How Technology and Think Tanks Influence Policy: Interview with Darrell West

Conducted by James McIntyre (PO ‘19), Washington D.C. Correspondent (Fall 2017) and Staff Writer

Co-transcribed with Delaney Hewitt (SCR ‘20), Staff Writer


Dr. Darrell West is the director of Governance Studies and a vice president at the Brookings Institution. As a highly respected political scientist, Dr. West’s recent research has focused on the interplay between technology and politics.


CJLPP: Dr. West, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed. My first few questions are about social media. You’ve written a lot about social media and its effects on American politics. Social media and hyperconnectivity have quickened the pace of news, policy, and opinion content. With all the pressure to keep up, what steps are you taking to maintain sober policy analysis in such a frenzied environment at Brookings?


West: I think the key thing is you have to keep your long-term objectives in mind, because the risk of the fast news cycle and social media outlets is you can become reactive. There’s always stuff that’s happening every day, and there’s always a temptation to respond to something that has happened. But as a research organization, we have to keep focused on our longer-term objectives. And that’s doing quality research, identifying problems and figuring out appropriate remedies for them, writing papers, and then making our recommendations public. So, social media is a tool to help us disseminate our work. But we don’t want to be dominated by social media or driven by short term considerations.


CJLPP: So, do you get the sense that it’s more difficult now to influence the policy process, given the competition from social media and other sources of fast reaction?


West: I don’t think it’s more difficult to affect what happens, but it’s definitely a more complicated information environment. I’d say ten years ago the Brookings influence model was based on The New York Times, The Washington Post, the three television networks, and the associated press wire services. And so, it was very much a top down model producing our work, getting it out to elite media outlets, and then trying to achieve change out of that. Today, there are just so many different news outlets, it’s no longer just the elite publications that matter. You have bloggers that can drive coverage of social media, sites that can influence what’s going on. Grassroots organizations are very prominent now, and they drive a lot of change. So, basically, we have to be much more diversified in how we think about impact, and how we spread our recommendations.


CJLPP: Great, thank you. My next question is about tech giants, which have been in the news a lot recently. So, what do you think tech giants can do to remedy their vulnerabilities to foreign agents like Russia and other purveyors of fake news?


West: I think all the social media platforms have to understand that they’ve been very successful at creating these platforms, but they shouldn’t be surprised that a lot of people are now using them, including actors that we would consider bad actors in American politics. When you think about non-electronic sources of information, we’ve always tried to limit the impact of foreign actors in American politics. The candidates and parties are actually forbidden from accepting campaign contributions from non-Americans and from foreign organizations. So, the problem in the new digital world is that those laws have not yet been applied to the digital space. We have seen the impact of foreign organizations in our recent elections. So, I think everybody has to be cognizant that there is a problem here, there’s a risk to American democracy, and we have to start to apply some disclosure and transparency rules to the digital space.


CJLPP: It sounds like you’re in favor of more heavily regulating the industry. Is that fair to say?


West: There’s certain types of things that we definitely should be doing. And certainly, in terms of improving the transparency of the process, and improving disclosure about what is going on. There are some platforms now where people can see where the money is coming from, and if a foreign organization is buying ads or trying to influence the discourse, there are sites where you can go to basically see what they’re doing. So, that is certainly something that we need to do. There may be other things. There’s honest ads legislation that has been introduced that wants more information put out about digital advertising. So, I think there’s a range of things that are percolating on the agenda right now.


CJLPP: Great. My next question is about your recent book Megachange. You discuss the shift in expectations regarding the speed of policy change, and you argue that we need to recognize that our current institutions are designed for incremental change. You also argue that we need to figure out how to use them to tackle the kinds of wholesale change that have become the new normal. With this in mind, how do you think Congress will develop in the next five years or so, given the environment that we see?


