Reclaiming the think tank space in the 2020s

19 January 2020

Over the last decade, several global challenges have affected national politics, economics and societies to their core.

Corruption and weak institutional development have crippled Latin American countries. Public and private spending have suffered a great blow and confidence in democratic institutions has plummeted. In Peru it has helped bring down the political establishment.

Inequality (frustrated dreams and unfulfilled legitimate expectations) fuelled protests across Latin America and Asia – adding their voices to the increasingly common anti-austerity movements in Europe that had previously received most of the global media attention.

#metoo made the transition from a hashtag to street protests, campaigning and policy platforms. It has brought about changes in societal attitudes on gender, affecting everything from the political debate to dinner table conversation.

Mass migration is now a global concern. Africa and Asia, that have been long afflicted, and more recently Europe, have been joined by Latin America in their unpreparedness. We are, still none the wiser about the costs or benefits of migration – should we be for or against? Against appears to be winning in several corners of the world.

Global warming’s King and Queen (David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg) of 2019 shamed governments and businesses into (at least the promise of) climate action – which was never delivered in Madrid. Still, they took centre stage in the main global gatherings of 2019.

And climate change reminded the world of how real it can be, as Australia’s Christmas and New Year celebrations were marred by out-of-control forest fires now reported to be caused (or intensified) by a changing climate.

We are also waking up to the perils of allowing poorly understood technologies to develop un-checked: threats to democratic institutions, civil society as a whole, and personal freedoms are now a reality.

In all these ‘events’ we find key actors taking charge. Influencers or activists like Thunberg, or public intellectuals like Attenborough; leaderless social movements in the fight for equality and gender rights; the UN, campaigners and individual activists in defence of migrants and refugees; firefighters; a few front-line NGOs, whistle-blowers and independent politicians defending our rights against big tech; and investigative journalism that has single-handedly uncovered unprecedented levels of corruption.

New players emerge in enabling this global conversation, too. Streaming services offering documentaries that help us to understand political, economic, social and environmental challenges and the paths we should be taking. Media, as NGOs whose studies, reports, videos and events inform and entertain audiences with a growing thirst for clarity. Large consultancies, the real winners in the last decade’s growth in private philanthropy.

In the last few years, it has also become impossible to discuss a serious policy challenge without being pointed at the closest social entrepreneur or impact investment. The real agents of change appear to be the doers, not the thinkers – unless they can fit it all into a TedTalk of course.

Not surprisingly then, truckloads of philanthropic money are being poured into the promise of impact – with little regard for evidence of impact – or the illusion of evidence-based policy – with little regard for the fantastic richness and complexity of the nature of evidence, how it is generated, communicated and used.

A few chosen organisations and individuals are emerging as winners, while many others struggle to fund their work – important as it may be. Think tanks, and many other forms of civil society organisations, are among them.

Across the world, think tanks are waking up to the fact that they are facing many more competitors than before, that they are less prepared to address the concerns of new funders (and old funders with new ideas) and engage with them in new terms, and that they are increasingly absent from the debates that matter to the public.

Think tanks are not dead parrots, though. They are alive and well. Over the last year, we have been busy advising think tanks across the world as they rethink who they are, what they do and why they do it.

Rather than focus on the challenges that they face, which is a rather easy affair, we suggest that we focus instead on their willingness to bring about substantial changes to their organisations.

But, what may these changes involve?

Here are 6 things, think tanks (and their funders) will seriously have to rethink to stay relevant and reclaim their space in the 2020s:

1. Their functions

Most think tanks focus on changing policy – and increasingly on policy implementation. But this is a narrow interpretation of their potential contribution to their societies. Think tanks can also play other, very important, functions. To mention a few:

They can help other civil society actors by strengthening their arguments with sound evidence-based ideas, or propping up their skills to engage with think tanks traditional audiences – let others take the lead in bringing about change!

They can help create and nurture spaces for debate and deliberation – providing a sounding board for policymakers, civil society leaders and other policy actors. In some contexts, where the space for civil society is rapidly shrinking, they could provide a safe house for intellectuals and their ideas.

They could focus their attention on strengthening democratic institutions and the organisations and people that shape them – the ‘how’ – rather than trying to convince them of one policy idea or another.

