox crew think about anything? For the most part these people have never done anything, never seriously studied anything, and too rarely offer responsible analysis for anyone in real authority to heed their advice.
Attention, clicks, and money are not the same as influence. If they were, Kim Kardashian would be the one of the most influential people in the world.
Real policy influence is achieved in two, much less loud and less easily measured ways. First, people can have policy influence by engaging in serious empirical analysis that shapes elite thinking about policy questions over long periods of time. Take, for example, how serious intellectual work shaped the policy context regarding crime and law enforcement in the 1980s. In particular, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling wrote a series of pieces articulating the evidence and reasoning behind their “broken windows” theory of crime-prevention. Prior to that time, policy elites thought about crime largely as a function of poverty that needed to be addressed through social programs. But Wilson and Kelling influenced elites into thinking about crime as an issue of public disorder that could be addressed through innovations in policing techniques. Their influence was gradual and never completely accepted, but it established the context for later policy action.
Second, people can have policy influence by quietly whispering in the ears of decision-makers about how to act within the elite understanding of the policy context. Behind the scenes George Kelling advised Bill Bratton, who implemented broken windows policing techniques in Boston and New York City. These approaches proved successful and the idea spread to other police departments around the country as the nation experienced a dramatic decline in violent crime.
These are examples of real policy influence, both through laying the intellectual groundwork for change and by quietly advising policymakers to pursue those changes. Neither would be captured easily by the silly “metrics” that increasingly drive foundation and venture capitalist funding. Foundations and VCs are paying for attention and clicks, not actual influence.