In this post, a Policy Analyst working in the Select Committee Office in the UK Parliament argues that to be effective research needs to be done within, and not outside, politics. The art of being political while remaining party neutral is one that has to be mastered by public policy research bodies.
Posts tagged ‘Politics’
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.
When regimes attempt to repress political dissent they may also get rid of their future policymaking capacity. This is what may be happening in Russia and other countries. What can donors and researchers do to maintain that capacity for the future?
J.H. Snider argues that the appointment of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) to head the Heritage Foundation marks a revolutionary moment: but only if it spurs a public discussion that leads to greater transparency and accountability.
Andries Du Toit's paper on the politic of research is one of the best studies on the links between research and policy that I have ever read. It is also one of the few coming from a developing country and written from that perspective -and in English which that will help in getting some of the points it makes across.
On my last post I discussed approaches to research impact, how academics can amplify the effects of their work on public policy. But what happens when it is the political and cultural structure of a country that hinders the possibility for think tanks to effectively insert their work and influence the decision making process? According to Hannah Elka Meyers for the Middle East Quarterly, this is Israel´s case. She has interviewed directors and fellows of several prominent Israeli think tanks such as the Van Leer Institute and the Shalem Center, and come to the conclusion that even though Israel has the highest number of think tanks in the Middle East, its political and cultural structure discourages politicians and policy makers from consulting with independent institutions, and provides little space for external research.
Even such heavyweights as the Shalem Center, International Institute for Counterterrorism in Herzliya, and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs have had little impact on Israeli policymaking. Many research centers’ own heads admit their lack of political influence. Eyal Zisser, director and senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University´s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, for example, acknowledges a lack of ‘real influence’.
A parliamentary system coupled with a proportional electoral system offers little chance for outside policy work to insert itself into public policy debate. Since the executive and the legislative are fused in the parliamentary model, as is also the case in countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom, there are fewer points of access to approach policy makers. Political parties in this model are also more disciplined and close-knit, and party members are reluctant to take independent positions that go against the party’s stance. The proportional electoral system also hinders think tank participation since political parties focused on specific topics tend to be stronger and can dominate the agenda.
Funding can also prove to be an obstacle for Israeli think tanks. The government does not hire these institutions to carry out research on its behalf nor does it provide incentives by giving tax breaks to nonprofit organisations. Since there are few private sources, this causes think tanks to rely on universities for funding, which in turn leads to research becoming more oriented towards academia than public policy. In addition, the few private sources that do exist are short term, which does not allow think tanks to delve deeper in their research.
There is also a culture of informality in Israel that results in government officials seeking out individuals and not institutions when looking for outside information. Being a small country, most people in the political circuit tend to know each other and create personal ties. This happens during the mandatory military service as well.
This article proves to be very interesting because while usually the focus is on how think tanks can act in order to be more influential in public policy making, it is important to also consider that there are political and social structures, particularly in developing countries, that give shape to the channels of communication between think tanks and politicians and public officials and make the relationship between them more challenging. More has been written on this topic: regarding the relationship between think tanks and political parties in Latin America, for example, is a publication by International IDEA called Thinking Politics: Think Tanks and Political Parties in Latin America (in Spanish). Enrique Mendizabal and Norma Correa also have a book on think tanks, politics and the media called Vínculos entre conocimiento y política: el rol de la investigación en el debate público en América Latina.
[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?