September 29, 2016 Print

Do you think that Sharpies and Post-it Notes are normal, everyday office supplies? Not the nine project presenters of this year’s inspirational Unconference, sponsored by EdChoice, part of Atlas Network’s 2016 Liberty Forum. Unconference brings a workshop atmosphere to the traditional policy conference — aggregating the wisdom of crowds and bringing together insight and feedback from other think tank professionals from around the globe. With the help of trained facilitators, attendees and presenters work together within this innovative format to take think tank projects to new levels of ambition and effectiveness.

Attendees generated countless ideas during the four hours of Unconference, but an Atlas Network favorite happened at Station no. 2. After crowdsourcing ideas from Unconference participants, Patrick Mardini of the Beirut-based Lebanese Institute for Market Studies now plans on tackling the government monopoly on energy in Lebanon by launching a campaign that will bring privatization and less harsh regulations to the electricity market. While his people face daily blackouts of up to 12 hours, Patrick thinks it’s time to “Turn the Lights On In Lebanon.”

Here are the nine Unconference project overviews:

Robert Enlow and Keri Hunter (EdChoice)

Parental Engagement
Robert Enlow, president and CEO of EdChoice (Indianapolis, Ind., United States)

“There is a disconnect at the local level between the K–12 schooling options families want and the K–12 schooling options they know about or are able to secure for their children,” Enlow said. “Some parents are willing to go to jail to get their children into a quality, safe school. Others know that the public school system is failing their kids, yet they defend it for reasons based on tradition, myth, and a sense of community loyalty. In order for educational choice to become the assumption, not the exception, parents must be empowered to explore what works best for their children and to challenge the conventional educational delivery system. This cannot happen without grassroots parent-to-parent communications where families feel comfortable talking about their children’s experiences, asking each other questions and learning what needs are or are not being met.”

In order to bring information about school choice to parents who need it the most, Enlow pointed out, conversations need to focus on the benefits of increased access to competitive educational programs rather than merely denigrating the status quo.

“The biggest obstacle to this conversation is starting it,” Enlow said. “Telling parents that they may have made the wrong choice or that they may be stuck in a school that’s not working is a sure-fire way to provoke a defensive response. Instead, we need to make families feel safe to question whether their schools are truly meeting their children’s needs or whether there’s room for improvement and change. We talk a blue streak about promoting educational choice ‘for the kids,’ but we have failed to create environments — away from union talking points, pressure from bureaucrats, media coverage and even our own rhetoric — where parents can explore what all of this means for their children in their communities.”

Patrick Mardini and Laura Liu (Atlas Network)

Electricity Deregulation
Patrick Mardini, founder of the Lebanese Institute for Market Studies (Beirut, Lebanon)

“Electricity is highly subsidized in Lebanon, costing the government 50 percent of the nation’s fiscal deficit every year,” said Mardini. “Furthermore, the national electricity company — a monopoly — brings about 12 hours of daily blackouts. The Lebanese Institute for Market Studies (LIMS) drafted a policy proposition arguing for abolishing energy subsidies and opening all the sector’s activities to competition (production, transmission, sales, and bill collection). The proposition won the prize of the best paper in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region at a competition sponsored by Atlas Network, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Fraser Institute, Google, and other organizations.”

In order for any research proposal to make a practical difference, it needs to become part of a vigorous and ongoing policy conversation, Mardini explained.

“LIMS plans to organize a conference in 2017 in Beirut bringing together international experts from countries that managed to have a reform in electricity,” Mardini said. “Our challenge is to have policy makers attend the conference, interact with experts, and publicly endorse the reform. How do we attract top-notch speakers to the conference? How do we bring policymakers, the business community, religious leaders, and civil society groups on broad? How do we ensure extensive media coverage? Who might be interested in funding such an event?”

Jared Meyer

Is Uber the Future of Work?
Jared Meyer, fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (New York City, N.Y., United States)

“As the sharing economy grows in popularity, many policymakers are concerned about the supposed erosion of the job security that traditional employment offered,” Meyer said. “They assume that, absent federal action to strengthen and extend 1930s-era employment protections, the future of work will resemble driving for Uber, and workers will have to fight to earn a living in what Robert Reich calls the ‘share-the-scraps’ economy. While it would be problematic if everyone's full-time jobs turned into relatively undifferentiated, low-skill ‘gigs,’ this is far from the real results of embracing independent work.”