In places where environmental, social, economic or political change is making life increasingly complex, they could focus their attention on attempting to explain what is going on – and what the implications are for everyday life.

2. Their business models

For most of our 10 years, the think tanks we have worked with have followed seemingly contrasting models for how they organise and fund themselves.

We find either NGOs (with an independent board, an executive director and staff) or associations (with members who may or may not be also members of staff); we find think tanks supported by core funding/endowments, or think tanks funded through consultancy projects; and we find think tanks that pursue academic goals as the foundation of their work, or think tanks that pursue political goals as their foundation.

These extremes, or tensions, are rarely resolved by finding middle ground. Think tanks strive to achieve one or the other (even if they don’t) rather than accept an existence straddling the two.

But there are also alternatives that will need to be explored. Some may include:

  • Think tanks setting up as for-profit firms with a mandate to reinvest profits into the organisation. We find these more and more common; especially in contexts where the space for civil society is shrinking.
  • Think tanks set up as projects or programmes hosted by established institutions (such as universities or larger think tanks). These start-ups allow the think tanks to save on set-up costs, benefit from the credibility of their hosts, and take advantage of the economies of scale that being part of something larger makes possible.
  • Pop-up think tanks. To go back to the original idea of the label: a group of people thinking through a problem. Well, when the problem is solved, should the think tank move on to solve another, or its members disband and follow their own paths, setting up new think tanks or alternative vehicles for change? Universities could encourage this pop-up think tank model as a way of organising its research resources. Global funders could encourage their grantees across regions, or globally, to work together to address specific issues. This model would fit well with expected trends in job stability.
  • Think tanks as vertical partnerships between academics and practitioners or activists. The typical think tank partnership involves think tanks partnering with think tanks. But would it not be more advantageous to find common ground with organisations whose competencies and skills complement each other?
  • Think tanks as 100% virtual organisations with members coming together online and using only digital tools and channels for communication.

3. How they develop and deliver their research agendas

For the most part, think tanks attempt to straddle their researchers’ curiosity and the political agenda. Some think tank agendas are researcher driven; they are built upon the academic interests of their researchers. This is a key claim to their independence. Other agendas are objectively ideologically or politically driven. This is a key claim to their relevance.

Both, however, are elitist to a fault. They deal with what is at the top of the academic or political agendas and not necessarily what matters to the general public.

Both will have to rethink how they develop their agendas. The former lack relevance and are likely to miss-out on the big events of the next decade (even if they flood the best academic journals). The latter lack depth and are unable to offer a long-term view of social, economic or political change. This lack of perspective makes them susceptible to be co-opted by what is ‘in fashion’ with little or no critical thinking.

The big events of the decade have not all been played out in the public, or been at the top of anyone’s agenda. Inequality and corruption have remained largely hidden from the limelight, yet they brought down governments. They weren’t on opinion leaders’ public agendas until they resulted in public emergencies. Think tanks paying attention to discussions at the local level – private mutterings about the growing tentacles of corruption and inequality during the economic boom of the last decade in Latin America, and how they affected common citizens – would have incorporated them into their research agendas.

Populism and nationalism did not appear overnight. Those feeling were there for anyone who cared to pay attention.

Think tanks will need to be, themselves, more inclusive if they want to avoid missing out on these issues in the future. How does one find out about these mutterings? One could do it by hiring more diversity into the boardroom and research and communication teams; or simply listening more attentively.

4. Who they communicate with and how they do it

Over the last decade we have seen a significant shift towards new audiences, including the public at large. Ten years ago, the general public was not a key audience for think tanks. They could be informed as a by-product of a think tank’s communication efforts aimed at opinion leaders, the media and, ultimately, policymakers; but they would not have been the primary audience.

Think tanks have noticed that the powerful leaders they sought to influence are no longer in control of policy decisions (if they ever were). The public, informed or not, is an increasingly powerful force. Policymakers pay attention to what their constituents believe in, think and do. It is harder for them not to, in part because what they believe in, think and do is very public. If think tanks want to reach policymakers, then they must first find a way into their constituents.

We have noticed how think tank communicators have become increasingly concerned with the growing competition they face from non-think tank actors for their audiences’ attention.

