Public Policy Forum Blog

2nd Quarter 2016 President's Message

Six weeks ago, in my role as President of the Governmental Research Association, I travelled to Wayne State University in Detroit to deliver a speech on "Nonpartisanship in the Age of Polarization." The organizers asked me to provide perspective on how policy research organizations that call themselves "nonpartisan" can credibly maintain that reputation at a time when our politics have become so hyper-partisan. I was joined by a former and current director of the Michigan Citizens Research Council, one of our peer organizations that is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. 

So what was my message to an audience of political science faculty and graduate students, most of whom undoubtedly were struggling – as I do daily – to reassure themselves that objective policy analysis still has a place in today's polarized political world?

I focused primarily on three points, which I think are worth sharing with members and friends of the Forum:

  • Maintain a diverse membership/revenue base. In explaining how the Forum has maintained its reputation for impartiality and nonpartisanship over its 103-year existence, I emphasized the considerable effort we have devoted to building a broad and diverse group of members and financial supporters. One of the first things I'm asked by people who are unfamiliar with the Forum is "Who's funding you?" Our case for objectivity certainly is buttressed by being able to show a list of more than 200 members that includes businesses, local governments, school districts, higher education institutions, nonprofits, and individuals. It's also helpful to cite a broad number of philanthropic supporters (grants from 10 different foundations in 2016) and public sector entities (membership dues or contract funding from dozens of governments and school districts in "red" and "blue" counties in Metro Milwaukee, as well as from the State).  
  • Broaden your research agenda. The Forum has evolved over the years from having a research agenda that focused almost solely on local government finance issues and "watchdog" activities to one that also includes education, economic/workforce development, social services, and justice system issues. That's important because – whether justifiable or not – an agenda that is too heavily weighted toward financial monitoring might be deemed "conservative," while an agenda tilted too much toward social issues may be considered "liberal."    
  • Bend over backward to earn your readers' trust. We like to think we do that by providing detailed descriptions of our methodology in each of our reports, and by providing links to raw data where relevant and appropriate. However, in my speech at Wayne State, I also discussed the extra effort we undertake. My specific example was our 2009-2012 series of reports on the finances of our largest taxing bodies in Metro Milwaukee (Milwaukee County, City of Milwaukee, MMSD, MATC, and MPS). Because we were concerned that any methodology we created to assess each government's financial condition would be criticized by those who disagreed with our findings, we searched for metrics from an outside party that would be both credible and relevant. We settled on a set from the International City/County Management Association – after all, how could one argue with the objectivity of an analysis of local government finances that was based on the analytical tools used by local governments themselves?

I hope our hundreds of members and supporters recognize that your support not only helps us from a financial perspective, but that it's also a cornerstone of our effort to maintain our credibility as an objective source of reliable information. And, I also hope that as informed and critical readers of our work, you will please let me know if you ever perceive that our reputation for impartiality and nonpartisanship is slipping in any way.          

Rob Henken