The Rand Corp.’s Michael D. Rich, in his first year as president and CEO after being the second in command for 18 years, talked with Allen McDuffee of The Washington Post’s Think Tanked blog as part of the Fed Page’s Q&As with think-tank leaders. Rich discussed the toxicity in Washington’s culture and what that means for policymaking, what’s next in Syria, and the role of corporations in policy.

Rand President Michael D. Rich. (Photo by Diane Baldwin/COURTESY OF RAND CORPORATION)

It’s an election year, but there seems to be a dearth of policy discussion in the election cycle. Why is that?

Ideally elections would be about choices in policy and attention would be greatest on policy but sometimes we have to wait until after an election is over before we can actually do our policy work. It’s not the way most think tanks would design the system but it’s the way that it has worked out.

Is that because of the increased toxicity in Washington? And what effect has that had on policymaking and the work think tanks do?

It concerns me when I see legislators less inclined to seek policy solutions based on real evidence and instead preferring answers based primarily on conviction. Polarization also poses another problem. The evidence on a given issue may point strongly in one direction or another, but once one side of a debate embraces that evidence and direction, the opposition feels an obligation to object. Still, there’s a case to be made that in this polarized world, institutions like RAND that are committed to objective analyses and data-driven conclusions and recommendations are needed more than ever. We’re certainly seeing and hearing that message from our major donors.

How do you see Syria playing out? What can the U.S. afford to do when it comes to Syria? And what can’t it afford to forgo?

The regime’s days are clearly numbered and the challenge now is to plan for what comes after, which means protecting public safety and security. However, some kind of civil war, maybe lasting years, seems a likely scenario. That would create huge humanitarian issues and a fertile breeding ground for terrorists. There are already indications of an al Qaeda resurgence in Syria. Al Qaeda appears to be behind some of the recent bomb attacks on the Assad government. I don’t think the U.S. or the international community can afford to ignore the humanitarian issues or leave this terrain to al Qaeda and other extremists. The Syrian people need protection from their own government and they need a better choice of partners than al Qaeda. The character of any international assistance should depend both on the practicalities of rendering help and on the desires of the Syrian opposition. But there should be more assistance, more quickly.

Last year, Google launched a think/do tank with the first order of business being how to combat violent extremism. And IBM has its “Smarter Planet” campaign that also has policy implications. What role, if any, should corporations play in American foreign policy and national security?

The commercial marketplace is increasingly global, so it stands to reason that the concerns of the businesses serving that marketplace would be global. Those concerns may include the reliability of supply chains, the safety of employees and vendors, the stability of places where they have major investments, and so on. As a consequence, it’s not surprising to see U.S.-based businesses take an active an interest in conditions around the world and to assert influence, too. We’ve definitely seen an uptick in private sector interest in RAND’s analyses of foreign policy issues and other related matters. Just like other stakeholders, corporations can make constructive inputs to policy debates.

You’ve been at Rand for 35 years now. After such longevity, is it difficult to bring a fresh perspective and a new agenda to the office?

First, I was an unusual hire in that I was a lawyer. In fact, I started as a summer graduate student associate while I was still in law school. My first assignments had to do with management of defense resources – how the Defense Department purchased its major weapons systems. I examined issues related to warranties and how they would be introduced into defense contracts. I looked at the use of contractor competition for major weapon system designs. Later I worked on issues related to readiness measurement and improvement.

My interest has always been in using our research and analysis to change policy so that organizations, communities and individuals are better off. RAND does a great job, but I’ve always thought we could do even better. RAND has been a place of constant evolution in terms of the kinds of issues and subjects it studies, the types of backgrounds of researchers who conduct the studies and the geographic diversification across the world – all of which I would like to see continue.

How does Rand measure success?

Like most organizations, we have a wide variety metrics that are financial. But the most important test is the test for mission and performance. It’s a three-tiered test that we more or less ask ourselves constantly and we come up for air once a year and ask it in a public way within the institution. The first tier is a test of the research agenda: Are we working on the most important issues and are we doing high-quality a objective research? If we can answer yes to that question we’re happy but not satisfied because the mission of the institution is to improve policy. Even doing great research on an important issue is necessary but not sufficient because we still have to figure out how to get that research to the people who can make a difference. So, the second tier of the test is: Are we getting our recommendations in a timely fashion to decision-makers so they can use it to make a difference to the general public. And if we can answer yes to that question, again, we’re happy but we’re not satisfied because we still want to know that once our work got into the right hands: Did our research and analysis contribute to a change in policy or practice?