Instead, Meyer explained, the sharing economy mobilizes idle resources and creates new opportunities for people to cooperate and trade that were impossible in the past because potential buyers and sellers previously lacked both information about each other and the tools to coordinate their transactions.

“Lower transaction costs — the driving force behind the sharing economy — will revolutionize far more industries than for-hire transportation,” Meyer said. “This will create increased opportunities for entrepreneurship, empowering workers of all skill levels. While the economy continues to move towards work that is flexible, individualized, and mobile, certain policymakers want workers to have a boss, punch a timecard, and belong to a union. In the face of this opposition, how should free-market supporters approach the changing workforce? What steps can be taken to counter recent (and decades-old) government actions that limit independent work? And how can we effectively message workplace flexibility when many people desire job security?

Nicole Neily and Tarun Vats (Atlas Network)

Investigative Journalism in the States
Nicole Neily, president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity (Alexandria, Va., United States)

“The media has a profound influence on our society,” Neily said. “Unfortunately, for most members of the press, their perspective is usually ‘if only the government had more power to fix things.’ But the government doesn’t need more power — it needs more accountability. That’s where the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity comes in. We’re an investigative journalism organization focused exclusively on reporting in the states, publishing original reporting at We investigate news all too often overlooked or abandoned by mainstream sources, but of vital importance to our readers.”

The Franklin Center takes a decentralized approach to developing stories, understanding that both public policy problems and their solutions can best be understood from the bottom up rather than the top down.

“We have a proven track record of producing state-focused reporting that leads to big stories — stories that not only impact those states, but that ultimately have a national impact,” Neily said. “The Franklin Center’s work has led to investigations and reforms, such as changing laws and the introduction of bills; firings and resignations; and the prevention of bad policies. Identifying and telling the stories is one thing, but we’re still working to build a strong distribution network to better disseminate our work. We’d like to explore ways to get our content out further — including print, radio, social media, newsletters, and other outlets, so that our work can have a greater impact.”

Ayesha Bilal and Erwin Chaloupka (Atlas Network)

Ayesha Bilal, head of research and development for Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (PRIME) (Islamabad, Pakistan)

“Free education is a right of every child, as is declared in the constitution of Pakistan, but to declare that this education has to be provided by the state is a not a sustainable solution,” Bilal said. “As believers in free markets and competition, Policy Research Institute of Market Economy (PRIME) envisages introducing an education voucher scheme in Islamabad, Pakistan, for low-income families with children aged five to 16 years. Children should be free to choose a specific school and system of education, while schools should be free to compete to provide efficient system of education.”

In order to bring quality educational options to families that can’t afford private tuition costs, PRIME will appeal to corporate sponsors that have philanthropic mandates built into their budgets in order to help foster stronger communities.

“In Islamabad there exist no less than 2,000 private schools, out of which 60 percent are charging fees less than Rs.1000 (around $10) per month,” Bilal said. “Through establishing a partnership with the Private Schools Network that represents these schools, education vouchers shall be introduced in specified areas of Islamabad as a test project for five years benefiting 500 children with education voucher of Rs. 500 ($5) each. The project will be financed through sponsors from the corporate organizations as part of their ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ budget. During and after project implementation, the findings will be presented to the federal government bodies responsible for education sector development so as to encourage enforcement of the education voucher scheme as part of state policy.”

Maryan Zablotskyy

Maryan Zablotskyy, head of Ukrainian Economic Freedoms Foundation (Kyiv, Ukraine)

“Our organization seeks to promote greater economic freedom by effectively advocating smaller government’s role, free competition, and lower taxes,” Zablotskyy said. “While we work on all these issues, this particular project is focused on smaller regulations, specifically the part relating to permits, such as licenses, certificates, permits, etc. Ukrainian registry of permission documents feature 1,600 different permits that regulate nearly every area of economic activity.”

