4th Quarter 2017 President’s Message

By Rob Henken

When the clock hits midnight on December 31, a long chapter will come to a close for the Public Policy Forum, and an exciting new one will begin.

On that date, our merger with the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance will be effectuated, and we will become a statewide policy research organization with offices in Milwaukee and Madison and 12 staff. Quite a far cry from a research bureau that operated with no more than three or four staff for much of its 104-year history, and that for its first several decades had a singular focus on City of Milwaukee finances and operations.

As we get set to launch the new Wisconsin Policy Forum, it’s worth reminding our supporters and stakeholders why we are making this move and why we feel it’s in the best interest of our organization and our community. Essentially, it boils down to the following points:

  • This is a great opportunity to extend our focus to State government. For years, the Forum has wrestled with whether and how deeply to include State government in our research agenda, as the State plays a critical role in virtually every local government issue we touch. The merger allows us to resolve that question with a snap of the fingers. We are joining forces with an organization that has been closely monitoring State government finances and statewide economic issues for 85 years, thus giving us a level of expertise that it would take years to build ourselves. It is critical to note that despite our excitement about diving into State policies and budgets, we are equally enthusiastic about using our enhanced research capacity to step up our game in metro Milwaukee. We will continue to produce annual reviews of local budgets and hard-hitting reports on our region’s persistent policy challenges, but we will be able to do so in a way that reflects more thoroughly on statewide implications and the role of State government in addressing those challenges.
  • Our research will have greater impact. Both organizations enjoy lofty reputations for intellectual rigor and impartiality, which has allowed the Forum to play a prominent role in framing local government policy debates in Milwaukee, and WISTAX to do likewise with regard to fiscal policy deliberations in Madison. The new organization will be even more influential in policymaking circles given our combined expertise in state and local government finance and policies, as well as our larger board and membership of statewide citizen leaders. While we do not intend to lobby, we will have greater credibility and resources with which to bring our research findings before state and local policymakers; and with which to effectively convey — through the news media, social media, and statewide presentations — our learnings about national best practices and our observations about improving government effectiveness and efficiency.
  • We’ll be able to upgrade our product to meet the challenges of the digital age. One of the biggest threats facing both the Forum and WISTAX has been our struggle to make our research enticing in the modern technological age. Combining our resources to respond to that threat makes much more sense than going it alone. As small non-profits, we have required our diminutive staffs to wear several hats. Neither organization, for example, has been able to employ individuals who focus solely on digital communications (e.g. social media and web-based applications) and data visualization. A larger, combined organization will be able to build such capacity, in part because of the dollars freed up by administrative efficiencies. Our ability to do so should bolster our efforts to reach younger audiences with modern and advanced communications tools.

While the opportunities presented by the merger are limitless, I acknowledge there are risks. Indeed, the most common concern I’ve heard from our long-time supporters is that our traditional mission as an agent for efficient and effective local government in southeast Wisconsin will be diluted as we expand our coverage to State government and all of Wisconsin. That’s a valid concern, and the rich tradition of our organization demands that we appropriately address it.

That’s where you come in. Our metro Milwaukee stakeholders need to let us know how we’re doing and need to hold me accountable for fulfilling the merger’s promise without sacrificing the depth and scope of work that have made the Forum one of the country’s most effective local policy research organizations for more than a century. We’ll be sure to give our members plenty of opportunities to do so by maintaining and enhancing our policy committees and our numerous public meetings and events.

So, in the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, we urge our members and friends to cherish the tradition and accomplishments of the Public Policy Forum and ensure they are “not forgot.” Yet, at the same time, we hope you will share our excitement in welcoming the Wisconsin Policy Forum and that you will join us as we begin our mission to fulfill its promise.