Hans Gutbrod analyses how 20 leading US think tanks have developed over 2012. Seven of them are doing very well, while four of them are not exactly comfortable, at least not in financial terms. Analysis and detailed spreadsheet available.
Posts tagged ‘US’
Allen McDuffee of the Washington Post´s blog Think Tanked has recently written a piece on how the presidents of several large American think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Rand Corp. are stepping down, some after a considerable amount of years in the position. This renewal of leadership, however, is taking place in the face of several new challenges that the new generation will have to deal with.
A new, often more diverse leadership is arriving in a rapidly changing think-tank environment. The policy field is more crowded, the flow of information is faster and the fundraising is tougher.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) believes that communications will be the biggest challenge for newcomers, due to “too much noise in public policy today”. This will require new presidents to become more creative about reaching out to their audiences. Brooks became AEI´s president in 2009, after Christopher Demuth stepped down after 20 years. He characterises these challenges as exhilarating and fun. However, James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that this approach, combined with less financial resources and more competition due to the appearance of more organisations in the think tank field, is contributing to the large amount of retirements.
McGann also is of the opinion that these think tanks have political considerations in mind when choosing their new leaders. Some have decided to maintain the status quo by choosing new presidents from among their own ranks, as was the case with Rand Corp. and the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Others have behaved differently, like the Centre for American Progress who chose Neera Tanden as its new director, signalling a change by forming part of the new wave of women leaders in positions traditionally filled by men.
In any case, these new leaders have their work cut out for them. Increased competition, donor expectations, the 24 – hour news cycle and the expectation to respond to politics will put a strain on think tanks, particularly when new directors do not have the same relationship with donors as their predecessors did. This means that they will not have the leverage to resist donor requests, and so research will come in danger of being dictated by politics. All of these issues will certainly keep new think tank directors up at night.
I am not yet a full convert to twitter but I am warming up to some of its opportunities. For one, it has become a great search tool. After spending sometime finding people and organisations that I would like to know more about, now I just have to sit back and wait for interesting stuff to be sent my way. No need to search for it.
But it is sometimes too much and not much can be said in 140 characters. So, there, not advocating for it.
However, for think tanks it is not a bad announcement tool and it need not be an expensive addition to their arsenal. The @onthinktanks account, for example, is mainly automatically updated every time I publish a post. No effort.
I have started a couple of experiments. Not all have worked, but maybe with your help they may pick up:
- #workforathinktank as a way of disseminating think tank jobs.
- And then I have created a couple of lists: Latin American tanks with a twitter account (so far I have 41 think tanks and thinktankers and 3 followers) and African think tanks with a twitter account (so far I have none so if you know of any please #thinktanksafrica)
The Latin American list is an interesting exercise. One, it helps to track think tanks in the region (and per country). To find some all I had to do was see how the ones I had were following. But that took me so far. Something I found is that most think tanks were following media outlets and politicians but not other think tanks. At least not as many as I had expected.
Maybe twitter is not yet a good indicator (as uptake is yet to be be what it is often claimed to be) but it could offer an insight into the knowledge networks of think tanks.
So if you know of a think tank that has an account please send it to me or hash-tag it #thinktanksla (for Latin America), #thinktanksafrica (for Africa), #thinktankssouthasia (for South Asia), #thinktankseastasia (for East and South East Asia), #thinktanksmena (for North Africa and the Middle East), #thinktanksoceania (for Oceania), #thinktankseurope (Europe), #thinktanksusacan (for the US and Canada), or just #thinktanks (for all)
Ajoy Datta’s recent blog post asks if developing country think tanks may ever be able to escape their US heritage. He provides some very interesting insights into the research being undertaken by RAPID on think tanks (that I kick started while I was working there) now being led by him. As my comment to his post suggests, I think that the real story coming out of this research is that think tank studies and support interventions should not attempt to remove politics from the equation. The work done by RAPID clearly shows this, and Ajoy presents an excellent case for and many examples to support it.
However, this post (but mostly the post’s title) got me thinking about something that we have been discussing -and that has been at the core of some of the comments that my blog on think tank definitions received.
This line of argument is partly driven by an underlying narrative in the international development community (and that like everything has some aspects of truth): that the North wants to impose its ideas on the South -and force it to accept them even when they may not be relevant. In other words, that context matters so much that everything is relative and everywhere is unique.
But, is research on and the experience of think tanks from developed countries so irrelevant to the study and practice of think tanks elsewhere? This is the line we had been following at ODI -and that I have tentatively put forward in some posts in this blog. In fact a significant part of my critique of James McGann’s index is based on this irrelevance.
