A Tale of Two Think Tank Summits

16 September 2015

[Editor’s note: José luis Chicoma is Executive Director of Ethos, a Mexican think tank.]

In recent months, Ethos has participated in two think tank summits: The North American Think Tank Summit held in Washington, DC, and the G20 Think Tank Summit, which took place in Beijing.

Perhaps one of the main outcomes of these meetings is catharsis. It’s inevitable that when one meets with people that have undergone “similar emotions”, a cathartic experience is generated. In the case of many think tanks that participate in these summits, the common ground for this catharsis, i.e., the challenges that we face day to day, are similar. Among many other questions we face those such as: how do we have greater impact on public policy? Will we be persuasive or confrontational? How do we build better relationships with the media? How do we get more funding without losing our independence?

North American Think Tank Summit

The North American Think Tank Summit, hosted by the Woodrow Wilson Center, was designed precisely to generate this exchange of experiences between more than seventy organizations from Canada, Mexico and the United States. The diversity of the participants enriched this exchange. The concept of think tanks is like an umbrella opening up and covering a very wide range of organizations, differentiated in several aspects: ideologically oriented or pragmatic, generalists or specialists, and academics or activists, among other categories.

The differences among the organizations are even bigger due to the varying country contexts. Some of the smallest think tanks of the U.S. are the same size as the biggest in Mexico. And whereas in Mexico the murder of journalists is a serious problem, one of the media’s principal concerns in U.S. is access to a White House fascinated with social networks.

Nevertheless, many challenges are shared across borders and political contexts. We debated how to improve the recruitment and sustaining of human resources in a context in which both public and private sectors can offer better incentives. We discussed how to develop new business strategies and models to manage shifts in funding, and how to maintain and improve the quality and integrity of our research, when many of us must dedicate a great portion of our time to fundraising. Personally, my attention was drawn towards three overarching themes of the sessions and of course the always revealing coffee break conversations.

The first one, the democratization of the media, constant and dramatic in its intensity, generates many challenges, making think tanks adapt to faster flows and quantity of information. Because our organizations are used to creating long-form documents, it is a challenge for us to adapt to a present of 140 characters and a possible future of micro-news for the i-Watch. It is therefore urgent that we stop creating things in an inertial way, and move from the “PDF” towards other means. This does not necessarily imply capturing all the social networks, since many are only for short-lived, new and fleeting attention. Perhaps Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are more relevant outlets for our audience, and less so Instagram. But it is also important to create platforms for immersion into experiences and interaction: reading, watching and listening. The production technology does not have to be expensive: from basic infographics that simplify a complex study, to a podcast going viral (CSIS has approximately two million downloads, still not at the level of This American Life, but impressive for a think tank).

The second topic, transparency, is a constant in think tank discussions. We always recognize the need to provide more information about funding. However, the topic acquired special attention in U.S.; the controversial New York Times article that accused many prestigious think tanks of defending foreign interests, which generated an energetic response by the think tanks in question, and placed the topic on the front page (Hillary Clinton isn’t the only one who’s upset with the media coverage). And perhaps the most important lesson of this is that it is difficult to convey the particular nature of think tanks, and how some of us struggle to have more impact in an environment with fierce competition and limited resources, in which more than a few wouldn’t survive without international funding. For that reason, in addition to the effort of increasing transparency,, we should proactively generate increased and informed public debate about the role of  think tanks in democracy and how it could be improved.

Finally, the third topic, innovation, which is the basis for survival in any sector. Particularly, in the “ideas industry”, where it is crucial to be one step ahead in order to propose better ways of governing and policy-making. Therefore, although it is natural that a think tank staff is composed of “recovering” politicians, public officers, and journalists, it is also important to engage multi-disciplinary talent to foster creativity. This ranges from additional graphic designers for better communication to programmers for improved big data processing. And also to move from centralized offices, to more mobile organizations, with staff members located in different places around the country, in order to have both a more integrated perspective and impact locally.

Washington DC, the host city, was ideal for this meeting. It is home to an impressive cluster of think tanks. If just recently DC was known for the concentration of lobbyists firms in K Street, or Embassy Row in Massachusetts Ave. there is now a Think Tank Row to add to the map. This was coined by James McGann, Director of Think Tanks and Civil Society Program of the University of Pennsylvania, the promoter and organizer of these summits all around the world. Thanks to his leadership and ability to connect and create networks, these regional summits are held in Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and augmented by a global summit, and provide the ideal setting in which think tanks from all over the world can learn from their peers so that we can all improve our management and impact.

The G20 Think Tank Summit

In Beijing, the other political capital of the world, a very different type of meeting took place. The G20 Think Tank Summit, more than a meeting for exchanging experiences, had as thematic axis the debate about the role that think tanks can play in the G20 agenda. While other meetings about the same topic have already taken place, but this one is the third organized by the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies of Renmin University.

The dynamism of the Chongyang Institute reflects the recent importance that this type of organization has in China. A few years ago, Monocle magazine, in its annual Soft Power ranking, recognized Confucius Institutes as a tool to increase Chinese influence at a global level. Now, think tanks seem to complement this strategy. From the governmental goal to establish at least 100 Chinese think tanks at national level, to a new wave of organizations that are very active, at national and international levels, emphasis is on expanding the Chinese “industry of ideas”.

The G20 presents an ideal problematic for the participation of think tanks. Since the new focus that was given to the G20 in 2008 financial crisis, it has faced many challenges both with its governance and topics of focus. Although it still does not have an established secretariat, the creation of one is always debated. Despite having worked adequately to coordinate efforts during the crisis, it doesn’t have binding or efficient mechanisms to implement decisions.  Further, it moved from a context that prioritized concentrating resources in controlling a crisis, to one which the requirements can broaden the group agenda, from further involvement in climate change, to the implementation of anti-corruption actions.

At the forefront of the agenda, with a dynamic and changing nature, the role of think tanks is more relevant, given that we devote our time to researching new topics and driving their implementation. Therefore, in the Summit we debated new ideas about the G20’s  , and how it could support additional areas, ranging from green innovation to youth opportunities.

Perhaps the most important lesson about debating topics between think tanks, is that despite the big thematic, cultural, political, communication and style differences, working together allows us to see that we agree on more than first expected, and that if we work collaboratively through networks our voice is strengthened. The best thing that one think tank can say about a global topic, can get lost in the abundance of information. What dozens of think tanks say together, will have impact.