West: I think the problem now is that there’s a mismatch between the fast pace of change and the slow way in which our political institutions function. The founders set up our government to be very deliberative. But, two hundred years ago, the United States did not have the world role that we have now. We didn’t have the social media tools that have sped up communications. So, I think Congress needs to understand the global environment has changed, certainly the communications world has changed very dramatically, and they have to think about ways to keep their decision-making relevant. Technology creates a lot of problems, but it also offers possible solutions. There are big data analytic tools that can help analyze information in real time and provide the insights of that analysis directly to leaders and to policymakers. And so, that’s a way that political leaders should think about changing the way they make decisions. Today, a lot of decisions are based on information that was collected a month ago, six months ago, or twelve months ago. And given the fast pace of the change, it may be that leaders were making decisions based on information that’s completely obsolete. So, anything we can do to speed up the research and analysis process, so that leaders have information in real time, will help produce better decisions.


CJLPP: Do you think speeding up the research and analysis wouldn’t be as prey to partisan gridlock as our current process, or do you have any ideas about how to speed it up, while avoiding that problem?


West: I mean polarization and gridlock have risen based on trends that have developed over a long time. I mean there’ve been changes in our election process. Money increasingly is polarized. The nature of media coverage is quite polarized. So, it’s going to take a while to work through those issues. There’s no magic bullet, but we need to think about election reform, institutional reform, and media reform. That would deal both with gridlock and polarization.


CJLPP: In thinking about moving forward with our laws, do you have any ideas about a specific policy area where there’s room for consensus on Capitol Hill? I’m thinking about social media and the fast pace of policy making.


West: I think leaders just have to recognize that the world has changed substantially, and they need to revisit some of the old rules based on what’s happening now. For example, the major piece of legislation that affects communications today is the Communications Act, which was passed in 1996. So, literally, that law was passed before the internet really emerged in full force, before social media platforms existed, and before smartphones existed. So, literally, the law governing all the digital products was written before we had any of these digital products. That clearly is not a good situation. So, we need to update those rules, we need to figure out how to adjust the way we think about rules and norms in the digital world. And it’s going to be a lengthy process to do that. But we haven’t really grappled with the fact that the technology revolution has taken place, and it’s having huge ramifications in a variety of different sectors.


CJLPP: Thank you. Now, we’ll transition away a little bit from the more policy aspects to your role at Brookings as a vice president. Have you noticed any change in the Brookings Institution’s role in politics and policy since the start of the most recent presidential administration? And if so, what is the change?


West: I think President Trump has elevated the stakes of what scholars in a Governance Studies program do, because every day he insults people, challenges norms, and does things that outrage at least half of the country, if not more than that. And so from a Governance Studies standpoint, we have to think about the political process and also the policy challenge that is represented by the new administration. Our scholars are working on a variety of different topics just trying to figure out how we should handle these issues. So, I think the world needs a place like Brookings now more than ever given what is happening in the White House.


CJLPP: Do you find that you are targeting your material more to lower rung policymakers as you try to figure out how to deal with an erratic presidential administration more than you were before?


West: We define our audience pretty broadly. So, we still try to get our information out to the executive branch, including people at the top level, people in the middle ranks, and then lower level bureaucrats as well. But we also try and make sure people in Congress get our reports and get our recommendations. In a Congress where the party divide is very narrow, for example, if you can convince three Senators and maybe a couple dozen House members, you can have tremendous policy impact. But Brookings also tries to communicate outside the Beltway. There’s a lot of innovation taking place in state and local government around the United States, so we try and work with people there. And then Brookings also has a global reach. Probably ten to twenty percent of our web readership comes from abroad, so we try and affect what’s going on internationally, as well as, how people outside the United States view what’s happening in America.


CJLPP: The New York Times in 2014 published a piece accusing various prominent think tanks, including Brookings, of allowing foreign governments to buy influence from its scholars. One Brookings scholar even claimed that he was told during a job interview that he could not take positions critical of the Qatari government in newspapers. The article further contended that Brookings had allowed Norway to almost explicitly buy influence in the policy making process through donations. How would you respond to these claims?


West: Our scholars have complete independence in what they write and so we’ve never told them what to say or how to say it. They basically are supposed to do their research, gather facts, analyze information, and then come to whatever conclusions based on that analysis. We have a peer review process internally, so the things that appear on the website have to go through a review by people who are experts in the area. So, we very much try and protect the independence of our scholars and let them do their work in an objective manner.


CJLPP: Great. Thank you so much for your time and expertise.

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