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Silo-Busting Week, Day 1: What Are Silos and Why Bust 'em?

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This is the first in a series of posts about the importance of breaking down issue "silos" at a time of complex societal problems and rapid change. Further posts on rapid disruption of longstanding industries and the importance of good data in public policy debates, follow.

When I tell people that Frontier Group is a multi-issue think tank, they tend to get a certain mental picture: an organization with a passel of experts, each of whom focuses deeply and exclusively on a particular issue: a clean water guy, a transportation gal, etc. Sort of like a public policy version of Super Friends.

I can’t really blame them. That is, after all, the way the world of policy wonkdom is often organized, from the university departments that conduct academic research and gestate policy ideas down to legislative committees and cabinet departments.

So, it is sometimes hard to explain that Frontier Group works on a “post-silo” model in which any of our analysts can find themselves working on any issue at any time. That’s not to say that our analysts don’t have special areas of experience and interest: mine are energy, climate and transportation. But none of us bat an eye when asked to dive into an issue that is entirely new – in fact, these are often the most fun and exciting projects to be involved in.

In this abbreviated holiday week, I’m going to take on the challenge of a week-long blog cycle on the importance and value of busting out of “silos” – defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “systems, processes or departments that operate in isolation from others.” Today’s entry will discuss the reality and dangers of silos, with posts over the next three days that illustrate how a post-silo approach to public policy challenges yields new insights.

Historically, “think tanks” in the United States emerged out of the technocratic impulse of the Progressive Era, which saw societal problems as ones that could be engineered away by technical experts rather than subjected to the hurly burly of ideological debate and political warfare. John F. Kennedy’s gathering of the “best and the brightest” in his administration was the apotheosis of the idea that public issues such as the economy presented “subtle challenges for which technical answers, not political answers, must be provided.”

Ideological debate, of course, remains alive and well a half-century later, but most think tanks continue to venerate a particular variety of specialized expertise. Even the hackiest of partisan think tanks gives its policy analysts titles such as Senior Distinguished Visiting Scholar of Thus-and-So Studies, making one visualize the break rooms of these organizations as filled with people wearing mortar boards and gowns.

I will be the first to acknowledge that specialized expertise is critical – much of our work at Frontier Group would be impossible were there not smart people willing to spend their entire careers “going deep” on particular issues. But a silo’ed approach to policy work also has important, and rarely appreciated, limitations.

The first is that people who have worked in a particular discipline all their lives can be caught flat-footed when the world around them changes. If you’re reading this blog, you may have at least a passing familiarity with our work to document shifting transportation trends among the Millennial generation, broader changes in the trajectory of vehicle travel in the United States, and the rapid changes being wrought by mobile technology and shared-use mobility on transportation. The transportation policy establishment – both academic and political – has been laughably slow to recognize, let alone adjust their thinking to accommodate, these shifts, which have now been taking place for the better part of a decade. It turns out that it has been much easier for analysts to see these changes happening from outside the silo than it has been for the transportation establishment to see them happening from within.

A second issue is that many policy issues have similarities that can be instructive if only they can be recognized. Mark Twain said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” The same is true of many policy debates – the stakeholders and problems at play may vary, but similar patterns repeat themselves over and over again. If, for example, public policy has been effective in reducing wasteful energy consumption, it might be worth asking if similar policies could be used to conserve water. Silo-ized institutions often miss these opportunities to apply insights from other policy areas to the issues in which they work.

At Frontier Group, we aspire to combine a post-silo approach to societal problems with rigorous and transparent research to arrive at powerful new ideas. Over the next few days, we’re going to examine commonalities across issue areas as diverse as fracking and gentrification. The public policy landscape is changing more rapidly than ever before – presenting new challenges on a nearly weekly basis. Sometimes, the solutions to those problems might just come from the places we least expect to find them – places far outside the traditional boundaries of specific “issue areas.”