Think tanks and political dilemmas

27 May 2021

Almost all think tanks aspire to use their insights and expertise to inform policymaking processes. And as a starting position, this is not problematic. However, a think tank may quickly find itself in a position much closer to power than it had envisaged, and the situation may become delicate. This article looks at what happens when think tanks no longer find themselves at the fringes of influencing policies, but rather at the very centre of power.

After two decades of political reform, think tanks in Indonesia today have more opportunity to engage with high-level policymaking. I present my arguments here based on empirical observations following closely the works of two think tanks that are well trusted by two different Indonesian ministries.

Think tanks and political dilemas: Ruth Levine on the ethical dilemas think tanks face

The first think tank has been trusted to gather evidence and do objective assessments for internal use by a ministry. However, the organisation made a miscalculated move when it made a critical commentary to the national media on a certain government agenda. The commentary was perceived as criticising or undermining the actions of said ministry. It was not received well and the think tank was subtly ordered to ‘get in line’. Objectively speaking, this is not what is expected from a working relationship with an independent advisor.

In the second think tank, the dilemmas revolve around the boundaries and scope of the think tank’s work. The think tank offers a pro-bono service, allocating human and financial resources to support the ministry. By working closely with the think tank, the ministry tended to bypass its own bureaucratic machinery to get fast, quality deliverables. But it demanded too much from the think tank – maxing out its time and expertise and treating the thinktankers as ministry staff. The think tank is essentially taking on a major workload of said ministry. If think tanks are only supposed to offer insights and know-how, the major portion of drafting policies must always remain within the ministry’s jurisdiction.

These can be real catch-22 situations for think tanks. While most think tanks aspire to become a close partner of the government, once it is in the actual position of advising a strategic institution, the dynamic becomes politicised and it can become tricky. Furthermore, when working with governments, work contracts become subject to non-disclosure agreements, which ultimately leads to a lack of transparency in the project and makes it difficult for think tanks to learn from the experiences of others.

It should be noted that the dynamics of participation in policy dialogues vary across sectors. Some sectors are more technocratic than others. Some are highly political and are therefore a slippery slope for any organisation to be involved in policymaking, as they are prone to be dominated by economic interests (see ODI’s 2009 paper ‘Knowledge, policy and power’). In the two short examples above, we are dealing with policy sectors that are relatively safe from abuses of power and corruption (as might be the case with, for example, the extractive and natural resources sector).

I believe that transparency is the best approach – rather than pretending to be ‘neutral’. Think tanks that aspire to work closely with governments should first reflect on the scope and limits of doing consultancy and advisory activities. It is better for think tanks to be clear from the start about what their role and values are, and what the role of governments is.

The problem with think tanks not reflecting on their proximity to power does not only endanger the think tank’s credibility, but also the whole research and advisory field. The trust of the public is what is at stake here. Financial transparency is more or less expected of think tanks now (there’s a general expectation for think tanks to reveal their funders on their website or research outputs), and it would be commendable for think tanks to also state what policies think tanks are advising their government on. It would be a simple yet welcome start.