As a consequence, we see how the job descriptions we post on OTT’s jobsboard have replaced ‘communications’ with ‘public engagement’ (and communications). This change is here to stay and it is likely to involve, at least:

  • A greater effort to segment and cater for more and new audiences;
  • Investments to develop stronger connections with local audiences;
  • Developing messages and using communication channels in ways that encourage think tank audiences to see themselves as co-creators in the development of the policy arguments advocated for by think tanks; and
  • Partnering with other organisations, particularly from civil society, that represent a diverse set of constituencies so that, through them, they may engage in nuanced discussions with a much broader public.

5. The skills and competencies they need

The diversity of job descriptions posted on our jobsboard increases by the week. Every time a think tank posts a new ad, they push the boundaries of what’s expected of their staff and the skills and experience they look for in them.

Over the last decade we have noticed a steady trend challenging the traditional skills that thinktankers are required to have. Diversity is the keyword.

First, think tanks need diversity in their roles, skills and experience. Think tanks cannot rely on superb researchers alone. Evidence does not speak for itself. They need equally fantastic managers and communicators. And they need thinktankers with enough appreciation and experience in all three.

Second, they need diversity in the disciplines of their staff. We’ve noticed a move away from economists to include other social scientists. Some think tanks have employed historians and there is now a demand for designers. Future job adverts will likely include AI scientists!

Third, think tanks need diversity in the background of the people that work for and govern them. We first dealt with this by looking at women in think tanks. We realised that think tanks, by and large, are designed with a male thinktanker ideal in mind. Women, not surprisingly, rarely get to the top. There is still a long way to go when it comes to gender, but to be relevant in the future they will also have to make an even bigger effort to be inclusive to individuals from different socio-economic, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. They remain, still, largely upper-middle class everywhere in the world, with few notable exceptions.

Seeking out different life experiences may help to address this challenge. Job adverts are still rather rigidly set on finding traditionally trained researchers, educated in the Western tradition of higher education and academia.

But expertise may also be found in people’s own experience and  practice. If we understand research as a systematic process to generate evidence, it should be possible for grassroots activists and civil servants with little or no training in research methods.

6. And funders will have to seriously rethink how they support think tanks and the generation, communication and use of evidence more broadly

Funders, whether seeking to influence policy through think tanks or to develop their capacity, will need to think harder about how they support think tanks.

For those whose primary interest is to influence policy, think tanks may increasingly look less and less appealing. Others are doing a better job at it. Think tanks will have to convince their funders that their way of doing it, by engaging with evidence, is the better way – not because it is most effective but because it is more ethical.

For those whose primary interest is to bring about change in whatever indicator they set their eyes on, think tanks may increasingly look less and less appealing here too. Others may be able to promise impact sooner. Think tanks will have to convince them that sustainable change, the kind of change that endures, takes time and involves complex processes of behaviour change by multiple actors – it’s not achieved by an inspired and well-meaning social entrepreneur.

For those who wish to build think tanks’ capacity, the issues presented above should pay a greater role in their funding decisions. Are they funding think tanks to continue to function as they have done for decades or an attempt to replicate what leading think tanks used to do some years ago? Are they funding them with the same mechanisms as they have in the past? And are they conscious about the way in which these mechanisms affect think tanks? Are they funding think tanks to develop research agendas that are disconnected from the public? Are they funding old forms of communication? Are their funds hiring more researchers from the same two or three schools?

Funders ought to consider, at least:

  • Paying greater attention to funding training and preparation of future thinktankers by working with universities, possibly, to incorporate new skills and disciplines into the way that more traditional think tank disciplines are taught.
  • Taking greater notice of the investments that individual think tanks need to make to adapt to these changes. Real costs are one thing, but real costs of future investments are another.
  • Funding will also have to be more flexible. Not all think tanks need all the money all the time. Some time back we suggested adopting an indirect approach to support think tanks: setting up reserve and emergency funds for groups of think tanks.
  • Connecting with local audiences more effectively. International funders could partner with national foundations or use national funds to allocate funding to think tanks. National funders could appeal to local advisory boards to help make funding decisions that account for what matters locally, as well as nationally.
  • Funding in ways that improve decision-making processes, even if this means making them longer and slower. Short processes do not allow for consultation and collaboration, they do not offer opportunities to develop the capacity of decision-making institutions, they do not provide time to incorporate multiple evidences to inform debates, and they do not allow for the investments that think tanks make to deliver returns.