How can think tanks be agents of social change?

12 June 2017

Across the world, the numbers of think tanks have surged as both thinktankers and their funders realise that, by promising at least part of the credibility awarded to universities and the dynamism one would expect from activist NGOs, they make for an effective policy influencing vehicle. Think tanks have become useful tools to advance the interests of a wide range of parties: from climate change deniers promoting a roll-back on green policies on one hand to international development foundations advocating for improvements in education policy.

Think tanks have emerged from a long history of work at the margins and in the shadows of academia, politics, the market and the media to take centre stage in the grand play of policymaking. They are not new by any accounts. The RSA is possibly the oldest think tank still in existence. In Latin America, the now defunct learned society, Sociedad Académica de Amantes del País in Peru, founded in 1790, predates all the modern US and British think tanks we associate to the label.

The 20th Century, however, saw a consistent growth in the number and traditions of think tanks. But only recently have we witnessed a boom in the sector. At On Think Tanks we have documented and studied these institutions since 2010.

Part of this greater global interest can be attributed to a shift in international development funding towards think tanks. Long term programmes such as the Africa Capacity Development Foundation, Think Tanks Initiative, the Open Society Foundations’ Think Tank Fund, the Knowledge Sector Initiative in Indonesia and relatively smaller efforts at the national level (such as the Zambia Economic Advocacy Programme) have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into think tanks across the developing world and emerging economies. Global funders such as the Hewlett and Gates foundations, the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) have raised their support for think tanks over the last decade, too.

This Aid-driven growth, however, has been more than matched by the Chinese experience where a sudden explosion of think tanks can be explained by a nation-wide policy (rather vague in detail but clear in intention) for more think tanks with Chinese characteristics.

In reality, though, many of these new think tanks have simply relabelled themselves. Research centres and NGOs have adopted the think tank label to access new funds and to join new networks popping up around these efforts. The private sector has joined the hype, too: some consultancy firms now present their research arms as think tanks and, in some cases, they have gone as far as founding their own think tanks. Developing country governments have scrambled to relabel existing research institutes or teams or set-up new think tanks, often mistakenly assuming this is a common practice in the West and a guarantee for evidence based policy. Such is the extend of the relabelling that defining the boundaries between think tanks, universities, consultancies, NGOs, the media and policy units has become an art-form.

In many emerging economies, real new think tanks have been founded, in part in response to the increasingly popular narrative that think tanks are the most effective vehicles to support evidence based policy. But also as an alternative career path for new generations of policy entrepreneurs who refuse to join traditional hierarchical and exclusive research organisations.

Unfortunately, the prevailing narrative driving mainstream think tank funders and leaders remains the rather simplistic ideal of evidence based (or informed) policy or, as it is often put: from research to policy. New generation recognise that different pathways to change are necessary.

Not only policy ideas

The development and promotion of evidence based policy recommendations are think tanks’ most popular and better known functions. This is why most international development funders prefer to support them over their more academic or participatory relatives in universities and civil society, respectively. The imperatives of the results agenda and impact philanthropy demand that development agencies and foundations seek out grantees most likely to deliver short term change.

However, think tanks serve many other functions of equal or greater value for promoting good policymaking and governance; and, ultimately, good policy outcomes.  By focusing on their direct impact on policy, their supporters, think tanks themselves and those who report on them, such as the media, undermine their capacity to make more sustainable contributions to their societies.

To begin with, influence is not always a good thing. Think tanks trade in uncertainties. Their recommendations may be informed by research based evidence but are guided and honed by values. Inevitably, then, they have contributed to the promotion of blunders of historic proportions; such as when they peddled structural adjustment policies and aid conditionality throughout the developing world.

The way they seek to influence matters as well. Their interventions, particularly in relatively weak or fragile democracies, can undermine the capacity of other institutions to play their part.

For instance, well-funded think tanks in a developing country can be guilty of poaching researchers from universities, further depleting their capacity to undertake longer term research and develop the country’s human capital. Well-connected think tanks can create and take advantage of spaces of influence closed to other civil society organisations and the broader public, thus encouraging decisions that are mired by groupthink and the risk of capture by private and foreign interests.

If we turn to their other functions, however, we may begin to appreciate the many positive contributions they can make towards social progress.

