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North Dakota could use more thinking

While "think tanks" abound in Washington, they are an extinct species as far as North Dakota is concerned. However, members of the 2009 Legislature and the media are likely to be confronted with representatives of the North Dakota Policy Council, a fairly new organization claiming to be a "liberty-based think tank focused on North Dakota solutions to North Dakota's problems."

The organization's Web site promises that the organization will "provide credible nonpartisan expertise and research to help North Dakotans advocate policies that are based on individual liberty, individual responsibility and limited government."

By declaring an agenda of individual liberty and limited government, the organization indicates that it plans to limit its thinking to fit certain ideological inclinations. As with national think tanks, that means that its research will be less than credible but directed toward justifying the organization's position on issues.

Regretfully, use of the word "research" to describe its activities will prove to be a misnomer. Research beyond the veneer of press releases is expensive and the funding will not be available for this think tank to produce anything that qualifies as credible research. Therefore, the Council will be forced to resort to superficial compilations of information and press releases.

One of the stated goals of the NDPC is government transparency. North Dakota state and local governments are required already to be transparent with laws requiring open meetings and open records. Even so, these provisions require constant monitoring, as the North Dakota Newspaper Association will affirm. The NDPC proposes to go beyond policing these existing laws and to forcing agencies to put more information on the Internet. A good objective.

While think tanks always demand transparency in government, most of them are less than transparent about their own funding and internal organization. Since North Dakota has experienced the intervention of outside organizations and money in state affairs recently, NDPC should be fully transparent so North Dakota citizens will know who is funding the organization and the number of people in its active constituency,

All of these negative aspects of think tanks notwithstanding, the Council should be welcomed to the marketplace of ideas. There is such a dearth of research about North Dakota that even biased studies will be welcome fodder for public debate. It will add to the public dialogue on public issues, something sadly lacking in policy development in North Dakota.

Since the North Dakota Policy Council is committed to limited government, it will oppose spending and programming in the public sector and probably take issue with Gov. John Hoeven's budget. With NDPC pressing its case, organizations concerned with the quality of public services may be spurred to create think tanks that will develop "research" to offset the positions of the NDPC. A new competitive dialogue should generate more ideas, create more debate, and result in better public policy.

The mere existence of an organization dedicated to restricting the public sector should stimulate an organized reaction from the public-minded citizens who support better public services. The gauntlet has been thrown down.