An evolving wave in think tank policy development

18 May 2021

An important line of analytic development has been underway for a decade or more, with a new group of actors emerging. The primary differentiating characteristic of this emerging group is much greater involvement of intended beneficiaries and front-line programme administrators in public policy/programme development and related assessments.

The long-standing model  

Traditionally, think tanks identify the most desirable policy/programme through a process in which a problem is defined qualitatively and quantitatively, options for addressing it are defined using both conceptual and empirical analyses, criteria for assessing the efficacy of all options defined and then applied to each alternative, and the most effective option tentatively identified.  Fairly senior level officials in relevant government agencies and concerned public interest groups are consulted about the tentative results and the final choice is made.

Generally, the process has included little consultation with intended grassroots organisations working with the intended programme beneficiaries or the front-line offices that would administer the programme.

An evolving paradigm

Over the years, a different, broader approach has evolved and has been adopted in various ways by a number of organisations, some with a think tank heritage. The policy design effort varies from the long-standing think tank model:

  • Substantially more information is developed as the basis for a design decision. In-depth consultations are held with front-line administrators and eligible households, firms, or other beneficiary types at successive stages in the program development process. Additional data are generated as programme design evolves from new surveys of front-line administrators on inefficiencies (e.g., difficulties in applying eligibility rules) and beneficiaries (e.g., confusion on rules governing benefits).
  • After an initial round of analysis of options, it is common to implement and evaluate pilot programmes. Staff often live in the locales where pilots are implemented to be able to monitor all facets of information gathering and augment formal data acquisition with informal discussions and observations.

The new approach is championed by some as producing more appropriately designed interventions, even though they may cost more in money and time to develop.  They can argue that the higher initial costs are preferred to the expenditures of having to redesign interventions to achieve comparable levels of effectiveness.

The in-depth consulting with a broader range of groups – actually engaging in co-creating the intervention – is the heart of the process. This requires an organisational structure and activities that are different from that of classic think tanks. For example:

  • The lead organisation’s staff has a much broader range of backgrounds than is currently typical at most think tanks. Backgrounds should overlap with those of population of interest.
  • Working closely/partnering with local organisations – government officials, civil society organisations, other think tanks. This often requires having staff resident in the localities where major projects are underway, be a project in the think tank’s home country or elsewhere.
  • Consulting early and often with relevant local, regional and national government officials and stakeholders (as opposed to the ‘helicopter model’).

The goal is for policy options to be built from the ground up as information is gathered.  Formal demonstration or pilot projects are a common tool, as noted.  Multiple designs can be tested, perhaps fielded sequentially as lessons are learned are tested.

Consistent with the greater focus on programme design and administration, the related publications that think tanks produced under this new paradigm are less academic and much less frequently targeted at the traditional journals.  Lucid descriptions accessible to the wide range of the parties involved more often become the format of choice.

Logically one would anticipate this type of co-creation approach to be particularly effective for social programmes, including health and education, as well as client-targeted poverty reduction initiatives such as active labour market programmes – for example, training for unemployed workers. Indeed, most applications of this new model to date seem to be in such sectors. +

Who is adopting this approach?

A decade ago, nearly all adopters would have been classified as think tanks.  But some organisations in this group increasingly eschew the label as inaccurate. The word ‘tank’ has always had a closed connotation – the place where certain elites work and others get to look in from the outside.

It has been suggested that the label ‘think tank’ should be replaced with something more welcoming.  Some think tank-like organisations call themselves ‘labs,’ for example, the Poverty Lab at MIT. But that still seems elitist to some.  Some are using the phrase ‘think-and-do tank’ or ‘think-and-action tank’.  At this point no common moniker exists.

One attribute that organisations with this broader but deeper approach to policy development seem to share is that they are relatively young – created in the last 20-25 years.  Two organisations that are clearly in this group are the Results for Development Institute and the New America Foundation.

The leader of the New America Foundation, Anne-Marie Slaughter, made a strong case for this approach in her keynote presentation, ‘From think tank to change hub’ at the recent OTT Conference 2021: Think tanks and change.

One can obtain a good sense of the differences in approaches between these new organisations and traditional think tanks like the Brookings Institution and NORC at the University of Chicago, by contrasting the descriptions in the ‘what we do’ and the ‘who we are’ sections of their websites.

There is a parallel rapid development taking place by another group:  Global Community of Practice on Scaling Development Outcomes.  Here ‘scaling’ refers to increasing the number of persons or firms participating in a programme, i.e., expanding the programme’s scale.  The Community, founded six years ago with a current membership exceeding 700 people from over 200 organisations, is fighting against isolated demonstration projects that are often conducted in privileged circumstances that cannot be replicated when the tested programmes are implemented on a larger scale with fewer administrative resources per participant.  The new approach is then often abandoned when it does not deliver the expected outcomes. The following statement in a recent posting on the OTT blog makes the point vividly:

‘It is high time that the development community gets beyond the prevalent focus on one-off projects, beyond “pilots to nowhere,” beyond throwing everything we have at “our” project to make it work while forgetting what happen when it ends.’ +

Evidently, deeper consultation – actually, genuine partnerships would be much better– with beneficiary organisations and government agencies at all levels.+

Going forward

How widely this rapidly evolving co-creational approach, with its extensive partnering, is adopted by traditional think tanks is an open question.  Some, like the Urban Institute with its Research to Action Lab, already have teams dedicated to much deeper programme design partnerships with sub-national governments. Clearly, the trend toward co-creation is a development warranting wide dissemination and monitoring.