Do not dumb down you audience –or rather, how should think tanks affect policy chance?

12 November 2015

[Editor’s note: This is the long version of a presentation I gave at the Global Health Programme in Geneva on the 12th November, on the role of think tanks in global health policy.]

This is my presentation, divided into three parts:

  • I am going to refer to a case in which influence was, in my view, not as good as it sounds… And this particular case is what got me started down a path of questioning the whole policy influencing agenda that we so often associate with any talk about think tanks.
  • I will outline my main concerns with the manner in which think tanks, sometimes, go about seeking (and achieving) influence. Here I will suggest that think tanks may sometimes undermine democracy.
  • Finally, I will outline some characteristics of a model (or models) of what I would consider ‘good’ influence.

All of this, of course, very much aware that this is my view and that you may very well disagree –and that I may be wrong.

But I am fine with that.

Undue influence?

In 2009 I was asked to carry out a study on DFID’s approach to influencing health policy around the world. I was working at ODI at the time and we put together a report drawing from cases from DFID’s influencing efforts at the national and international level. We had cases from the Global Fund, Zambia, Nigeria, Mozambique, India and Nepal.

The Zambian case is particularly interesting –and I remember it better than the others because I went on to work in Zambia setting up a think tank support programme (more on that later).

The report, in the case of Zambia, reads: “Most of the dialogue happened on a bilateral basis between DFID and the MoH.”

DFID was extremely influential. They commissioned research, worked with different levels of government. Supported the MoH, It was proactive and led discussions at the donor groups. DFID offered to cover the costs involved in removing user fees in the health sector.

The policy changed. And it changed in a way that made DFID very happy. And they were quick to claim that policy change on them.

(I am not going to get into a discussion on how it is not possible for anyone but the person or people responsible for making the policy decision to claim anything other than a vague contribution… I’ve written about this: who is responsible for research uptake?)

But was DFID’s approach right?

I was left with sour taste. Abolishing user fees isn’t a small technical matter. Abolishing them –just like introducing them- is a significant political event. It marks a significant change (a traumatic change) in the social contract that a society has with the state.

This is not something that is decided solely on the basis of “evidence”. It is much more about values –politics- than anything else.

Ask yourselves this question: what would we say, in Europe, if USAID or the Chinese government funded think tanks and other groups in Europe with the explicit purpose of reforming our welfare state to look more like the one they have. What would the public say if it found out that our leaders were having private meetings to discuss these changes?

Brookings and the Center for Global Development in DC are now in trouble for receiving funds from foreign governments –including the Norwegians. They are in trouble with the democrats!

In the most developed or mature democracies and in the most institutionalised states think tanks have a place –and it is clear to all that they are not and cannot claim to be responsible for policy. Other may, but not them.

A threat to democracy?

This takes me to the second point. There is a reason for why think tanks are under constant threat of being seen as too influential.

Policy is important, sure; but policymaking, in the long term, is far more. Good policymaking can improve the chances of good policy (most of the time) but a good policy can be a matter of pure luck and circumstance. It can easily be undone.

In 2009, too, around the same time as we were doing the study of DFID’s influence, I edited a book on the relationship between think tanks and political parties in Latin America. What is interesting about this book is that political scientists disconnected from the Aid and “global think tanks” world wrote it. Back then, the label was not being used –the TTI had not started yet. So they took a rather non-committed approach towards think tanks.

Something similar emerged in their studies. Among the many fascinating stories they wrote about there was a very clear general conclusion; something that Tomas Medvetz has also written about:

In countries where political parties were weak some think tanks took on some of the parties’ programmatic roles: either through informal connections between politicians and researchers, or through the direct involvement of their leaders in politics, or through the good-old revolving door model.

You may say there was nothing wrong with this but the studies suggested that this also reflected a privatization of public policy and the undermining of any efforts to strengthen political parties.

A self-fulfilling prophecy: Parties are weak; lets not work with them; let’s go straight to government; parties remain weak.

The same issue came up again a year later in 2010 when I started working on On Think Tanks and came across a reference from Woodrow Wilson warning that the involvement of experts in government where a threat to democracy because they were increasingly reducing the spaces in which the public could have meaningful debates about issues of public interest. (All this, of course, aware that Wilson was a liberal who believed the public knew better on matters of public interest.)

The rise of think tanks over the course of the 20th Century (historically speaking) in associated with the rise of the very powerful evidence-based narrative and the privatisation of politics and policy -away from citizens, political parties, and elected officials and towards, appointed technocrats, think tanks, and consultants.

You see this happening, at different moments, in the US, in Argentina, and recently in other countries in Latin America and Africa.

But something else is happening today. Think tanks’ own drive to influence is more than matched by some of their funders’ thirst and impatience for impact.

Last week we published an article by Glen Savage on Australian think tanks in which he argues that they are undermining democracy. He is not alone in this –and most critics of think tanks in the US and the UK would hold the same view that they are too political; often wielding more power than they should.

The argument Savage makes is this: Think tanks, some extremely well-funded (often –and as is the case of the think tanks he talks about- by foreign governments and foundations), use the claim to be “evidence-based” and state-of-the-art communications to change policy by influencing public opinion, lobbying policymakers, and all but co-opting the academic community and intellectual debate.

