A new think tank model: a focus on productive sectors

24 August 2011

A few posts ago I wrote about the idea of setting up think tanks around natural resources (although the idea is perfectly valid for any productive sector).

[Sector] Think tanks can be a great engine of change. They can take on the interests of the industry and the wider public and pursue policy options that governments are sometimes unable to contemplate until they are sure things. Think tanks can help to establish alliances with peer organisations in other countries without the bureaucratic difficulties that the public sector has or the concerns for competition that are common in the private sector. Unlike lobbies or interest groups they can remain neutral or at least ensure that different options are considered and discussed publicly. Their interests, if well-funded and managed, can the long-term interests of their sectors and countries.

I even suggested a few candidates for think tanks in many developing countries looking at Tourism, mining, tobacco, oil and gas, financial services, et cetera. And I think I will add tourism for my plans for Peru.

I also provided some ideas of what the model could look like:

The initial investments need not be terribly large. These think tanks could start quite modestly by providing a medium to channel knowledge and expertise from around the world into the national and local policy debate. A few good analysts and a competent policy communicator would probably do for the first year. An alliance with a university could create opportunities for original research being produced in-country and to channel new knowledge into the education system through undergraduate and postgraduate courses. Partnerships with the private sector would be essential to ensure that their work is relevant to the sector.

These think tanks could focus their attention at three levels:

  1. The policy environment: research and analysis to develop recommendations directed at improving the policy environment that affects the sector
  2. The business environment: research, analysis and direct support aimed at strengthening the capacity of existing and future businesses to further develop the industry –sustainably, responsibly, etc.
  3. The art and science of the sector: (maybe in the long-term) aimed at improving the evidence base of the sector –for example, research into new varieties of timber, into new ways of treating mineral waste, into the commercialisation of new agricultural products, the use of new seeds, etc.

I have now given this a bit more thought and I think there is much more to this than I first considered.

Policy coherence

Governments often struggle to get their many ministries and public institutions to work together. Government sectors are usually matched by think tanks and consultancies that arrange their businesses along the same lines: health, education, transport, natural resources, taxing, etc. If there is a ministry then it is likely that there will be a think tank programme to match it (or at least an NGO to campaign about something). In an attempt to address this compartmentalisation of policy, a number of ‘cross-cutting’ issues have been promoted by donors, governments, NGOs and think tanks alike: gender, governance, human rights, etc.. But these have done little to bring coherence to public policy. In general, these specialisations only help to segment the market even further and create silos promoted by new ‘experts’.

Productive sector think tanks could be the solution. To strengthen the tourism industry, for instance, policy recommendations would have to involve not just the Ministry of Tourism, but also transport (we need roads, airports, airline routes, etc.), education (we need hospitality graduates), health and sanitation (we need to make sure tourists do not catch some strange disease), environment (we need to preserve the environment to attract more tourists and ensure that tourism does not affect it), culture, trade, taxation, labour, etc.

Unlike the usual approach of trying to get them all to coordinate at a fairly abstract level (‘develop the country’, ‘reduce poverty’, ‘meet the MDGs’, etc.) in this case they would be working together to achieve much more tangible objectives: to make the industry competitive, to increase the number of tourists, to develop new tourism attractions, etc. It would then be much easier for think tanks to make very clear and costed recommendations -clear and tangible enough for policymakers to get on with them and know exactly how they are contributing towards the stated objectives.

Developing an expert cadre

Sector think tanks could serve another important function: to develop new generations of experts. With a focus on the sector, your economists, engineers, lawyers, medical doctors, agronomists, etc. could quickly develop their analytical skills, learn about good practices and lessons from around the world, establish and strengthen links and networks with more experienced national, regional and international experts, and become experts in their own right.

Both the public and the private sectors would benefit from this: the public sector would have a pick of competent analysts and policymakers, while the private sector may find in these new experts excellent strategists and consultants.

If these career paths are properly developed then young graduates would naturally covet these positions and the think tanks would find it increasingly easier to find the right staff for their purposes.

Is this just another way of funding lobbies?

No. First of all, I am not suggesting that these think tanks should be supported by Aid (they could be given some seed funding but in the end their main funders should be the industry and the government through no-strings-attached arrangements).

Secondly, the point of setting up a think tank is to make it independent of the individual and private interests of the sector and its corporate members. A think tank, a not-for -profit, is governed by different rules than those governing lobbies or corporations, and can be expected to be public in its dealings. Whereas private companies tend to hide their influencing practices, what the think tank does, how it pays for it, its research base, its links, etc. can be known to all.

Finally, setting up and funding a sector think tank can also help the industry itself by promoting better business practices (better wages, environmentally friendly practices, etc.). In this sense it would be in fact advocating in favour of the public rather than the industry.

What do you think? Is there any more to this? Is it worth pursuing further? I would really like to know what you think.