Q&A with Stuart Butler: What does it take to turn ideas into government action?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call


Stuart Butler, a senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution, is no stranger to working across the political spectrum on complex issues. Previously, he spent 35 years at the Heritage Foundation as director of the Center for Policy Innovation and vice president for Domestic and Economic Policy Studies. He has worked with lawmakers and policy experts on a variety of topics, including most major health reforms as well as the 1996 welfare reform. The Brookings Institution’s Economic Studies Program is a grantee of the Hewlett Foundation’s Madison Initiative, which, among other goals, seeks to improve the federal budget process. In an interview with Hewlett Foundation program officer Jean Parvin Bordewich, Butler shares his thoughts on how big policy ideas are nurtured and eventually adopted by government.

You are well known for advocating free market solutions, yet you also have worked for decades on major policy issues that included action by government. When you have a policy idea, how do you determine whether or not government is part of the solution?

Given my philosophical orientation, I think of government in two ways. First, do we need to remove a feature of government that is getting in the way of change? Or, does government need to be an active agent of change, perhaps even taking the lead? In other words, is government an obstacle because it preserves older thinking, or is it a necessary instrument?  Usually it’s both.

Where do you see government needing to take the lead?

Government can be an active agent of change. This happened in welfare reform. Or look at health care. Reform in many ways really doesn’t have much to do with government; what’s needed is rethinking the way we deliver care. But when you look at covering people without enough money to purchase care, you need government.

Advocates often focus primarily on getting Congress to act and are frustrated when it fails to take up their cause. What do you think about the role of Congress in the process of turning ideas about policy change into reality?

I don’t think primarily of Congress in the first stage. It’s a detail later on.  Innovative policy ideas germinate outside the political world.  You have to introduce it at the right time into the political system.

Describe how you “ripen” an idea so that it will be ready when the right moment comes for action.

There are certain typical stages. The first is to gradually make the initial case in very broad terms, selecting the right words to convey the essence of the idea and lay out a reform framework that people can understand. At this stage, you don’t want the idea to be too complicated or too detailed; use a simple framing to get to the essence.  This is very important to get an idea to take root.

How did you do that with health care reform?

The big, strategic idea that framed my thinking and proposals was that the whole system of subsidies should be outside the place of work in a separate market.  I was amazed when I came to the U.S. from the U.K. and saw firsthand that health care was linked to place of employment, mainly so people could receive a tax benefit.

Once a big idea takes shape, describe how you start moving it forward.

In the early days, when you have the idea, it’s important to start trying out this fairly light structure of an idea with the people it will affect, especially those it is designed to help.

Take welfare reform. In the early 1980s, I went to a lot of poor communities and talked to people and tested out ideas in many areas. This was initial “test marketing.”  There are two important effects of this testing.  First, you get some really smart challenges or refinements and can improve the idea.  And second, because you are engaging people on the receiving end, you get adherence, and people become committed.  I reached out to people and organizations who were not conservative and were initially suspicious. I gained credibility with them later because I had worked with them in the early stages.

You’ve talked about the importance of the “demonstration effect.” What’s an example?

If it’s an idea that breaks the mold, people have no idea what it will look like, so the demonstration effect is particularly important. You have to be able to show people something that looks like your proposed reform.

Over the years, for instance, I’ve worked to include some element of savings in Social Security, to help build a nest egg for people.  I had to be able to answer the question: if you did build up this nest egg, what would it look like?  That led me in the early 1980s to be involved in creating more readily available IRAs and 401-k accounts. That was strategically very important, because if you were to amend an iconic program like Social Security, you had to show people something they were already familiar with.  Part of the strategy was to widen the IRAs and 401-ks so the nest egg idea for Social Security would no longer be abstract to people.  

You have a decades-long horizon for change. How do you keep the idea and the strategy developing, and who do you work with? 

I spend a lot of time thinking about which organization or person, if brought into the idea, would be a game changer. It is important to get key leaders to champion an idea.  Sometimes it’s a politician; sometimes it’s an organization. I spend a lot of time thinking about what organizations are critical.

Charter schools are an example in education. I worked with the National Council of La Raza on charter schools. We even held joint meetings and conferences when I was at the Heritage Foundation, where we really did look like strange bedfellows. That got a lot of attention.  Also, I worked with the Democratic Leadership Conference (DLC), with Bill Clinton before he was president.  It’s important to find champions and leaders who are surprising, and can motivate people to do a second take.

At this point in the ripening process, the idea is established among people who are most affected. With charter schools, we had built a base with the people hurt by failing public schools, especially lower-income minority families.  With them we thought through questions about what charter schools would look like, how would they operate, what were the challenges. Then we were ready to go public, approaching the unions and others who were not natural allies. We did public events with La Raza, DLC, and others, which were intended to raise the profile of the issue in a public way, and with the press.

You’ve got the ball rolling, and the idea starts to gain momentum. What’s next?

