What can plural think tanks do when faced with a highly political and ideologically charged issues? They cannot fully commit to a single policy option when some of their own researchers are fiercely against it. This kind of internal opposition can even kill great ideas. This blog post puts forward a new approach for plural think tanks. It argues that it is possible to be the source of a solution even if this solution has been developed elsewhere. Creating the space for debate is a function that needs to be given more attention to.
Posts tagged ‘policy’
Hans Gutbrod suggests that think tanks at their best optimize, fix, and close policy gaps, trying to improve everyone's lives. This helps to define what think tanks are and should do, and has practical implications for the research decisions they make.
Latin American think tanks have been meeting each other and sharing lessons for a very long time. In the last decade, a number of efforts have slowly helped build a community of practice that is, now, coming of age. The future of think tank collaboration in the region looks bright.
Is research uptake measurable? Can it be planned? Or is it just luck? This blog post reviews a number of issues that ought to be considered when trying to measure it. The post argues that instead of measuring it, we should attempt to understand it.
The Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of Western Cape in South Africa is organising an international symposium on the politics of research.
I was lucky to visit them earlier this year and left wanting more. I have often been critical about the research-policy sector’s lack of depth. Well, PLAAS and their colleagues cannot be accused of that. The symposium’s design acknowledges this and provides a good balance between theory and practice.
This is possible because PLAAS and its researchers are not working in a vacuum, protected by the liminality of the development studies profession. They are part of the South African political community. And so asking about the politics of research is more than just an academic question.
And this makes this event even more interesting. It has been imagined and is being promoted by PLAAS and not by an international development NGO or a group of northern based agencies.
So if there is one pace you should get yourselves to this year: make that place Cape Town.
The Huffington Post´s Sabrina Stevens recently blogged about the possible effects of bad education research on policy, in light of the National Education Policy Centre´s annual “Bunkum Awards”, given to the worst think tank reports of the year regarding education policy. Six Bunkums were handed out, and three of them were for particularly incompetent reports: ConnCAN´s Spend Smart, the Centre for American Progress´ Charting New Territory, and the Progressive Policy Institute´s Going Exponential.
While meant to be a humorous remark on bad research, the Bunkum Awards do point out that the preponderance of poorly supported advocacy is a serious issue which really isn’t considered as such, since it is usually dressed up as official policy research:
Too often, these reports are printed, published and spread throughout the mass media and beyond, without critique. They are then used to promote a specific kind of “reform,” as advocates — intentionally or not — mislead the public into believing that “research says” a given policy is a great idea, even when little to no credible evidence exists to support such a claim.
Since advocacy research tries to keep up with public policy debate, it is not put through a rigorous academic review process, and this sometimes leads to misleading facts and bad sources. It is important, then, for policy makers as well as the general public to educate themselves on this fact.
[Editor’s note: Tristan Stubbs works for the Research and Policy in Development programme at ODI. He writes in a personal capacity. His reflections, although inspired by British politics are extremely relevant to think tanks in developing countries -particularly those under pressure to get closer to governments in search of influence. It follows from a poignant reflection on the merits of influence for influence’s sake.]
Two weeks ago, London elected the Conservative politician, Boris Johnson, to his second term as mayor of the city. There was a notably low turnout, perhaps because the three major parties each put up the same candidate that had contested the election the last time around, in 2008. More interesting, then, were the individuals representing the smaller parties, not least the former civil servant Siobhan Benita. Running as an independent, in some ways she was more of an ‘establishment’ candidate than those from the established parties. A career bureaucrat, she even won the support of the erstwhile head of the Civil Service, Sir Gus O’Donnell.
Benita said she’d decided to run because ‘she was losing faith in the power of the civil service to keep politicians in check’. Her statement attracted predictable criticism, from both the left and right. Commentators pointed out that it’s not the job of the civil service to hold elected representatives to account (that’s the first step on the road to authoritarianism). Keeping the government in check is the job of parliament, voters and the legal system – not an unelected technocracy.
I was reminded of Benita’s analysis of the role of the modern civil service when I read in the Times a couple of days ago that the government is considering outsourcing areas of UK policy-making to think tanks and other organisations. At face value, there’s little new in this: many think tanks measure their success on their closeness to government, and governments the world over have long outsourced their research and policy grunt work to non-civil servants. Where this proposal differed, however, was in the idea that policies might also be implemented by the outsourced providers.
The suggestions are as follows. Against the background of austerity-driven public spending cuts and a reported growing frustration in the British prime minister’s office with the efficacy of the civil service, government departments would commission think tanks or consultants to devise, develop and ‘torture test’ policy, instead of using bureaucrats to do this job. Policy areas could include revising business regulations or reviewing welfare payments. A department that wanted to develop an idea that had gained prime ministerial approval could draw from a pot of money, and then choose from ‘a list of companies, think-tanks, consultancies or charities chosen by the Government to work on the scheme’. At the moment, most policy ideas are developed ‘in-house’ by specialist subject experts – the change could mean this group would be significantly reduced in number.
Where outside organisations were entrusted with actually putting policies into effect (most likely when managing smaller schemes), controversy might arise for two reasons. One, though the government currently outsources much similar work – the Times article mentions how McKinsey’s and PwC are already advising on IT and finance products – this would represent the first time third parties would be able to devise policy without direct civil service involvement. Two, the proposal raises significant questions about conflicts of interest. The article quotes the concerns of a civil service source: ‘[i]n areas such as regulatory reform, for example, the same firm which developed the policy could implement it as well’.
Let’s consider the consequences of these proposals for think tanks. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and the plans have not yet even reached pilot stage. However, it’s not too difficult to imagine a situation in which think tanks that take advantage of the scheme would not be subject to the same level of scrutiny as an equivalent commercial outfit. As this blog frequently argues, think tanks – even if constituted as a charity – tend not to be neutral, non-partisan organisations. Their work is intensely political, and they aim – rightly – to influence policy just as assiduously as businesses. Yet they depend on using informed, evidence-based research to support their policy work. The sustainability of their credibility therefore derives from maintaining some distance from government. If the entire research, policy, and implementation cycle were farmed out to an ostensibly independent research institution, this would close loops that were formally open. A think tank would be wise only very cautiously to discard a reputation for openness to academic collaboration.
Secondly – and even though there can be significant career advantages for individual staffers if think tanks are perceived to be close to government – the quality of a think tank’s output is also dependent on an ‘arm’s-length’ relationship. It’s a fine line to draw, but a think tank’s reputation depends a lot on its ability to take government to task where necessary. How can it deliver innovative policy suggestions if, rather than acting as a ‘critical friend’, a think tank is offered significant financial incentives to work directly on behalf of a government’s agenda – thereby opening itself up to accusations that it’s benefited from patronage?
A third point has more to do with the attitude expressed by Siobhan Benita. The British system of government is known for its impartiality and lack of corruption largely because its unwritten constitution puts political decisions in the hands of elected ministers, and demands political impartiality from civil servants. Above the middle ranks of the bureaucracy, it’s forbidden to hold even lowly political rank. This is why Benita’s comment was worrying, and why handing over policy implementation to any external organisation should also be of concern. Under the proposals, the civil service would not only outsource the policy-making process to political organisations, but its constitutionally mandated accountability as well. If anything went wrong, where would the buck stop?