When we arrived at Bruegel, a European economic think tank, I was surprised that it was a somewhat obscure building that shared space with a handful of other organizations. Only half of us could fit in the elevator, and while the rest of us were waiting for it to come back down, a voice came up behind us and said “the adventurous ones can take the stairs.” Put that way, you really have no choice but to take the stairs, so I ran up the stairs into the conference room to learn that the voice came from Matt Dann, the Secretary General of Bruegel, and that that was just the beginning of the many interesting things he would say.  Of all of the tour guides, guest lecturers, and EU employees that we’ve heard speak throughout this trip, Matt was by far the most charismatic and entertaining of them all. Despite his obvious intelligence and success, he didn’t take himself too seriously especially considering his audience–a group of young college kids who were tired from weeks of travel. He broke things down and explained them in a way that would not only keep our attention, but at times provide comedic relief–a rarity when being briefed by important institutions. On the screen appeared Bruegel’s mission, four lines long, and he summed it up in three words: “improving economic policy.” In the true spirit of an economist, he got to the basis of the statement by eliminating distracting rhetoric.

What exactly is Bruegel?

Summarized well on their website:

“Bruegel is a European think tank that specializes in economics. Established in 2005, it is independent and non-doctrinal. Bruegel’s mission is to improve the quality of economic policy with open and fact-based research, analysis and debate. We are committed to impartiality, openness and excellence. Bruegel’s membership includes EU Member State governments, international corporations and institutions.”

Although we learned more specifics of how Bruegel is structured, how their research is conducted, who their fellows are, and more basics of their functioning as a think tank, their website is flawlessly designed as to provide all of this information in a much more effective and user-friendly way than if I went into the explicit responsibilities of each part that makes up Bruegel. Instead, I rather focus on the implicit responsibilities, what Matt said that wasn’t bulleted on the slideshow or easily accessible on the website: What really is the role of an economic think tank, and what is Bruegel’s place in the community of think tanks and in the world?

What are the internal workings of Bruegel like?

Matt described it as a “hippie collective” because it is essentially an organization of scholars who are given free reign in deciding how and with whom they want to conduct their independent research. Typically the people focusing on macroeconomic policy work together (because that is the nature of macroeconomics) and the microeconomic people tend to have more specific tasks (because that is the nature of microeconomics). Research can be conducted with whoever a fellow wants, even someone who does not work for Bruegel. Fellows are encouraged to share their work with their peers as often as possible to encourage creativity and constructive criticism, but the only time that everyone has to come together and work on the same thing is when there is a policy crisis and a comprehensive response must be produced as quickly as possible. Most of the research is done by surveying the literature and using pre-existing data sets as opposed to conducting original research. Although it is a researchers dream to be able to collect original data, unless you have excess time and financial means it will remain one. Furthermore, in today’s world it is arguably more important to survey the existing literature, separating real facts from alternative ones and reviving old concepts with new ideas–which is exactly what fellows at Bruegel strive to do.

Bruegel is defined as a public-private enterprise, but what does this mean in the context of a think tank?

On the most basic level, it is rooted in where the funding comes from—who the contributing members are. Bruegel is funded by 18 EU Member States, making up the public part, and by typical private companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. To ensure its independence, Bruegel utilizes two important independent safeguards: 1) Don’t take too much money from one place (the five largest state contributors—Italy, Spain, Germany, France, and the UK—all pay an equal amount no greater than 4.5%, and all corporations contribute €50,000) and 2) Employees must legally agree to a Statement of Research and Integrity and sign a Declaration of Outside Interests. The first safeguard is to avoid being influenced by a large stakeholder in decision making because Bruegel chooses to reach decisions collectively, whereas in the United States contributors typically are given a say in what their money is used for. Moreover, U.S. think tanks only release ambiguous reports of their contributors and contribution amounts, whereas Bruegel makes every contribution detail available to ensure the public’s ability to decide if there is bias in what they are reading. The second safeguard is not only to avoid major conflicts of interests, but these records are also available on their website so that the readers can decide whether the author of a paper they’re reading has a conflict of interest or bias towards the topic. I think it is important to contrast the U.S. and Bruegel’s levels of transparency because, in my opinion, for an intellectual entity and its ideas to truly be considered independent, they should prove that they are also transparent.

More interestingly is how being a public-private enterprise affects how Bruegel conducts business. Choosing to be non-partisan is not only an important aspect of the think tank, but also a smart move for any enterprise receiving money from both public and private entities. Non-partisanship does not mean that they refrain from communicating with political parties, because they have to to see if their ideas have a chance to be considered by policy-makers, but they do not outwardly state any kind of political affiliation. They do not engage in consultancy or lobbying, both of which promote private interests, but they do advocate their ideas to policy-makers so that they can achieve their mission which is to improve economic policy. It is easier for think tanks in the European context to appear non-partisan because there are many different parties, in contrast to the United States where there is a two-party system with very different political platforms which makes it easy to assume which way a think tank leans politically. Despite being non-partisan, there are benefits to ambiguity in the media concerning their alignment which they can play on to create their “brand”. Matt said that it is very important to have a strong brand with a strong brand voice, which understandably would be hard to do if there was no way to collectively define Bruegel’s work.

