How does the context affect think tanks? Lessons from China

19 July 2013
SERIES Think tanks and their context 8 items

This is the third post of a series on how context affects think tanks. The first post dealt with a number of challenges that a study into this relationship would face. The second one outlined a series of general hypotheses and research questions that I have been exploring over the last few years.

Last month I attended a meeting of Chinese thinktankers and think tanks scholars and supporters in Beijing. The event brought together people from academia, think tanks (official and private), the State, the Party, and the private sector. All together, there were 40 interventions of between 5 and 12 minutes each; all in just one day. In any other case I would have died of boredom but this was one of the most interesting, if not the most interesting, meeting on think tanks I have ever attended. Every one of the 40 interventions(and hopefully mine, too) was thoughtful and thought-provoking.

The question in everyone’s mind wasn’t: do we need think tanks? This has been settled already. The question was: How can we develop a larger and better think tank community?

With this in mind, every speaker (as well as others at the event) presented a range of very interesting and important recommendations. I have groups them into larger categories:

  1. Regulation: In China, a key concern was making it easier for new think tanks to set up and operate – particularly new independent or private think tanks. Similarly, important, regulation affects how think tanks can be supported.
  2. Association: A concern by all, and addressed by the event’s declaration, was the absence of a network or association of think tanks in China. A strong community of think tanks can go a long way when it comes to individual think tank’ development.
  3. Funding: Not just for research – and not just for official think tanks; but for organisational development. The nature of the funding contracts (more than the source) affects think tanks but, according to the participants, so does the focus of that funding. Not enough funding for organisational development can keep think tanks from ever developing and reaching minimum standards of quality. Also important was the availability of domestic funding (for research and support). This was seen as the only way of ensuring that the think tank community would develop with “Chinese characteristics”.
  4. Research: To develop the community of think tanks more research on think tanks is necessary. This research needs to look not just at think tanks current state but also at their historical development.
  5. Culture: The ‘culture of think tanks’ featured highly in the discussions at the event. There was a consensus in the room that an improved Chinese think tank community required an improved ‘think tanks culture’. This meant: new leadership styles; a change in the way that thinktankers worked and engaged with the public and their traditional policy audiences; a change in the way that policymakers use research and engage with and access expert advice; and a change in the way the public itself sees and values public intellectuals, ideas, and think tanks.
  6. Standards: Another concern throughout the day was the issue of standards. Whether by ‘market’ forces (preferred by some in China) or by some kind of regulation (also considered) it is important to ensure that the think tank community, as a whole, observes some minimum levels of quality. This is important for all. It is not good for anyone if a few think tanks become well known for sloppy (or even unethical) work: everybody losses. One way of doing this is to celebrate the think tank community by rewarding good practice and encouraging peer to peer relations, for instance, via a national think tank awards.
  7. Openness: In my experience think tanks are very protective of their contacts, their connection, influence, work, data, etc. They compete with each other for funds, for access, for staff, and many other important inputs for their work even before they can being to compete on ideas. But if the ultimate objective of promoting a think tank community is to improve policymaking (by improving the quality of the ideas used, for example) individual think tanks do not matter; what matters is the health of the knowledge sector (or the knowledge community or knowledge regime).  The participants were adamant that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ should not be limited to think tanks alone -and certainly not to official think tanks. Others, such as consultancies, academic centres, NGOs, etc. should participate in their own capacities. Openness also related to learning from other countries and engaging with think tanks and think tank scholars outside of China. This clearly relates to think tanks capacity to connect and communicate with others as well as the easiness with which people can travel in and out of the community. Finally, openness refers to the incorporation of multiple disciplines: not just economic and social sciences but also other disciples and languages.
  8. Local: The event was not just interested in think tanks generally, but also in think tanks in China specifically. It asked questions related to the Chinese think tank industry or to think tanks with Chinese characteristics. This is a challenge for any context, particularly where think tanks are funded and supported by foreign donors -I remain unconvinced that a foreign actor can take the lead in building a knowledge sector or even think tanks community with domestic characteristics. But in China, the presence of domestic funding, the existence of a vibrant think tank research community (like the one gathered at the event), and a refreshingly high regard for information, knowledge and, yes, think tanks, the odds are in their favour.

So these are ‘factors’ that Chinese thinktankers, researchers, and practitioners considered useful for the promotion of a Chinese think tank community. I think they apply to other contexts, too.

But the point I would want to make -and stress- is that, unable to find universal rules, what international donors can do instead, is help think tanks and think tank communities to think through their contexts, find the most relevant factors influencing their organisations (and their political communities), and consider how best to use this information.

Rather than rules and guidelines for think tanks to follow, why not contribute to the methodological ‘tool box’ that we all need to study the context and its effect on think tanks and thus help and encourage think tanks to take on the challenge of doing the research themselves.

The factors I have described in the last 3 posts demand that we reach out to economists, political scientists, accountants, lawyers, sociologists, entrepreneurs, city planners, designers, communicators/market researchers, pollsters, and others for their insights and methods. Let us be, as the Chinese think tankers said: Open.