Think Tanks and Policy Advice in Countries in Transition

29 June 2011

This paper by Diane Stone is a few years old but it is still worth reading: Think Tanks and Policy Advice in Countries in Transition (2005). It was commissioned by the Japan Fund for the Public Policy Training symposium,“How to Strengthen Policy-Oriented Research and Training in Viet Nam”, held in Hanoi on 31 August 2005.

From the conclusions, I’d like to share two very important points:

A question she was asked to answer was: “What are the attributes of an effective think tank?” Her response: There are no technocratic ‘quick fixes’:

(I’ll take some liberties in the text below to make it more generalisable -but for the full text you can go straight to the conclusions page: the challenges of policy relevance.)

Focusing on internal management issues can not be considered in isolation from the wider political and economic context. Management is important to the sustainability and quality of work of individual institutes. Nevertheless, it is also essential to consider all institutes in aggregate. For example, in Vietnam, the strong departmental affiliations and the weak interaction with research counterparts in other departments points to a broader governance problem. The Americans would see this dynamic the result of departments set up as (vertical) ‘stove-piping’ without sufficient structures for (horizontal) coordination, and the British would describe it similarly as a ‘silo’ structure and absence of ‘joined-up-government’. In short, the effectiveness of Vietnamese institutes can be undermined by the very architecture of the state. Nevertheless, there are some actions that are within the scope of Vietnamese think tank processes. These are relevant to other countries and include:

  • Attention to quality control and other management issues is an enduring and constant fact of organisational life.
  • Diversification of funding base. The most stable and independent institutes are those with a mix of revenue sources. Developing new revenue sources takes time and it should be done without damaging an institute’s reputation and quality of product.
  • Some (not all) think tanks (and not all the time) need to become more transnational in their activities and or engagements to stay abreast of global policy debates. This can be achieved via professional exchanges, fellowships, graduate study overseas as well as involvement in international research partnerships and global (or regional) policy networks.
  • Deepening and widening of policy communities. By developing more horizontal relationships with counterparts in other institutes it is possible to expand beyond the vertical organisation based on departmental or party bureaucratic lines of authority. This can also include engagement with some private researchers in the business sector, the media or certain NGOs.

Then, on the question of independence, Diane Stone wrote:

Independence must be assessed on more than one criteria whilst recognising that calls for independence can sometimes conflict with and contradict calls for policy relevance. Dimensions of independence can include:

  1. Political independence from vested interests
  2. Legal independence
  3. Financial independence
  4. Scholarly autonomy and ‘freedom of research’

A western think tank may trumpet its status as a non-profit organisation with no affiliations to political party or business interests. Yet, funding dependence on one client – such as a government department – will raise questions about freedom to set research agendas and subtle forms of self-censorship in ensuring the delivery of desired research results. In the end, perfect and complete independence is neither possible nor desirable for organisations such as think tanks. Instead, independence, autonomy and scholarly freedom is based on strong professional norms, (institutional) relationships open to scrutiny and tolerant but vigilant political cultures.