I am not so sure any more. For example, German and US policy environments are not the same -they are not even similar- and as a consequence think tanks in both countries are therefore quite different -and so is the think tank community. However, Josef Braml’s work provides an excellent example of how these differences can be used to unearth a great deal of detail on how different contexts have affected the development of different think tank communities and think tanks. He uses the same set of criteria to describe how think tanks in the US and Germany have developed different funding structures, are focused on different audiences, show a different balance between research, consulting and advocacy, have different affiliation arrangements, perceive risk in entirely different ways, their staff follow different career paths, etc. These differences do not make the comparison less interesting and useful; rather they provide a great deal of space for a richer discussion of the nature of think tanks in Germany.
Not only that, it also shows how lessons from the US where the think tank community is more developed have been identified and adapted to the German context.
Think tanks in the US and in Germany (and elsewhere in many developed nations) -and their funders- have in fact (and whether we like it or not) influenced the formation of think tanks in developing countries: in Chile the think tanks that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s were heavily influenced by the support of US and European Foundations and close ties to ‘Northern’ think tanks. In China, independent private think tanks led by international players such as Justin Lin have clear origins in the West. In African, the Ghana based African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) is in fact registered in the US -and by all assessments it has nothing to envy its US counterparts in organisational structure and capacity.
Many think tanks have boards made up of academics and think tankers from developed countries. Have a look at Grupo FARO’s board, for example: it includes Merilee Grindle from Harvard and Andres Mejia from IDS. CEPA’s advisors are equally international –most educated abroad. As advisors to the think tanks they would naturally provide the management with ideas based on their own organisational experiences and it would be up to the think tanks’ directors and senior management to adapt this advice to the local context. (And having provided FARO with some advice I can say that I have seen that process take place –ask, think about the advice, interpret, adapt, prioritise, implement, etc.)
The foundation of think tanks in developing countries is also likely to have been driven by policy entrepreneurs attempting to emulate think tanks in the US and in Europe -inspired and encouraged by their work. In China, the role of ‘returnees’ is critical to the formation of new think tanks –and, according to Cheng Li’s assessment, the Chinese government is actively seeking the development of a US-style revolving door type of think tank. Some think tanks even have foreign leaders.
Even in RAPID we studied think tanks from developed countries like Japan alongside developing countries like Indonesia.
As soon as the Think Tank Initiative announced its winners I (and I am sure others working in developed country think tanks) received a great deal of emails and calls from think tanks in Latin America and Africa asking about visits to ODI and other UK based organisations. And a few have asked me for more specific advice and to share ODI’s experience in adopting a number of internal systems and strategies. In 2009, the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) organised a visit to the UK to meet and talk to researchers, think tanks and policymakers. And other UK based think tanks like IPPR are now working with and mentoring African based think tanks.
So FARO, VASS and others must think that the lessons learned by ODI, IDS, IPPR, Brookings, etc. are relevant to them because otherwise they would not bother visiting them. The suggestion that they are irrelevant would be akin to suggesting that a doctor trained in Canada had nothing to teach doctors elsewhere; that an engineer from the UK or Japan could not build a bridge in Sierra Leone or Sri Lanka. Anatomy and the laws of physics are the same in the north and the south. Practicing medicine and engineering may be different -but never so different that peers would find it impossible to understand each other.
Now having said that, I also believe that lessons learned in Latin America for instance may be more immediately relevant to African think tanks, and that think tank directors from Eastern Europe and East and South East Asia may find that they have quite a lot more in common that they initially thought. So this is not a defense of the ‘North’. In fact, southern doctors probably have a lot to teach their technology dependent colleagues of the north.
The problem is not with where the advice comes from but rather with who gives and receives it.
Advice and lessons are there to be considered, not imposed or copied without a thought. Even good advice requires an intelligent and critical audience to make good use of it: those asking for it are expected to decide how to use it. My colleagues at RAPID and CIPPEC, with whom we have worked in delivering support to think tanks across the world, would agree with me in that their favourite advisory projects are the ones where their recommendations have been challenged and they have been forced redo their workshops or rush back to the hotel to consult via skype with the rest of the team and search of answers to really good questions.
Our research and this blog can only provide what I hope is accurate and useful information, measured advice and encourage a critical and insightful deliberation of options and ways forward.
So I think that, properly used, the literature on and experience of think tanks in the US are relevant -and they are more so because the literature on think tanks elsewhere is limited.
As think tank researchers we should be focusing on translating good lessons into good practice, but certainly not dismissing them ex-ante because they come from ‘the North’ -wherever that place may be.
What we are doing is (I hate this phrase, but cannot think of any other at this time of night) throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We disagree with the definition of think tanks coming from the US because it tends to exclude a great number of other organisations -university research centres, government research bodies, etc.- that fulfil the same functions in other contexts where the conditions (formal and informal) that have promoted the formation of US-style think tanks do not exist. But this should not prevent us from drawing inspiration and lessons from a rich think tank tradition and an equally rich think tank literature.
As I have mentioned before, I am working on a book on think tanks in developing countries -the focus is changing towards the analysis of think tanks influence, though. This first stage has me working on a literature review and, as promised, here as some ideas that I’d like to share with you.
