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Analysis: New Think Tank Taking a DIY Approach

It's like a variation on a famous advertisement about energy: "If you don't have an oil well, get one!" But a new Austin venture is about the more prosaic business of government, and about how to get policy ideas in front of lawmakers.

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Suppose you could ignore the elections and personalities and politics and get right down to shaping government policy.

Maybe you need a think tank.

You could set an agenda and focus on an issue or two, trying to persuade lawmakers and others to solve problems you think are important, and to solve them in a way that makes sense to you.

Those are the policy shops of the private sector, doing out in the wild what government and university types do inside their institutions: studying problems, cooking up proposed solutions and recommending the results to policymakers.

Many think tanks are either operated or controlled by like-minded people or businesses or other interests that are drawn to the work by commercial or ideological motives that prevent them from offering solutions that don’t suit their original biases. Now there is a startup that wants to crowdsource the process, in effect allowing anyone in Texas to join in on a mostly online effort to talk about potential legislation on public issues.

Standard-issue think tanks hope to persuade lawmakers to solve particular problems in particular ways. They buttress their arguments with studies, white papers, legislative testimony and such. They feed candidates ideas during their campaigns, hoping to turn electoral successes into policy mandates after those contestants become officeholders.

Fire is the inaugural subject for the new Austin-based venture, Glasshouse Policy, founded by a couple of recent college graduates, Francisco Enriquez and Thomas Visco. That subject is nonpartisan, a little off the political radar, but involves everything from urban fires — think of the Bastrop County Complex Fire in 2011 — to chemical storage — the West Fertilizer Co. explosion in 2013 — to fire codes and prevention and the current Texas drought.

Enriquez and Visco both worked on projects with the U.S. and Texas Public Interest Research Groups — self-styled consumer advocacy organizations — and came away thinking they were developing policy and hoping it would catch on with the public in a way that would attract interest from actual policymakers.

They were selling ideas to the public instead of asking the public for ideas.

Their twist, if it works, is to take an idea from the public to the lawmakers, to take advantage of social connections to overcome civic apathy. Their success will depend on just who signs up to bang the ideas around. If the crowds are diverse enough, maybe they’ll come up with something different from the interest groups that take part in public policy now.

If it works the way the founders hope, ordinary Texans will suggest policy ideas, debate in online forums for which they have signed up, whether they are individuals, companies, industry groups — anyone who is interested — and produce finished proposals suitable for legislation. They want to stick to one subject at a time and think they can turn out a  finished package of proposals on any given subject every four months. Their goal is to get enough people and parties involved to hold the attention of legislators and, once their crowd reaches agreement on a set of proposals, to fend off challenges.

“Let the best ideas float to the top, and then get those ideas to the policymakers,” Visco said. “This is what [the Capitol] is supposed to be doing. A lot of people we have talked to think this is the way it used to work.”

In fact, lawmakers do much of this work already. Through “interim committees,” formed between legislative sessions, lawmakers work on measures the full Legislature will consider when it convenes in odd-numbered years. Many of those committees travel around the state soliciting public comment; the dismal truth is that it is hard to draw a crowd on anything but the most prominent and heated issues, like immigration, water or gun laws.

That will be the acid test for a crowdsourced policy shop: Are enough people behind its proposals to get lawmakers’ attention and to help squeeze legislation through a 140-day regular session. The foundersdon’t have an exact number in mind, but “if we get 5,000 users involved, that would be great,” Enriquez said.

They put together an eclectic board that includes a couple of former legislators — former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff and former U.S. Ambassador Lyndon Olson; a tech entrepreneur, Dan Graham; a lawyer and former Dell exec, Grace Fisher Renbarger; and a former NFL coach and Harvard-educated lawyer, Daron Roberts. And they instituted a rule for their nonprofit that no donor can account for more than 10 percent of their total contributor base, to avoid the appearance that money is driving their recommendations.

Glasshouse went online this week and plans to have a report on fire policy — whatever the crowd puts together — in time for the legislative session in January.

“People are connected online, but disconnected in politics,” Enriquez said. “There are people who want to talk about policy.”

Disclosure: Lyndon Olson was a major donor to The Texas Tribune in 2009. Grace Fisher Renbarger is a donor to the Tribune.

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