How to make think tanks more participatory?

Think tanks are often perceived by the public as part of the political establishment, a remote elite that is inaccessible to normal citizens. In that role, think tanks may contribute to a sense of disenfranchisement from the political process that can lead to declining trust in the democratic system. However, think tanks may also play an important role as mediators between the public and political decision makers, thereby reducing barriers to participation, strengthening civil society and increasing trust. While participatory methods may be used by think tanks at any stage from priority setting to dissemination, we focus here on the content creation stage: This may bring a range of benefits from better content to building legitimacy both with decision makers and the public. But it also raises new questions: Who exactly is ‘the public’? How can participation be made more inclusive and representative? How to reconcile the ‘expert’ role of think tanks with the participation of a less specialised public?

As part of the 2019 Winter School for Thinktankers and the 2019 On Think Tanks Conference, we discussed these questions with young founders and managers of think tanks from over 20 countries, using the Policy Kitchen method.

Who is ‘the public’?

The discussion of public participation at the policy proposal formulation stage concluded that targeted multi-stakeholder engagement was more promising than general broad-scale participation. This requires thinking harder about horizontal and vertical diversity of target groups – policymakers, implementers, and all groups affected by a policy. It also requires tailoring communication channels to the respective target groups, especially for the inclusion of disenfranchised members of society. Inclusiveness is all the more important – yet also more difficult to achieve – in contexts of high polarisation or conflict. Bringing fierce opponents together in a participatory process may need special attention to the right incentives and appropriate formats.

How to ensure quality of output?

Participatory approaches to content creation may improve output in that they provide more different perspectives and creativity than purely expert-driven approaches. On the flip-side, quality may potentially suffer from the active participation of non-experts. To reconcile this potential trade-off, participants identified a range of approaches: Some argued that appropriate briefings for non-experts may already go a long way levelling the playing field. Others proposed better process design, for example by delegating tasks to subcommittees in order for everyone to contribute within its own field of expertise, by matching non-experts with internal or external experts, or by requiring contributors to underpin their contributions with links to sources.

Closing the circle

Finally, it may be useful to think of participation as less of an intervention at one stage of the product cycle and more as a holistic approach, covering all stages from content creation to dissemination. Varsha Pillai and Joseph Ishaku illustrated this very nicely with their circular model, where think tanks mediate the information flow between local communities and policymakers in both directions: by providing empirical evidence to support awareness, advocacy and agency of local communities on the one hand, and by translating community-based needs and ideas to the policymaker space.

What are your ideas to make think tanks more participatory? Let us know at