If you’ve got, say, a major union open to discussion on charter schools, and its voice is listened to, and the design is amended because they are listened to — which is what happened — that gets others engaged and interested.  Once that occurs, there is the potential for spreading the idea very rapidly.  It becomes safer for people to come in because they can point to someone in their tent who’s already in. That happened with welfare reform in the 1990s, where President Clinton, Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, and others coalesced around the idea.

How do you think about timelines — short-term, medium-term, long-term — and the interplay between the gestation of an idea, gathering of support, and the political moment to push something toward the finish line?

Timing is everything. Plan for the long term, but be ready for the short term. You never know when the planets will align.  Assume it will take longer than you think; don’t rush it or it will implode.  The best ideas are under the radar in the political system. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen is for a prominent partisan to embrace it; they often don’t know how to explain it and the whole thing crumbles. I almost never try to move an idea forward by getting a presidential campaign to embrace it.  It’s better to be under the radar and have a patient approach.

Welfare reform had some false starts.

Yes, we thought things were coming together with George H.W. Bush as President and Jack Kemp as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, but it didn’t move. There was a lot of suspicion at the time. Then surprisingly, a governor from Arkansas became president and the opening occurred. We had been dealing for years with DLC and La Raza, and groups in the African-American community, and there was trust.  And conservatives. You could get the Republicans and the White House together knowing each side was deeply committed. And there was depth in the support. Organizations had been lined up and you could move forward.

What political pitfalls did you still have to navigate at that pivotal moment for welfare reform? 

One of the first things we decided on the conservative side was that we would not make welfare reform a budget issue. That was crucial. Over time, if the program was effective, we thought it would cost less, but we didn’t use welfare reform to cut the federal budget.  The program was designed initially such that any savings would be available to the state to reprogram into additional services for low-income people. The way you move something in a particular political context is crucial.

That approach would be harder today.

Yes, as a former Budget Committee chairman a problem Congressman Paul Ryan has had is that a lot of his ideas had to be couched in terms of saving money and that’s been a continuous problem for him in attracting bipartisan support.

How do you recognize when the time is right to push ahead?

You have to have the elements I mentioned in place. Then it’s a judgment call. There was momentum for a structural change in Social Security before President George W. Bush came out with his proposal for personal accounts in Social Security.  But it turned out the building blocks were not all there.  I admit I thought that the time was right and it had fully ripened as an idea. Now it’s off the table and will be for a while. Too many organizations were not there with the vision of moving away from this collective system of social insurance into a partly individual savings model. As the politics got ugly, they abandoned it. Now I think about reform more as having an add-on to Social Security, not a partial replacement.

These phases are very important, and the early phases are crucial to getting the later phases right. Often when people put forward ideas they don’t do that initial legwork, which can take a lot of time.  But if you move too quickly, it won’t work.

What is different about this process today than when you started more than 35 years ago?

The dispersal and democratization of information today actually makes it harder to move ideas forward. You don’t get the natural spread and careful build-up of ideas as easily now.  If there are limited news outlets, only two or three sources of information, you can mold and spread an idea very effectively.

Also, the branding of information sources has deteriorated. Someone can look like an expert but there’s nothing behind him or her. That’s a challenge for those of us in the think tank/idea business.  People with no real backing, no experience, but are good at social media can be presented as experts.

How do you believe ideas spread and gain currency?

Serious ideas still typically begin and germinate with thinks tanks and advocates and groups of people who have an adherence, and not through social media but as members, whether they are members of AARP or unions. Ideas then infiltrate into a preexisting organization through its own network and from sources considered reliable. That’s much more effective than just blogging at Brookings and thinking it’s going to spread. Hits on Twitter are ephemeral.

What are some tools and tactics you use to seed ideas in these organizations and networks?

I go back to basics. I use the telephone; I visit people and I talk to organizations, as I did in the past. I focus on building relationships. It takes a lot of my time but I think that’s the way to move things forward.

It also helps with the branding. For example, when I talk to people on the far left who are friends, and they introduce me to other organizations, I am credentialed by these people.  After I have been credentialed, I send people information that they might not see otherwise.  I use the material I develop in a very customized way.  When I write on an issue, I write about it in multiple ways.  For instance, say I had a piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which is a way of getting an idea credentialed by a respected journal. I often then publish the same ideas in a blog post or op-ed.  I will select which form is best to present an idea to a particular organization or person.

How do you think about investing in important ideas that seem politically unfeasible in any foreseeable time frame?

Foundations and other donors, of course, need to put a lot of resources into things that are moving reasonably soon. That’s important. But it’s also really important — even though you can’t see payoff in a short time frame — to invest in developing the initial stages of ideas and keep refining them.  Invest in making ideas “shovel-ready,” so when the politics line up, they are ready to go.

I’m a historian. I look at social change and see two things — it takes a long time and yet it often happens quickly and unexpectedly.  You don’t always know when an idea can happen and so you have to be ready.

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