This isn’t hard: when all the money funds policy A then do not be surprised if all think tanks back policy A.

Rather than promote a debate or encourage the development of capacities in parties and government to make the most informed decisions (and also in the media, academia, business, civil society) these well-funded think tanks are accused of exploiting their weaknesses to control the outcome of the policy process.

(I should raise my hands and accept that all those years working with think tanks to help them develop better policy influencing strategies that is exactly what we did: understand your target audience and take advantage of any of their weaknesses.)

The point that Savage and Wilson, and many others, are trying to make is that politics (the decisions of who wins and who loses) should be for the public not for technocrats.

They lack the legitimacy to make these choices.

They should aim not for policy influence but for more informed policy –whatever the policy outcome.

And there is a practical argument for it, too. In their excellent book, The Blunders of our Governments,Anthony King and Ivor Crew document a series of policies that went terribly wrong in the UK. Underlying all these blunders is a failure to listen and to engage with alternative views. Brilliant people with seemingly brilliant ideas (even technically sound at the time) walked straight into walls and off cliffs –and few saw it coming.

So what can think tanks do?

Or better yet, what should think tanks do? Or what should think tanks and their funders do?

Now I must insist. This is my own view. I do not like the approach that the Aid industry has taken that aims to achieve targets regardless of the means –or, as in the case of think tanks, that focus solely on impact that can be attributable to them.

I’ve had the luck of comparing policy debates in both Peru and the UK (and being interested in their outcomes) and I know which one I prefer.

I may not always agree with the outcome but I do not feel cheated; bypassed; or undermined as a citizen.

Also, I’ve seen how policies pushed through by technocrats have been rejected and even overturned. There are a couple of very interesting cases in Peru that are worth studying.

I believe that evidence is important but limited. It can tell me “what is”; but not what to do.

So, in the long run we are better-off if parties, governments, academics, the media, the private sector, civil society and the public in general have the capacity to participate –informed and meaningfully.

Think tanks in particular should be concerned about this, as it is clear that they cannot survive as islands of excellence surrounded by weak and mediocre institutions.

So two approaches come to mind that I think are worth considering:

The think tanks community approach

The Zambia Economic Advocacy Programme was set up about 3 years ago to improve the quality of the economic policy debate in Zambia. I still cannot believe that this got through at DFID. We wrote the business plan and were sure it would be rejected.

The programme design is rather simple. ZEAP supports several think tanks in the country (offering some funds but mostly mentoring) to work on (very likely) the same or similar issues and encourages them to communicate and debate them publicly.

The original idea included offering the same mentoring to researchers and communicators in business organisations, NGOs and the media. But we cannot ask for too much.

The idea here is that no single think tank could claim impact –but that was not the point. They could all claim to have been involved in generation of strong and useful policy debates.

For a funder this is a win-win situation. Whatever happens they can claim that the policy adopted was supported by a think tank they supported. Nobody needs to know they placed a bet on every horse.

The Social Development Goals university

Universidad del Pacífico in Peru is working on a new effort to become the go-to-place for anything that has to do with SDGs in Latin America. And it is working on two fronts:

  • An initiative, initially funded by the university itself, to study the age-old question of how to operationalise the SDGs at the local level and to find the best mix of policy interventions to ensure that no one is left behind. The innovation here is that UP is going to put up most of the funds but it won’t restrict them to its own researchers. It wants to reach out to experts across the region (and beyond). This is likely to fund views that researchers in the university may disagree with –but this is more of less the point. This public debate is more interesting and appealing that a single-minded discourse.
  • The second front is through the formation of a future generation of “SDG entrepreneurs”. Starting with an undergraduate course and a postgraduate degree this year the university wants to train future generations of researchers, policymakers, business leaders, opinion leaders, etc. that are well-versed on and committed to meeting the goals. In doing so, like DFID in Zambia, it is potentially helping to develop new generations of intellectual opposition.

ZEAP and UP are counting on two key roles of think tanks that often go unnoticed (it is, after all, not as sexy as policy influence): 1) Convening and 2) capacity building or educating the elites and the public.

It is what Jeffrey Puryear, writing about the role of think tanks in Chile’s return to democracy, said was the most important contribution.

More so than the policies that most of the heads of think tanks in Chile took to the new government in the 1990s when they joined a cabinet made up almost entirely of former thinktankers.

For Puryear the most important contribution was psychological.

Think tanks emerged in the 70s after academics had to leave universities and focused, at first, in an effort of self-reflection: trying to understand what had happened? How and why had Chile left behind its long democratic tradition? They then turned their attention to new ideas for policy: practical, down to earth, and able to challenge the free-market economics the government was promoting.

But then they began to focus on the political leaders of the left. They realised that the opposition had no capacity to govern. It was broken up into small factions. None had programmatic capacity. Few could talk to each other. They didn’t know how to govern.

During the 80s then, Chilean think tanks, sought to generate and maintain spaces in which political leaders could re-train and learn how to work in a democratic context. The nature of their events reflected this.

So Puryear implies that Chile’s success in the 1990s is down not to the technocrats that joined the government after the fall of Pinochet, but to the fact that the politicians that led the government were capable to do so. And this was down to how Chilean think tanks chose to influence.