By Phil Nero, special to   Published Jan 14, 2008 at 5:24 AM

As presidential transitions go, it lacks the wow power of what will happen in Washington about a year from now. But for Milwaukeeans and residents of southeastern Wisconsin, the leadership shift taking place at the Public Policy Forum very well could have significantly greater social and economic impact.

Between now and early March, forum President Jeffrey Browne will familiarize incoming President Rob Henken with the Milwaukee-based organization's inner workings.

"The forum is well-positioned to be taken to the next level, to have a real impact on the region," says Browne, a former Milwaukee newspaper editor and research specialist who came to the forum over 13 years ago. "Rob is the perfect choice to get it there."

Henken, a former congressional aide, came to the Milwaukee area in 1994 as executive director of the Alliance for Future Transit, a pro-public transportation and light rail advocacy group. He went on to a career in Milwaukee County government, climbing through the ranks to his most recent position as head of the Department of Administrative Services, the county's most powerful non-elective position.

"I'm excited about the challenge," says Henken, who will be the forum's ninth president. "The forum has a distinguished history and important tradition to carry on."

The forum began in 1913 as a local, non-partisan policy watchdog dedicated to enhancing government effectiveness and the quality of life in the seven-county southeastern Wisconsin region by objectively researching public policy issues, with a focus on:

  • Economic development
  • Workforce development
  • Education
  • Transportation

With a current annual budget of about $700,000 (compared to $1.3 billion for the county), the forum's position as a prominent, if leanly financed, player in area government and economic development policy was ultimately solidified by its fifth president, Norman Gill, who served for about 40 years from the 1940s into the '80s.

Browne recalls his early days at the Milwaukee Journal beginning in the '70s when Gill was a seemingly constant presence in the newsroom, bandying comprehensive charts and research documents for reporters and editors. Gill was passionate and vigilant about raising the profile and coverage of important area policy issues.

"He was this amazing guy with all these charts and tables and information bringing topics to our attention, and analyzing government spending and policy with all this detailed data and research he had compiled," Browne says with an appreciative smile and tone that evolves into soft laughter. Often quoted by the media, Gill provided a constant chirp in the collective conscience and consciousness of area leaders. An annual award given by the forum bears his name.

More understated than Gill in his approach, Browne came to the forum in 1995 as director of research for then-president Dave Meisner.

"When I arrived here, we were focused on the microscopic minutia of government," says Browne, 60. "I tried to turn the microscope lens around and take more a big picture view." He thinks it might be time to flip the focus back around a bit.

Henken, 44, says he plans to follow that advice to some degree, but without losing the larger view in the process. From his experience in local and regional government, he sees another role shift also worth encouraging.

"I'm hoping to become a little more proactive," says Henken. "When I interviewed with the board, they asked me if I saw the forum as more of a think tank or a watchdog. I'd like it to become a combination of both and be a government seeing eye dog."

Henken feels there's a general tendency among government leadership to become blinded by politics -- a them vs. us, get-the-other party mentality -- an attitude he hoped to escape when he came to the Midwest from Washington.

He discovered, however, that the tide of legislative gridlock, pettiness, and scandal that seems at times to roll through D.C. didn't spare this region and its reputation for good government. It was just a little slower to reach the areas around and beyond Lake Michigan.

"What local government lacks is the capacity and the mindset to research, develop, and discuss big solutions to big problems," says Henken. He envisions the forum as a catalyst to help government take a closer look at larger questions and issues with a mind toward taking action. "Not in a gotcha type of manner, but more in terms of being a helper in grappling with the questions and maintaining a focus and not just put off major decisions from year to year."

Browne cites mass transit, the issue that brought Henken to town, as an example. In 1994, southeastern Wisconsin was given $289 million in federal funds for transportation project spending. At the time, AFT advocated the money be used to help build a light rail line in conjunction with other transportation infrastructure improvements.

Indecision cost officials $48 million in cutbacks. Of the remaining money, $150 million went to the Park East project and the removal of a dead-end freeway spur. Only $91 million is left in the kitty. Unlike cities such as Denver and Minneapolis, Milwaukee has no light rail and is faced with ever-present pressure to eliminate bus routes and cut transit services.

"So over the long run, how does something like that figure into a major economic development decision like who gets the Miller-Coors headquarters," says Browne, "a place like Denver that is pouring millions into new infrastructure including major transportation projects, or a place where they can't get their act together on how to accept a gift from the government."

While that doesn't rule out a place like Milwaukee with its abundant water and other resources, it subtracts from all the area might have to offer simply by failure to act and make additions.

Henken says he might also publish an annual government scorecard that rates all or some of the 250-plus governing/taxing entities in the seven-county southeastern Wisconsin region.

A non-partisan, local resource of the forum's design is rare in this country. While more common on a state level, Browne says only New York, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans and Worchester, Mass. have similar organizations that are local, non-partisan, good-government, watchdog/research-oriented by design.

"We are almost unique, and as a group could hold our annual meeting in a phone booth most year," he says. Such rareness makes for a fragile existence because most grant money and support of research comes from sources that have a point of view to advance. Still, corporate, group and individual membership support has sustained the forum for what will soon be 100 years.

Browne is confident the foundation he and others helped build is strong, well-pointed, and sturdy enough to reach its upcoming centennial celebration and beyond. He is equally confident Henken is the person to get it there.

As for Browne's future, he's looking toward southeast Asia, the homeland of his two adopted Vietnamese boys, Zack and Jack. He hopes to make the most of a growing family knowledge and understanding of Vietnam by helping to build bridges between corporate interests here and the Vietnamese companies, workers and farmers who might prosper from outside investments and other forms of economic support and exchanges.