Think Tank

What even is a think tank anyway?

Public policy research organizations or ‘think tanks’ play a key role in protecting our democracy.

A group of people using the Think Tank as a tactic for the Western Massachusetts Policy Center

Elected representatives write and pass laws that serve the diverse interests of the American people. But, like the rest of us, politicians aren’t experts in most–if not all–of the policy areas they legislate. For example, many Congresspeople are attorneys by training and trade. This means their expertise is their particular area of law.

But if the bill they have to vote on is about crop insurance subsidies, they can do real harm to small farmers or waste precious taxpayer money if they have no knowledge of crops – or insurance. Or if the insurance industry is the only voice they hear.

This is where think tanks come in. Our job is to bridge the information gap between the real people and livelihoods affected by policy, and those who decide it.

Think tank analysts focus their research on specific policy areas or questions, then translate their findings into articles, opinion pieces, media appearances and reports. We also speak on panels and convene coalitions of people and groups with similar needs and goals. All these efforts help different audiences understand what’s at stake, what’s needed to make change and how best to approach reform. 

When think tanks are most successful, lawmakers use our scholars’ policy recommendations in bills that become law. We also help shape systems and processes to make sure they’re working as intended and aren’t causing instead of solving problems.

This is how think tanks help to ensure that laws and government regulation are based on evidence, data, knowledge and experience rather than ideology, self-interest or corruption in the political system (otherwise known as “pay-for-play”).

Who works at think tanks?

A man with his arms crossed, wearing a suit to symbolize the small, privileged and wealthy people who are in think tanks now.

Sadly, as in nearly every area of society, power in policy-making has been the privilege of a small, exclusive group primarily of wealthy white men with elite academic backgrounds – and no real-world experience navigating the systems and people their policies affect.

Not surprisingly, the cultural values of this minority became the dominant ones of public policy and lawmaking in the United States:

  • Esotericism
  • Inequity
  • Inaccessibility
  • Entitlement
  • Arrogance
  • Siloing
  • Gatekeeping
  • Competition for personal gain over collaboration for greater good
  • Self importance
  • Nepotism
  • Respect for arbitrary credentials over practical experience

With this much disconnect between these ‘experts’ and the rest of our reality, it’s no surprise that public trust in expertise has reached an all-time low. It’s long past time to infuse the system with meaningful diversity of people and thought. In fact, the future of policymaking depends on the bravery and creativity of those willing to upend the status quo. 

How do think tanks measure impact?

An image of a lady liberty holding the weights and scales for the government.


Even when think tanks are doing good work, their policy and program priorities, strategic directions and desired outcomes are set from the top-down. This guarantees the issues they work on aren’t determined by public need or even popular demand. 

Worse, the problems the majority of Americans want solved are often considered too politically charged even to try. Many organizations like the Heritage Foundation who claim to be think tanks are actually propaganda machines designed specifically to manufacture problems and inject outrage into our civil discourse.

Pay-for-play is now an inherent part of the system, as giant corporations like Walmart, Meta and Amazon ‘donate’ vast sums of money into federally focused think tanks on both sides of the political spectrum. Organizations that take their money measure results by how happy they make those corporations and other wealthy donors who are their ‘customers.’

The rest of us are only part of the equation as abstractions. We get spoken for instead of with. Our opinions are for manipulating – not informing. 

Worst of all, we almost never get to speak directly for ourselves. When we do, ‘experts’ don’t really listen unless what we say is convenient to their existing agendas. Public opinion, need or knowledge is often dismissed as quaint or uninformed–no matter how much experience we have with the actual problem being discussed. This is why individuals across the political spectrum have become angry and disenfranchised. It’s also why our civil discourse has become so polarized. 

It’s by design. After all, if we’re busy screaming at strangers and bots on social media, we can’t unite our voices to demand results and hold those in power accountable for pushing our system to the precipice of failure.

But there’s hope!

We believe that everyday Americans still have power to shape the way we’re governed and regulated, and how we live, work and engage in our communities. That power resides in increased direct participation by those who haven’t had a say, particularly at the state, regional and local levels. This is where politicians still care about the needs of the people they represent. 

It’s also where we can use the power of proximity and community to center historically and routinely excluded voices as policy-makers who understand the very real consequences and nuances of the broken systems that marginalize, oppress and exploit them.

The WMPC Model

Program Areas

The Western Massachusetts Policy Center uses Program Areas to better teach, help and asses students, people and learners who are active in the Western Massachusetts Policy Center

We specialize in ‘wicked’ problems.

Unlike other policy organizations in the region, we’re focused exclusively on creating and deploying policy by and for historically and routinely excluded people – not for existing experts and those already in power.

We don’t focus on a single topic area or issue set and we don’t compete with those who do. Our leadership and analysts are intentionally trained as polymaths – in the art of mixed methods policy research design, production, communications and deployment itself. This means we can work in any area of policy that’s relevant and useful to the needs of the real people and communities of Western Massachusetts.

We’re at our best doing cross-policy, interdisciplinary work on evergreen issues in need of novel, holistic solutions.

We’re especially eager to help increase the capacity of those already doing aligned policy work in the region by aggregating and translating complex research and data into a variety of forms that are accessible to audiences they otherwise struggle to reach. We’re also uniquely able to connect them directly to community-led, grassroots expertise. 

Services We Offer

A group of people sitting together talking in the Western Massachusetts Policy Center Think Tank
Since we’re a think tank run for and by excluded and marginalized people, we offer a variety of services to help other policy organizations and nonprofits engage better and more strategically with these voices and their ideas.

Policy and Programmatic Services

  • Grassroots Focused (ground-up) Interdisciplinary Policy Strategy
  • Grassroots Focused (ground-up) Policy Production, Packaging and Communications
  • Policy translation for (and by) historically and routinely excluded audiences
  • Human-Centered Policy Research and Design
  • Additional Research and Production Capacity for Existing Nonprofits
  • Policy Consulting Services for Advocacy Organizations
  • Community Education and Outreach
  • Event Planning and Coordination
  • Grassroots/Grasstops Coalition Building and Facilitation
  • Community Data Collection and Sharing
  • Updating Traditional Organizational and Strategic Planning Models to be more inclusive and equitable

Professional Development and Training Expertise

  • Bespoke vocationally-focused public policy professional development consulting
  • Bespoke early-career vocational policy training and coaching (in person and remote options available)
  • Public policy-specific Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Executive Coaching and Consulting

People-Centered policy Research

Get in touch today to find out more about how you can support, take part in or utilize our work.