Unique Nonprofit Unearths Research & Data to Inform Legislative Efforts
BY KARA SCHWEISS
Before OpenSky Policy Institute existed, policy makers, advocacy groups, educators and citizens struggled to find resources for solid data, fiscal research and analysis.
So after a 2008 feasibility study confirmed broad public support from a wide spectrum of stakeholders, a diverse group of funders from across the state provided the start-up funds needed to make OpenSky Policy Institute a reality, Founding Executive Director Renee Fry says. OpenSky incorporated in Nebraska in 2011 and hit the ground running.
“Our focus is data and analysis. What we do is provide that data and analysis to legislators to help inform their decisions, and to advocacy organizations so that they can engage people in meaningful ways on these issues,” Fry says.
“When you’re talking about budget and tax policy, it’s not always really very easy to communicate…(but) it impacts everything.” OpenSky’s mission is “to improve opportunities for every Nebraskan by providing impartial and precise research, analysis, education and leadership.”
“So we’re down in the numbers and our primary focus is doing the research and trying to communicate it in a way that can be used by others to understand the policies and what’s at stake,” Fry said. The organization, she emphasized, does not serve as an advocate for any particular issue or engage in grassroots activity.
“We see ourselves more as a support organization and partner. We provide data and support.” OpenSky currently focuses on three areas of research: budget and budget process, revenue and education. “We started out with budget and tax policy because that is what we formed to do and that was where the gaps were. That was seen as the immediate need, but there have been other issues that have come along,” Fry says.
Education soon emerged as a priority issue, for instance, and has become integrated as a focus
area as OpenSky has grown. “We wrote a grant and were funded to do this work, and it’s actually become an important piece of our portfolio. And it makes sense because almost half of the state’s general fund goes toward education,” she says. Fry doesn’t rule out further expansion in the future.
“We obviously don’t have limitless resources, so we are careful about when we start to look at an area of research, if it’s a place where we can add value. That’s the lens through which we look.” OpenSky remains nonpartisan through its multi-partisan composition of leaders and advisors.
“We have a board made up of Republicans, Democrats and Independents,” Fry says. “We’re not just diverse in political ideologies, but the board represents a variety of backgrounds and perspectives—geography, gender, et cetera.”
In addition to the board of directors, OpenSky is served by a team of technical advisors with relevant expertise such as public affairs research, public administration, business, finance and education. “The technical advisors’ expertise helps to validate or provide other sources or input to help improve OpenSky’s work,” Fry says. “They also provide historical perspective. We are still a relatively young organization.”
A legislative advisory committee—made up of former state senators from across the state and both major parties—helps ensure OpenSky develops “value- added” data on budget and tax policy that meets the information needs of Nebraskans. Each member also brings legislative committee chair experience to the table—from Education to Health and Human Services to General Affairs.
A third group of advisors— the research advisory committee—is composed of experts throughout the state who provide input and insight into OpenSky’s research. They represent a wide variety of subject matter, including early childhood education, senior citizen interests, agricultural economics and state budget.
In addition to Fry, OpenSky’s staff consists of a policy director, communications director, fiscal policy analyst and operations manager. The organization also is one of eight nonprofits in Omaha and Lincoln to employ a Weitz fellow. OpenSky research is not only in-depth, Fry says, but multiple data sources are used to help ensure fidelity and objectivity. The information is available not only to lawmakers and the media but to the public and published on openskypolicy.org. Anyone can sign up to be added to the mailing list and receive email updates.
Since its first research was released in 2012, OpenSky has quickly gained a reputation for credibility—but Fry says that increasing reach is an ongoing goal. “We want people to know we’re here and that we’re a resource,” she says. Fry also wants the public to know that research is presented in an accessible, consumer-friendly manner.
“I think that tax policy is complicated, so people don’t engage. It looks overwhelming. We try to make it as digestible for people as possible, but people have to take the initiative to engage and look to us as a resource to help them sort it out.”
The organization also offers periodic educational sessions for policymakers. “The Legislative Alumni Advisory Committee recommended doing these educational sessions and they’ve been very popular,” Fry says, and “when someone files to run for office, they get a packet from us.”
Better decisions by lawmakers mean better outcomes for everyone, she adds. “The work that we do is so critical and it’s never been more important than it is now, especially as we’re facing a huge budget shortfall, and with the federal work a lot of what we’ve been talking about recently is lifting up the connection between federal tax reform and implications for the state,” Fry says. “By doing that, we have been able to stop harmful legislation and improve transparency around tax incentives.”
Lawmakers may be well-intentioned, she says, but deep research-supported, detailed data can help them see the full potential implications of their decisions. “We dig in and play it through to the end. Sometimes they see that it’s not exactly what they wanted to do or may have consequences that are unintended,” Fry says. Ultimately, OpenSky serves the citizens of Nebraska.
“The reason we do the work that we do is in hopes that we can help shape better outcomes for Nebraskans. We give policymakers the tools to make good policy decisions that help improve opportunities for all Nebraskans,” Fry says. “That is our mission and so that’s at the core of what we do. When we’re looking at a bill, that’s the question that’s in the back of our mind: Does this improve opportunities for all Nebraskans or not? That fundamental question drives everything we do.”
The young organization is already seeing results. “I feel like we’ve had a lot of success as an organization in a short period of time and had a lot of impact,” Fry says. “I think the work we’ve done has helped improve the budget IQ of those engaged in this work. Everyone has a better understanding and can ask better questions. And we’ve been able to improve the quality of fiscal debates and improve transparency. We’ve connected the dots on a lot of things for different folks.”
It all connects back to the organization’s impetus to fulfill the need for a nonpartisan organization dedicated to research and analysis. Even the name OpenSky reflects the resolve to be open and available to all. “We wanted a name that really represented and was grounded in Nebraska, and we wanted a name that was very aspirational. We went through a bunch of different names and OpenSky Policy Institute just felt right,” Fry says. “The sky’s the limit, right?”