Reinventing the role of think tanks

29 January 2018

[Rosa Balfour recently published “What are think tanks for? policy research in the age of anti-expertise“]

Think tanks are one of many organisations meeting the ire of a populist, illiberal backlash. In parts of Europe, they are being strangled by restrictive legislation, censorship, and smear campaigns. In other parts, where democracy is not so overtly threatened, their role as providers of evidence-based arguments has been delegitimised by a political context which endorses ‘alternative facts’, dismisses policy research as elite-led exercises, and reduces the space for non-partisan debate and analysis.+

Expertise has been accused of ‘getting it wrong’: not intercepting the signals of mood swings and unexpected electoral results in 2016, not predicting the rebellion against complacency in politics, and not interpreting the reasons behind the crisis of legitimacy of the establishment.

The challenge to think tanks is real – and has a point

This challenging environment cannot be wished away. Ivory towers and their expertise have not only been under attack from the emergence of a hostile environment, but also because of their own failings. More than ever, think tanks need to assert the dignity and relevance of policy research, find innovative ways to make their organisational structures more diverse and inclusive, design research methodologies that can respond to the policy needs of today’s complex world, and build wider networks that are more representative of society and resonant with “the people” while  simultaneously aim of innovating research methods and reaching out to broader audiences.

It is a hard road to pursue. The preferred strategy to build a think tank’s reputation has been to produce running commentaries on policy issues and media-friendly sound-bites, and to mingle with those in power to secure continued access and funding. This fuels the anti-establishment backlash. Any effort to upgrade think tanks and policy research must go deeper and touch the ways in which policy research is developed, think tanks are internally organised, their relationship to society and to power.

Think tanks are ideally placed as the transmission belt between specialised knowledge and the policy-making worlds. Research needs to be useful to the policy-maker, acknowledge the political dilemmas behind policy options,+ and produce proposals that are realistically implementable by decision-makers. It also ought to connect with broader political contexts and ideas about how to organise society without being ideologically focused.

Sameness of interlocutors is one reason for the dearth of good ideas. Good policy research comes from a two-way process of listening and learning. Empathy with policy and political dilemmas will help research be relevant; early exchanges between research and policy will help shape the field, understand the demand, and contextualise the challenge. At the same time, bridging specialisations and ensuring diversity of perspectives requires collaboration and expanding the range of interlocutors. Rather than passive recipients of dissemination of findings, these should be active participants in the research and consultation process.

If think tanks are falling short, it is also because they are not updating their ‘business model’. +

Diversity in ethnic, gender, and social and educational background is poorly represented despite this being a multi-national and multi-lingual environment. The first step to encourage innovative and creative thinking, cross-fertilisation of ideas, and different perspectives can only come from within — and only by improving diversity.

Autonomy and independence are challenged also by the ambiguous relationships with power. It is hugely damaging to the think tank sector if ethical standards are seen as lowered by group-thinking. It is also unhealthy to be seen as part and parcel of the establishment. It should be part of a think tankers ethics to be responsible towards society. If a think tank’s autonomy is not ruled through regulation, the ethics and responsibilities of its representatives to ensure quality while broadening engagement and learning, can provide that needed integrity.+

As interpreters of current events, with access to policy and power, think tankers have stories to tell beyond their traditional interlocutors. And interacting with citizens beyond the usual bubbles can in turn feed the listening and learning loop that think tanks need to keep abreast of broader changes. Engaging with students, including school students, NGO representatives, local leaders and activists, the private sector, should not be seen merely as transferring policy knowledge to a wider network of stakeholders, but also as a window on societies which, while in the magic circle of policy makers, not all are exposed to. This provides the ‘stuff’ for better communication.

Not business as usual

There are demands to reach broader audiences, to engage with ‘outsiders’ from the traditional policy-related bubble. But outreach is often understood as offering platforms for a plethora of actors and improving communication strategies. A more radical approach, instead, would be a consequence of changing the business model while redesigning research methods. This way, think tanks would contribute to creating space for debate, encouraging stakeholders to engage, offering alternative analyses and views.

Reinventing the role of think tanks means moving out of the self-referential bubbles, engaging critically with power, and rethinking responsibilities towards society at large. This does not divert from original mission of think tanks — to provide research on policy issues for government and centres of decision-making — but it would help give them contemporary relevance, integrity, quality, and autonomy from power