Think tanks and strategic policymaking

30 October 2018

Policy challenges – whether big or small – require that policymakers seek input from external stakeholders such as interest groups, think tanks, companies and (academic) experts. To be a valuable partner in policymaking, these external actors not only need to have adequate knowledge, but also a strategic mindset.

Our central assumption is that think tanks are better qualified to take up the role of strategic partners in policymaking. Following Rich (2004), + we define think tanks as ‘‘independent, non-interest based, non-profit organizations that produce and principally rely on expertise and ideas to obtain support and influence the policy-making process’. We excluded think tanks that are embedded in companies or are part of government from our study (for a more detailed discussion on defining think tanks, see also Pautz 2011).+ Building upon previous research, we argue that three features are crucial to any organization playing the role of a strategic partner in policymaking. First, organizations need to have a high level of autonomy, with sufficient leeway in choosing their policy focus. Second, organizations must have sufficient research capacity. Substantial internal expertise is necessary not only to clarify what needs to happen, but also how this can happen considering specific policy measures in the current political scenario. A third element concerns a long-term horizon, which allows an organization to focus on future policy challenges and issues that currently might not receive sufficient attention.

In our research we analyzed the strategic capacity of think tanks by assessing to what extent they are characterized by these three features, focusing on the Australian context.+ Australia has quite a developed think tank landscape that is not unlike the diversity of think tanks found in the United Kingdom and the United States, albeit at a smaller scale. Out of a population of 59 national think tanks, we selected 30 think tanks that had a minimum level of political prominence. Of these 30 think tanks, 21 (70%) agreed to participate in a semi-structured interview.

A first finding regarding their policy horizon was that many think tanks can be characterized as policy pioneers. When asked why they prioritize a certain policy issue in their work, almost all think tanks prioritize issues which they consider important and are not getting sufficient attention from other organizations. This highlights an important strength for think tanks: rather than focusing on issues that are already on the political agenda or adjust their policy positions so that they align with current policy or ensure the support of political allies, they try to put issues in the spotlight that are currently overlooked. Many think tanks couple this pioneering mentality with a strong focus on the long-term. They work in a proactive way, and focus on a limited set of issues for a longer period of time, rather than constantly responding to issues that capture the attention of journalists and policymakers. Our expectation would be that this long-term horizon distinguishes them from other political organizations, such as political parties and interest groups, as the members of those organizations generally expect their leadership to respond quickly and effectively to a changing political agenda.

There is much more variation among think tanks in the other two dimensions of our framework: autonomy and research capacity. In our article, we focus on policy autonomy. More specifically, on the flexibility to focus on a range of different themes and to formulate policy proposals that cut across policy domains. This requires a general or broad mission that creates room to pivot quickly as conditions change. While there are of course think tanks who focus on a single policy domain, such as the environment, defense, or national affairs, the more prominent think tanks usually have a general mission (e.g. “reducing political, social and economic inequality” or “research that matters, shape policy debate and outcomes by using research”). This allows them to address multiple themes and formulate policy initiatives that span policy fields. One important caveat here is that even though think tanks do not have members that could constrain their policy preferences, financial dependence on certain sponsors can imply a substantial reduction on this autonomy. The extent to which a think tank actually diversifies its sources of income is hard to empirically assess.

In terms of research capacity, our results were mixed. Our survey indicated that think tanks consider “a reputation for intellectual quality and credibility” absolutely crucial, and consider this more important than regular access to policymakers or media visibility (in line with results of previous studies, e.g. ‘t Hart & Vromen 2008).+ On the other hand, it is important to underline that this ambition is not always reflected in their financial resources and staff capacity. Many think tanks have very limited personnel, which may limit their in-house policy capacity and makes them rather dependent on a network of affiliated (academic) experts. One wonders if this limitation of human resources can allow them to engage in research that meets scientific standards. If not, their contribution to policymaking is probably limited to the translation of academic research into soundbites for journalists and concise and easily accessible reports for policymakers (see Stone 2007).+ This does not imply a lower level of political effectiveness, as policymakers might be more receptive to more simplified and compressed forms of information, even if this reduces the scientific quality of the arguments provided.

Our main conclusion is that many think tanks do not meet their potential as strategic partners in policymaking, mainly due to a lack of (policy) autonomy and research capacity. Therefore, it seems important that think tanks who have the ambition to be a credible partner to policymakers pay attention to transparency and intellectual credibility. If not, they risk becoming more similar to interest groups or opinion makers, and might be perceived as such by policymakers.