Think tanks as builders of trust in fragmented societies

24 April 2018

Think tanks are instrumental to strengthening the capacity of societies to overcome fragmentation caused by democratic competition. They also play a key role in promoting dialogue and generating innovative solutions to complex problems.

The Latin American experience has proven that one of the most important roles think tanks play is generating a plural, impartial and independent space. It is in this space that people from different ideologies can discuss ideas and develop action plans. In Chile, for example, during the Pinochet regime intellectuals of different ideological tendencies took refuge in think tanks. These provided a space for actors of different political associations to debate and agree on strategies which later allowed the return to democracy.

If we understand ‘governance’ as the way the State, the market and civil society engage with one another, the involvement of think tanks has eased the coordination and collaboration (and sometimes even co-creation) between the different actors in society. From this point of view, think tanks are part of the foundation of ‘good governance’: they have ensured economic and social development stemming from new collaboration between public entities, the private and the non-profit sectors.

However, think tanks can only fulfill this role if society trusts in their capacity to resolve conflicts and tensions inherent in the competition of ideas think tanks embody. Therefore, I will argue that internal governance in think tanks is key for them to fulfill their role promoting dialogue which is plural, informed and intended for social change.

I will define think tank governance as the rules of the game- formal and informal- intended to regulate how decisions are made and executed. A think tank with ‘checks and balances’ represented by the existence of different levels of decision making (i.e. an autonomous Board and executive direction) is more likely to enjoy credibility from society. The existence of these tiers of governance does not translate to an organisation where all decisions made are good, but it does translate to an organisation where decisions are the result of evidence and internal deliberation (not a product of an individual’s perspective).

A second dimension of governance is how transparent these rules are. Trust is generated by what we see and what we can prove: making the rules of the game for good governance visible is as important as having them in place. This transparency sets the stage to be recognised as an actor with the capacity to articulate and influence the democratic process.

We learned this at Grupo FARO in Ecuador, where the political context was unfriendly to the work of organisations who sought to contribute, from outside the State, to the improvement of public policies. The only way we could mitigate the arguments which questioned our legitimacy was by being transparent about our internal politics, strategies and decision-making processes on issues such as research topics, research quality, and how our research and intervention agenda was financed.

In fragmented societies such as the Latin American case, think tanks face the challenge of finding ways to become ‘political forums’ and connect with organisations which represent different social perspectives, interests and needs.  By achieving this they can become what Camou calls ‘transversal parties’ which include different political tendencies and allow the implementation of public policy reforms to stay beyond an election term. Only with a rational and transparent internal governance will think tanks be able to contribute to a society where there is more trust amongst its members and, by consequence, where public policies reflect different perspectives and serve the interests of the majority.