The deliberative think tank: a function or an entirely new model?

9 May 2016

Think tanks across the world face a number of challenges. Among them, their traditional audiences, policymakers, are increasingly aware that they cannot deal in facts alone. For all the talk about evidence based or evidence informed policy, policy has to take values into account. Often more that thinktankers would care to accept. How to make sure that facts -science- are not cast aside altogether?

Similarly, they recognise that the public is increasingly involved in policy processes and the public is not known for being particularly keen on evidence based opinion. Still, in a democracy, their opinion, however baseless, is legitimate -even more so that that of think tanks and their experts.

These two challenges refer, possibly accidentally, to the call from President Xi Jinping for more think tanks:

Building a new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics is an important and pressing mission. It should be targeted on promoting scientific and democratic decision making, promoting modernisation of the country’s governing system and ability, as well as strengthening China’s soft power

The first challenge is about promoting scientific decision making. The second has to do with promoting democratic decision making.

According to Ya Li, from the Beijing Institute of Technology, the traditional think tank model cannot cope with this double-challenge. It needs reform.

Mainstream think tanks

In Ya Li’s view, mainstream think tanks try to keep research from engagement (with policy and the public) separate. Think tanks often claim to be credible (and therefore legitimate participants) because of their independence from the policy process. Mainstream think tanks also try to separate values from facts. Again, they claim to be credible because of their value-neutral approach to policy research (this claim is questionable but it is nonetheless common).

In general, think tanks see themselves as rational agents attempting to bring sense to a world of sensibilities.

But this doesn’t work when the world is a bit too sensible. When policy issues are not simply discussed or debated but fought over in protected political, economic and social battles, being the voice of reason is not enough. The facts will be too afraid to speak for themselves -and if they do, they will not be heard.

Deliberative think tanks

What we need, argues Ya Li, are new think tanks: deliberative think tanks. These organisations adopt a deliberative policy analysis +approach which involves:

  1. Focusing on values, in the broad sense, and treating the views and concerns of the various policy stakeholders (the public more broadly) as the starting point.
  2. Accepting that public participation is part of the research process -and cannot be separated.
  3. Placing dialogue between stakeholders at the centre and using evidence to feed that dialogue.
  4. Redefining the role of policy analysts to play an enabling role -or facilitating role.

Deliberative think tanks demand different roles and skills from their staff. Researchers, communicators and managers alone won’t be enough; neither, seems, the skills of policy entrepreneurs: storytellers, networkers, fixers and engineers.

The deliberative think tank model+ put forward by Ya Li at the GIGA/Tsinghua Asian think tanks meeting in April 2016 is organised around a forum or space for deliberation. This is supported by four roles:

  1. Deliberative analysts: who observe, support and report
  2. Public engagement professionals: who gather and analyse public inputs, and design and create the forum
  3. Facilitators or mediators: who facilitate the process of expressing, debating and consensus building
  4. Subject experts: who rode expert advice on demand to ensure the process is kept informed

Incorporating the function

Ya Li’s suggestion is that this is a new model of think tank. But we could also consider it to be another function that think tanks may play in particular circumstances -for instance when policy debates are highly polarised or when the public is (or feel) disenfranchised.

In developing countries, in particular, where university research centres play the role of think tanks, researchers within them may not agree with each other. These plural think tanks need a new approach.

In Chile in the 1980s, think tanks adopted a convening role that very much illustrates the deliberative think tank model put forward by Ya Li. They had gone through a few transformations in the past. Prior to the coup d’etat in 1973 policy researchers had worn their values on their sleeves and had become so polarised that there were insights even within the left. During the first decade of the right-win dictatorship the think tanks that emerged from the rubble of the universities learned to behave as hard-nosed policy analysts adopting the mainstream model described by Ya Li. But in the 80s they realised that to bring about change they had to focus on building consensus.+

This way of working, then, is perfectly compatible with more mainstream approaches. Think tanks may have to adopt it at different moments in their own histories and to address different policy challenges.