One of the first questions I’ve had to address is how to define think tanks?
After going through a long list of definitions and descriptions of think tanks I’ve decided to organise these different types of definitions or descriptions (and the criteria used) in the following way (please note, I am not providing a list of definitions from the literature just the ways in which the issue of defining or describing think tanks has been approached by various authors):
- Legal definitions -for example 501 (c) (3) organisations in the U.S.– and narrative, normative definitions that emphasise their independence, non-profit status, non-partisan, etc.
- Categories or types of think tanks, described by:
- Size and focus: e.g. large and diversified, large and specialised, small and specialised (Weidenbaum, 2009)
- Evolution of stage of development: e.g. first (small), second (small to large but more complex projects), and third (larger and policy influence) stages (Struyk R. J., 2006)
- Strategy, including:
- Funding sources (individuals, corporations, foundations, donors/governments, endowments, sales/events) (Weidenbaum, 2009) and business model (independent research, contract work, advocacy) (Abelson D. E., 2006) (Abelson D. E., 2009) (Belletini, 2007) (Ricci, 1993) (Rich, 2006) (Reinicke, 1996) (Smith, 1991) (Weaver, 1989) (Braml, 2004)
- The balance between research, consultancy/advisory work and advocacy
- The source of their arguments: Ideology, values or interests; applied, empirical or synthesis research; or theoretical or academic research (from a conversation with Stephen Yeo)
- The manner in which the research agenda is developed: e.g. by senior members of the think tank or by individual researchers; or by the think tank of their funders (Braml, 2004)
- Their influencing approaches and tactics (many researchers but an interesting one comes from Abelson D. E., 2009) and the time horizon for their strategies: long term and short term mobilisation (Ricci, 1993) (Weidenbaum, 2009)
- Their various audiences of the think tanks (audiences as consumers and public -this merits another blog; soon) (again, many authors, but Zufeng, 2009 provides a good framework for China)
- Affiliation, which refers to the issue of independence (or autonomy which may be a better concept to focus on) but also includes think tanks with formal and informal links to political parties, interest groups and other political players (Weaver, 1989) (Braml, 2004) (Snowdon, 2010)
- Relational definitions that refer to the self-identification as think tank in relation to other organisations that may play similar, overlapping or complementary roles. I have written quite a bit about this in this blog.
- And functional, focusing on the functions played by think tanks and including (taken from quite a few authors but particularly Belletini, 2007, Mendizabal & Sample, 2009, Gusternson, 2009, and Tanner, 2002):
- Providing ideas, people, access
- Creating, maintaining, opening spaces
- As boundary workers or windows into the policymaking process -and into other spaces (this comes from the literature on think tanks in China where think tanks are described as windows that allowed Chinese policymakers to look into Western policy communities and societies -as well as allowing western policymakers and scholars to look into Chinese policymaking communities.
- Channels of resources to political parties, interest groups, leaders
- Legitimising ideas, policies and practices -and individuals or groups
- Monitoring and auditing public policy and behaviour
- Public and elite (including policymakers) education (something often forgotten by many think tanks as it is certainly difficult to assess its impact).
What do you think? Or maybe James McGaan is right and we’ll know one when we see it.
Now, please answer the poll:
Warning: This is NOT a 1-pager. Jason Stahl spent a year studying the records of the Library of Congress so, if you have an hour (well, his talk is only 30 minutes long), and want to understand the sudden rise of conservative think tanks in the 1970s, then watch this. Really, watch it.
But if you have access to Daniel Ricci’s The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks, then read it. He traces the main social, economic and political trends that transformed American Politics and their effect on the current ‘ideas marketplace': the growth of expertise and professionalism, the dissonance of values and the collapse of traditional civil and political religion, the rise of marketing and its adoption by traditional and new think tanks and politicians, and the increasing disorder in political institutions -partly generated by the very advice marketed by think tanks:
Ricci argues that since the late 1960s Americans have lost sight of the familiar guidelines that used to help them assess issues and have become more hospitable to think tank research and advice. He examines the flood of policy-relevant information that has resulted from the growth of expertise and the advent of big government; the confusion over national goals that comes from the decline of the Protestant ethic and the empowerment of minorities; the growing influence of television and its focus on instant testimony from experts; political changes such as the decline of parties, the move to an “open” Congress, and the growth of an independent presidency; the pervasive power of modern marketing; and much more. According to Ricci, policy ideas generated by think-tank research and commentary are helpful in providing greater objectivity and political insight, not only because of their general reliability but also because in their ideological variety think tanks generate a substantial range of policy proposals, giving voice to a healthy factional pluralism and facilitating a constant testing of ideas. In today’s dissonant politics, Ricci concludes, think tanks contribute some order—and occasionally wisdom—in the ongoing battle in Washington over political ideas.
I’ll come back to Ricci soon. Now watch the video.