Leading the drive to produce creative research, dialogue, and strategies for advancement, many of today’s public policy “think tank” organizations have a strong focus on those issues of utmost importance to state and local government officials, citizens, and just about anyone with an interest in municipal matters.

MuniNet Guide’s Top Picks web sites stand out among their peers because of their superior content, style and usability – and for their unique contributions to advancing reform and stimulating innovation in areas with municipal relevance, from state and local government services to transportation, healthcare to economic development. This quarter, MuniNet is releasing its Top Picks for web sites in the Public Policy & Administration or “Think Tanks” category.

A “think tank organization” is a non-profit public policy center that conducts research in the area of governmental and community affairs, and then offers recommendations to government leaders, citizens, taxpayers, the media, and/or the academic community based on their findings. Many of these research centers call themselves “non-partisan” in the interest of presenting objective points of view. Nevertheless, some public policy organizations tend to take a more liberal political slant, while others promote a more conservative view.

MuniNet narrowed the huge list of potential think tank web sites to those that have an eclectic interest in areas important to state and local governments. The list was then further pared down with an emphasis on identifying “first-class” sites that embody substance, style and impact. The sites chosen as Top Picks in this category provide insightful research, offer unique ideas, and recommend viable strategies. They also meet the general criteria for all MuniNet Top Picks – including overall quality, fresh content, intuitive organization, handy navigation tools, and appealing aesthetics.

Not coincidentally, our choices are often recognized in their own right. However, their progress in using the Internet as a 21st Century vehicle through which to present their ideas and stimulate dialogue within to a national – if not global – forum earns them additional accolades in our book.


Urban Institute, comprised of ten research centers, examines current social and economic public policy issues. Its lively home page highlights the organization’s newest research – on topics ranging from welfare to tax reform, child safety to immigration trends. This site provides fresh, comprehensive, and wide-ranging information in style. Crisp and easy to navigate, it offers many noteworthy features. Many of the Institute’s major research presentations are presented in abstract form, with reference (and access) to the full report. The “UI Toolkit” is designed to educate and inform visitors about a variety of today’s hot topics through research reports, policy briefs, statistical data, and a “jargon decoder.” We also like its “5 Questions for the Experts” feature, updated every three weeks, which provides deeper insight into a current social policy issue. The Urban Institute was among the first in its class to launch podcasts – downloadable audio presentations that can be played back on a computer or MP3 player.

Reason Foundation focuses on a wide range of current public policy issues with implications for state and local government. Its web site, which stands out for its quality content and freshness, provides highlights of the Foundation’s latest research findings, with links to full-text reports for visitors looking for more detail. Research topics range from airport security to eminent domain to municipal broadband. A strong supporter of privatization, the Reason Foundation has conducted significant research – and published a variety of reports, policy studies, and commentary – on the subject. In October 2006, Leonard Gilroy, Policy Analyst with the Reason Foundation, shared his thoughts on this growing trend in government in an insightful feature interview with MuniNetGuide.com (see “Public/Private Partnerships Allow Governments to Provide Services with Increased Efficiency: An Overview of Privatization Trends”).

Urban Land Institute addresses policy issues related to land use and real estate development. With a stated goal to promote sustainable communities worldwide, ULI has conducted significant research in the area of Smart Growth, a community development concept that encompasses economic viability, concern for the environment, and sustainability. The organization publishes research on a variety of other land use issues, and provides access to development case studies from around the country. In addition to a blog, entitled “The Ground Floor,” its web site also features webcasts – online broadcasts of press conference, speeches, and other presentations – and electronic versions of the organization’s newsletter and magazine.

Brookings Institution conducts a variety of research in the areas of foreign policy and the global economy, but its Metropolitan Policy Program has particular relevance for the municipal community. Recent reports have focused on suburban and “exurban” growth, the state of American cities, poverty trends, and economic development. MuniNetGuide.com spotlighted one of the Brookings Institution’s presentations on the nation’s most fiscally stressed cities in “Weak Cities Presentation Offers Concrete Strategies for Improving Market Position”, which includes an interview with Bruce Katz, Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program for the Brookings Institution.

The Heartland Institute is a national think tank that provides a great deal of fresh and insightful content, organized in a manner that makes it easy to zero in on information related to a specific topic. While its news publications are listed by subject matter – Budget and Tax, Information Technology, Healthcare, and School Reform, for example, the site also includes “suites” of information related to four specific issues: Education, Environment, Healthcare, and Tobacco (this suite is called the “Smokers Lounge”). Each issue suite is broken down into detailed subcategories, with links to a database of public policy documents (“Policy Bot”), news, research, and educational materials. The Institute’s MultiMedia Center features audio and video files, including podcasts.

While the Goldwater Institute is an Arizona public policy organization designed to preserve the rights and freedoms of its citizens, its research and commentary have applications for other parts of the country. A government watchdog group, the Institute focuses on the state economy and legislation, education, and civic liberties. Its web site features a real-time tabulation of state spending, a funding index for all school districts in the state, a tool for residents to see how local legislators have voted on recent issues, and policy reports that provide research and commentary on today’s hot topics related to state government.

Public Policy Institute of California is another excellent state think tank, with relevance that extends beyond California’s borders. The PPIC addresses several policy areas – primarily related to government and public finance, the economy, and demographics. In addition to showcasing the Institute’s research publications, the web site also provides access to its public opinion surveys that reflect citizens’ views on their government.