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Former Journalist to Head Wis. Think Tank

afagen, flickr

As one of Wisconsin's think tanks, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute strives to shape public policy and bring transparency to government.

So it comes as no surprise that its new director spent years as a journalist doing just that.

On Monday, former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal reporterMike Nichols will take over as president of WPRI.  Nichols with these news sources for 18 years until he left in 2008. Since then, he has been a senior fellow with the Institute.

"Our goal is to understand what government is doing, what it does well, and what it doesn't do well," he says. "So from my way of thinking, the more we know about what government is doing - which includes everything from contracts to how much people are making to why decisions are made, whether politics are getting in the way of good policy - that's all good from where we're coming from."

WPRI, founded in 1987 and based in Hartland, often carries the reputation of tilting toward the conservative end of the spectrum.  But – as is the case with much of Wisconsin politics these days – it is sometimes hard to make a blanket statement.

Nichols argues that WPRI is nonpartisan, meaning it isn't aligned with any party nor is it a political organization. Moreover, by virtue of being a nonprofit, it cannot lobby.

"We're an education organization," he says. "We want to educate people. We're not Republicans or Democrats, you can call us conservatives if you want, but I hope that we're seen as a resource for anybody that's interested in the issues I'm talking about."

According to the Institute's website, the Institute is guided by a belief that competitive free markets, limited and transparent government, private initiative, and personal responsibility are essential to our democratic way of life. In recent months, the organization has generated some thought-provoking in areas ranging from education to economics.

"I just hope people won’t use terminology and classifications as a way of avoiding thinking or confronting about honest facts and new ideas," he says. "I think that’s a problem for society as a whole – not just for us at WPRI, so call us what you want, but please give our stuff a chance."

Since 2009, the Institute has been headed by George Lightbourn, a former cabinet member under two governors.  Lightbourn announced his retirement earlier this year.