Think tanks are training grounds for future policymakers. Their staff have the chance to develop strong analytical skills, a good balance between academic rigour and political relevance, and the necessary competencies to develop and communicate convincing public policy arguments. Think tanks also help senior policymakers to critically reflect on their experiences, develop new ideas, and launch new efforts to bring about change. British think tanks, such as the Institute for Government, are well known for this function. Investing in them, in the right principles and approaches, may help develop countless generations of policymakers who both competent in using evidence and promoting the right public values.

They are also well placed for creating and nurturing spaces for policy debate in which new relationships may be forged and strengthened. Jeffrey Puryear, who studied think tanks in Chile, argued that their main contribution to Chilean democratic governance was not intellectual but rather psychological. In the 1980s, Chilean think tanks focused their attention on creating and facilitating spaces for deliberation between researchers and political actors from the different factions that made up the opposition to the military regime. Over time, the events, particularly how they were designed, helped to foster better relationships between these factions, developed an ideological consensus and supported the launch of a single strategy to usher in a new democratic era.

Think tanks are increasingly paying attention to efforts to educate the public; beyond the elites. Their communications efforts do not need to be entirely focused on decision-makers in government but can in fact turn towards helping to inform public discussions and empower hitherto excluded parties to participate in policy debates. They can do so by communicating their evidence and arguments directly to the public, supporting the development of the media and other intermediary institutions, and striving to explain the problems we all face just as much as the solutions they offer.

Finally, think tanks can offer a reliable and neutral voice. In countries where the political debate is poorly informed and where the public has little of no trust in their governments, think tanks can emerge as a lifeline. Even in the UK, where by-and-large the public does not expect government bodies to outright lie about the claims made of the budget every year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has emerged as a fact checker on budget day and economic policy more generally. The media rely on its analysis to balance the government’s own; and so do all political parties, ruling or in opposition. Imagine, then, the powerful impact that a think tank of its calibre could have for political, social and economic stability in Peru, Uganda or Pakistan.

Think tanks are not the only solution

Think tanks can fulfil the positive functions described above because they occupy a space in the margins of other institutions. They define themselves by their proximity to and separation from academia, the media, government and political parties, the market and philanthropy, NGOS and civil society at large. The sustainability of think tanks depends on the relative strength of these institutions: Where do they get their researchers from if universities fail to play their part? Who will popularise their ideas if the media is unable or unwilling to inform the public debate? Who will turn their ideas into policies if parties and government lack programmatic capacity? Who will fund them if the private sector and philanthropy do not value research? And who will stand by them when the civic space closes that civil society in general is reign in?

Efforts entirely focused on propping-up think tanks have led, in the best cases, to the development of a few islands of excellence surrounded by institutions that are barely able to function –let alone engage with the evidence produced by these centres. And these islands are unsustainable: expensive, dependent on aid and isolated from the broader civil society, they are permanently at risk of sudden changes in their foreign donors’ policies.

Think tanks can also contribute to their development, of course. They may collaborate with universities with low research capacity; they can take on the task to inform and train journalists and even promote sound media policies; think tanks can seek to inform and educate as well as influence government officials, promote reforms to the policymaking process and create spaces for the government to engage with other actors; etc. In Chile, think tanks played a central role in the democratisation process. In Eastern Europe, they sustained much of the gains made and the ideas developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall (even if recent developments have placed these, and think tanks, at risk).

But to deliver this promise a new generation of think tanks must emerge. These must explore business models that make them less dependable on big funders, whether public or private –there are possible benefits in network and grassroots models such as foraus, the Swiss foreign policy think tank. They will have to attract a new kind of researcher: a policy entrepreneur equally at ease in research as in communications, management and networking. New think tanks won’t be able to draw credibility from their exclusiveness and close ties to the elites but rather from their capacity to convene a wide range of stakeholders and engage, directly, with the public.

The challenge for mature and dynamic think tank communities like the British and American is to find the time and motivation to explore new models and share their lessons with think tanks across the world. In developing countries, existing think tanks and their, mostly foreign, funders must pay greater attention to encourage international learning and develop country specific approaches to strengthen the institutional context within which they intend to thrive. It is of little use for them to focus on short term policy impact – especially when short gains may undermine long term progress.