One might assume that being completely non-partisan would be beneficial to a company so not to drive away large segments of the consumer base, but in reality it might be detrimental if there is not a loyal consumer base. As Matt put it, “if your constituency is everybody, then it’s nobody.” Having the whole of Europe as their target audience is a challenge for Bruegel, especially when trying to communicate the same information to 28 member states with varying press and media structures, translate papers into 24 languages without getting (literally) lost in translation, consider the supranational, national, and regional contexts intertwined in the European system, and please both the busy politician and the nerdy policy analyst. Bruegel partially accomplishes these things through strategic design to segment the market. Just as Coca-Cola has four different markets for Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, and Coke Life–which are all essentially the same product marketed differently–Bruegel presents their work in different ways to communicate the same ideas to a large variety of people.

What is Bruegel’s role today in the modern world and what are their hopes for the future?

In order to survive in today’s globalized, digitalized world, any company knows they must develop an internet presence, at least via a website if not also through social media. Bruegel has realized how vital their digital presence is, especially as an independent enterprise attempting to sell ideas—the most commonly and easily shared things on the Internet. Matt spoke of the Bruegel website as his pride and joy, and rightfully so because over the past 11 years, Bruegel has redone their website eight different times—each update costing thousands of dollars–in order to keep up with the rapidly changing trends in technology and design. Their website is also their primary means of dissemination because it contains all of their publications, and it is visual proof of their transparency by including records of where all of their funds come from and the employees’ Declarations of Outside Interests, along with clear descriptions of the parts and functions of Bruegel. Because even the most impressive website isn’t enough for a company based on written word, Bruegel has a Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In to reach people of all ages and interests all over the world. The fellows and staff’s Twitter handles can be found beneath their biographies on the website—a vital move in not only increasing transparency but also a step towards creating a more consistent group of followers. Taking advantage of the cybersphere, Bruegel hosts web streaming events to start discussions regarding their work. This democratizes the entire idea of the think tank because it allows people to criticize their work, which allows Bruegel to challenge and defend their ideas or benefit from constructive criticism.

When asked “how big” Bruegel hopes to be, Matt did not have a definite answer, saying that the company wants to be bigger, but not too big. Rich U.S. think tanks provide an example of both the positive and negative aspects of being a big think tank: more money means more capability to do things like paying Twitter and Facebook for ad promotions, but it also means inevitable loss of sovereignty that smaller companies enjoy. Although they do not have the money to physically expand right now, their success has drawn more people to request work from them on untypical topics like labor markets, migration, global trade and inequality. The ability to research topics outside of the usual macroeconomic realm has been a privilege and a rarity to Bruegel in the past decade due to a semi-constant state of crisis. Primarily as intellectuals, they would love to be able to have the time to decide what topics are the most important and interesting to write about, but starting with the financial crisis in 2008 and now since Brexit and Trump disrupted the world order, they have little time to be “futuristic hippie researchers”  because they must address the issues being dealt with at present. This is evident when looking at the hot topics on the website which are exactly what one with basic knowledge of current affairs would guess they would be: Brexit, China, Inequality, United States, and European Governance. To emphasize how great of an effect these events have had on their work, Matt said “War did not unite the EU27 in the way that Brexit united the EU27,” and an event of such gravity cannot take the backseat to an intellectual debate on economic theory.

Why Bruegel?

While navigating their website, I found a page for awards and rankings and clicked on it out of curiosity, not sure what to expect as I am new to the world of think tanks. Truthfully, I was both very impressed and surprised at the obvious praise Bruegel has received.

The 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Report rankings:

#1 for best idea and new paradigm (worldwide)

#1 best quality assurance and integrity policies and procedures (Europe)

#2 top international economics think tank (worldwide)

#2 best managed think tank (worldwide)

#3 think tank in the world (non-US)

#6 think tank in the world (including US)

My surprise wasn’t due to a below-average briefing, it was actually quite the opposite, but rather because it took place in a humble setting and was given by a down-to-earth guy who never bragged about Bruegel’s renowned status on the world stage but simply focused on how important the company, its values, and its ability to make a difference were to him. As it was my first exposure to an economic think tank, and I have not read many papers published by one, I had no idea what made it successful or important. So, why Bruegel? I reverted back to focusing on the implicit responsibilities of a think tank and realized what makes Bruegel successful is actually striving to be what every think tank, NGO, political party, or any other organization in the business of influencing people, and thus the future, should be: transparent, focused, humble, conscious, real. Those words seem vague, but if you try to use all of them to describe rich American think tanks funded by massively powerful (and sometimes anonymous) corporations, corrupt NGOs, or a majority of politicians and political parties anywhere in the world—you can’t.

To clarify my point, consider the basic principle of economics that basically states if someone gains, someone else always loses. As commonly understood as other economic quips like “there is no such thing as a free lunch” and “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”–any economist would not deny its truth. Unfortunately, for those trying to please their constituents before an important election or those funded by a private corporation with something at stake, telling people they will inevitably lose is not in their best interest. Bruegel does not feign ignorance, in the wise words of Matt: “If someone says ‘this policy is going to be good for everyone’ it’s a unicorn.” They acknowledge that even with the most revolutionary ideas and policies, someone IS going to lose, but they then go onto ask themselves what they are going to do when the inevitable happens—and the hippie collective gets to work to find the next solution that could change the world.