Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

The payroller now keeps a separate office in Annapolis, complete with a secretary to handle his voluminous faxes and e-mail.

"Most secretaries wouldn't want to come into your house," he says.
One of his longtime admirers says that Phil Burgess reminds him of Herman Kahn, the celebrated founder of the Hudson Institute. The comparison fits in several ways. Like Burgess, Kahn was an outsized, outspoken, bearded eccentric with a forceful personality and eclectic interests. Kahn was also said to be the model for Dr. Strangelove in the Stanley Kubrick film, and the think tank that Burgess has created has its eerie, Strangelovian qualities, too.

Burgess calls the Center for the New West a "virtual organization" that engages in a "surfing strategy" of management. Translation: The center has a small staff but a vast pool of expertise to draw upon, and thus it can shift direction effortlessly to keep up with the ever-changing world of public-policy issues.

"Anybody who's ever surfed knows that sometimes you catch a big wave and it peters out on you," Burgess explains. It's not easy shuffling from one hot issue to the next, he adds, juggling agendas and experts, "but I know what happens when you get a bunch of people who can only hammer nails. When you need a screw, they'll hammer the screw."

Bane says that surfing allows the center to avoid the kind of hidebound bureaucracy found in larger, more predictable think tanks, but he acknowledges that the strategy has its drawbacks, too. "It can make it harder to raise money," he says. "It can make it harder to develop core competencies or to get a reputation as the place to go for a particular piece of work. The upside to it is that you don't get aligned with one industry."

Other former center associates say that Burgess's restless hopping from project to project has frustrated staff and alienated funding sources. "Phil has a real control issue," says one. "He can't delegate, and there was never any direction. Projects would start, and two weeks later they'd disappear. And then there was denial that they didn't exist anymore."

At any given moment, certain portions of Burgess's virtual organization may be virtually nonexistent. Take, for example, the center's Institute for Information Law and Policy--if you can find it. According to the latest annual report, the institute provides administrative support and other services to the National Information Infrastructure Testbed, a group of corporations, universities and federal agencies involved in developing info-highway technologies. The relationship with NIIT was forged when attorney Troy Eid, the executive director of NIIT, was provided office space at the center and named director of the institute.

But NIIT quickly outgrew the relationship, and Eid moved into other offices last fall and resigned from the center. Eid says the center was a "useful incubator" for NIIT, but he can't recall anything he did for the center's institute except for a couple of op-ed pieces. Most of his time was devoted to NIIT, which was paying his salary. Burgess says he's now putting a considerable amount of his own time into planning for the institute, which currently has no director.

The center frequently makes use of "loaned executives" like Eid, who are being paid by someone else but are featured prominently in center publications. Last year the Institute for Telemedicine consisted of Leslie Sandberg, a loaned Pacific Telesis executive, and Peggy Poggio of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Both are gone now, and the institute has its third director in as many years.

Sandberg says she made valuable contacts at the center, but "I think the issue of continuity is there. In a perfect world, it would be great to have people [running the institutes] who didn't have to worry about financial issues every day, and your funding could be more broad-based--but that's a tough thing to do."

Other senior fellows listed on the center's masthead seem to be underutilized or simply passing through. University of Colorado professor Patricia Limerick, a revisionist Western historian, would seem to have little in common with the center's boosterish agenda--but then, she hasn't participated in any of the think tank's events for five years.

"I've gotten a note from Phil a couple of times in the last few years, but that's it," says Limerick, a 1995 MacArthur Fellow. "It's not because of any reluctance on my part. There's no one bigger than me on the idea of getting outside the university and speaking to people who might be inclined to dismiss you."

Burgess says he hasn't "engaged" with Limerick as much as he'd like to, "but that's the whole idea of a virtual organization. You engage with people when it makes sense." He points out that Denver community activist David Stalls, another associate "whose views are different from mine," was featured on a center panel on career-shifting last month.

Stalls says he's done little for the think tank, but Burgess "was kind enough to offer me some office space" on occasion. "They've been a wonderful ally for me when I needed a place to regroup," he adds. "Phil's a pretty cool guy. We've just grown apart philosophically over the years."

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