The more obstacles that stand in the way of entrepreneurs, the less able they are to bring innovative new ideas to market and improve life for the people around them, Zablotskyy explained. This is a problem all over the world, and one way to address this problem is by creating easy way to access information about the regulatory permitting process.

“This often-underappreciated area significantly limits business and personal freedom, causing major market distortions, and not just in Ukraine,” Zablotskyy said. “For example, it takes 21 different permits to start construction in Czech Republic and only seven in Denmark. There are a total of seven different separate procedures to register property in Ukraine and only one procedure in Sweden. Thus, we are creating an information-sharing portal called Wikipermit — an encyclopedia of permits. This portal will have detailed data on all 1,600 permits in Ukraine, including procedures, sample documents, unofficial peculiarities of procedure, and statistics of issuance. This will allow businesses and people to save time and money while applying for permits. It will also be used as a data source to make a law to deregulate unnecessary permits and procedures. We hope this project can be replicated in other countries, since problems with permits and licenses are universal.”

Cindy Cerquitella and Elisa Martins (Atlas Network)

The Next Five Years for Atlas Leadership Academy
Cindy Cerquitella, director of Atlas Network’s Atlas Leadership Academy (Washington, D.C., United States)

“Atlas Leadership Academy (ALA) has trained more than 3,000 people in the last five years, and we are planning to expand our offerings even more to better help think tanks maximize their efforts,” Cerquitella said. “We are looking for suggestions on new courses or topics to offer, potential facilitators and instructors, and for tips on university partnerships.”           

ALA is a suite of online and in-person training opportunities designed to strengthen the reach and leadership capacity of pro-liberty think tank leaders and staff. ALA alumni are part of a global network of leaders in the free-market movement, and are awarded special opportunities for grants and awards.

Paul McCarthy and Casey Pifer (Atlas Network)

Bring It Together, Close the Loop, Make It Last
Paul McCarthy, CEO of Mannkal Economic Education Foundation (Subiaco, Australia)

“Mannkal’s primary activity, the student scholarship program, has grown exponentially, creating an alumni cohort of over 1,000,” McCarthy said. “Mannkal also has a group of donors who contribute to running costs, an advisory council, and grassroots supporters who attend events. Mannkal is run with a shoestring budget, as operating costs can’t be covered by its charitable foundation. Each activity requires a lot of work; we have concentrated most of our capacity on raising demand for scholarships to the point where word of mouth has made it nearly self-sustaining. We can now re-focus to other areas.”

By building a self-reinforcing efficiency into its development operations, McCarthy explained, Mannkal will be able to devote more of its resources to programs with the most impact.

“We can’t afford to always be ‘turning the wheel’ — paying attention to and engaging 25 donors, 1,000 alumni, advisors, and supporters in a manner that consumes all our resources without actually growing our impact,” McCarthy said. “What we need to do is find ways in which they can sustain and engage each other. By operating more of a ‘closed loop’ system in which each element supports another, we will be able to maximize output per unit of input and make Mannkal a sustainable entity for decades to come.”

Scott A. Hodge and Carmen Rodríguez Alarcon (facilitator)

International Index for Taxation
Scott A. Hodge, president of the Tax Foundation (Washington, D.C., United States)

“Free-market tax policy needs a larger voice on the global stage,” Hodge said. “For more than four decades, Atlas Network–affiliated groups have celebrated Tax Freedom Day as a popular way of illustrating the tax burden faced by citizens in nearly 30 countries. But making citizens aware of their tax burden is not always enough to spur politicians to reform their tax systems.”

Real tax policy change is driven by solid data and analysis that international governments and their citizens can use to make informed decisions about the effect of specific forms of taxation on economic growth and prosperity. Beginning in 2014, the Tax Foundation developed an index that compares the tax environments of the 34 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“In order to fuel global tax competition and guide countries toward pro-growth tax reforms, the Tax Foundation has developed the International Tax Competitiveness Index (ITCI),” Hodge said. “This index attempts to determine which countries provide the best tax environment for investment and business growth and development. What we need to make this index a more effective tool for changing policy is active partners in key countries who can use the index to not only influence the tax debate in their home country, but also use it to counter the harmful tax policies promoted by global institutions such as the EU and OECD.”