Think tanks: research findings and some common challenges

2 June 2011
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

These are my notes from a presentation for a SMERU Seminar that I gave in Jakarta, 31st May 2011. It includes some of the additional information provided by participants during the event; and I’ll add a video and audio as soon as I figure out how to do it.

Evidence versus ArgumentWhat faux engagement initiatives lack is any content to inspire and engage the public’s minds and passions. Historically, what has moved millions to act upon the world and change things for the better has been big ideas, such as freedom, progress, civilisation and democracy. Today we are offered the thin gruel of ‘evidence-based policy’. When we are told that scientific research demands particular courses of action, ever increasing areas of politics are ruled out-of-bounds for democratic debate; ideas and morality are sidelined by facts and statistics. In contrast, the Battle of Ideas is a public square within which we can explore the crisis of values, and start to give human meaning to trends too often presented fatalistically and technically. Claire Fox, director, Institute of Ideas and on behalf of the Battle of Ideas Committee 2010

This presentation was aimed to first outline some findings emerging from my research on think tanks in developing countries and then pose some questions, common to many, as a way of encouraging a discussion.

The first obvious questions most people have is: what is a think tank? The literature is not absent of options: think tank definitions can be divided into broad and narrow ones:

  • The broad definition: any organisation that produces or uses research (broadly defined as well) to inspire, inform or influence policy. (To use this definition you will have to make some decisions over whether an organisation can in fact be labelled as a think tank or not. However, it is possible for there to be think tanks in universities, the government, the private sector and for other types of non governmental organisations to fulfil those roles.)
  • The more narrow definition: an organisation not governed by the rules of academia, policy, the media or the private sector and that seeks policy influence through research (also broad) informed arguments.

In both cases the organisation may or may not have an identifiable ideological affiliation (which is a contribution from Braml 2004). Think tanks then may or may not be entirely separate (and autonomous) from the State, the private sector, political parties, professional/business associations, universities or other types of civil society organisations, etc.

The notion that a think tank requires independence from the state (or corporations) in order to be ‘free-thinking’ is an Anglo- American norm that does not translate well into other political cultures. Increasingly, therefore, ‘think tank’ is conceived in terms of a policy research function and a set of analytic or policy advisory practices, rather than a specific legal organizational structure as a non-governmental, non-partisan or independent civil society entity. Diane Stone (2005)

This, however, does not mean that definitions or descriptions of think tanks in the Anglo-American tradition are not useful.

A possible characterisation based on type of organisation (from various authors) that may address initial questions of whether an NGO is a think tank or if a consultancy s a think tank is the following:

  • Independent civil society think tanks established as non-profit organisations (Stone 2005) –ideologically identifiable or not (Braml 2004)
  • Policy research institutes located in or affiliated with a university (Stone 2005)
  • Governmentally created or state sponsored think tank (Stone 2005)
  • Corporate created or business affiliated think tank (Stone 2005)
  • Political party think tanks (Stone, Braml, and others) and legacy or personal think tanks
  • Global (ore regional) think tanks (with some of the above)

Other ways to classify them include categories or types of think tanks, described by:

  • Size and focus: e.g. large and diversified, large and specialised, small and specialised (Weidenbaum 2009)
  • Evolution of stage of development: e.g. first (small), second (small to large but more complex projects), and third (larger and policy influence) stages (Struyk R. J. 2006)
  • Strategy, including:
    • Funding sources (individuals, corporations, foundations, donors/governments, endowments, sales/events) (Weidenbaum 2009) and business model (independent research, contract work, advocacy) (Abelson D. E., 2006 Abelson D. E. 2009, Belletini 2007, Ricci 1993, Rich 2006, Reinicke 1996, Smith 1991, Weaver 1989, Braml 2004)
    • The balance between research, consultancy/advisory work and advocacy
    • The source of their arguments: Ideology, values or interests; applied, empirical or synthesis research; or theoretical or academic research (from a conversation with Stephen Yeo)
    • The manner in which the research agenda is developed: e.g. by senior members of the think tank or by individual researchers; or by the think tank of their funders (Braml  2004)
    • Their influencing approaches and tactics (many researchers but an interesting one comes from Abelson D. E. 2009) and the time horizon for their strategies: long term and short term mobilisation (Ricci 1993) (Weidenbaum 2009)
    • Their various audiences of the think tanks (audiences as consumers and public -this merits another blog; soon) (again, many authors, but Zufeng, 2009 provides a good framework for China)
    • Affiliation, which refers to the issue of independence (or autonomy which may be a better concept to focus on) but also includes think tanks with formal and informal links to political parties, interest groups and other political players (Weaver 1989, Braml 2004, Snowdon 2010)
  • Relational definitions that refer to the self-identification as think tank in relation to other organisations that may play similar, overlapping or complementary roles.
  • And functional, focusing on the functions played by think tanks and including (taken from quite a few authors but particularly Belletini 2007, Mendizabal & Sample 2009, Gusternson 2009, and Tanner 2002):
    • Providing ideas, people, access
    • Creating, maintaining, opening spaces
    • As boundary workers or windows into the policymaking process -and into other spaces (this comes from the literature on think tanks in China where think tanks are described as windows that allowed Chinese policymakers to look into Western policy communities and societies -as well as allowing western policymakers and scholars to look into Chinese policymaking communities.
    • Channels of resources to political parties, interest groups, leaders
    • Legitimising ideas, policies and practices -and individuals or groups
    • Monitoring and auditing public policy and behaviour
    • Public and elite (including policymakers) education (something often forgotten by many think tanks as it is certainly difficult to assess its impact).

I have, for now, left this definition open and am attempting to find one as I continue my research.

These descriptions (and our understanding) of think tanks are affected by different (competing) stories or narratives within which think tanks have been promoted and studied (Ricci, 1993):

  • Salomon’s House – makes us think of elites, commissions, expert (private) advice, public intellectuals, and analysis of influence networks. Think tanks play an important role –as part of or as a tool of elites.
  • The Marketplace –makes us think of efficiency, value for money, supply, demand and intermediaries, and demand supply type of analyses. Think tanks play a more limited  (producer –and sometimes intermediary) role mediated by the degree of intervention of the State.
  • The Great Conversation –make us think of public debate, public education, transparency, and (advocacy, epistemic, professional, social, political, etc.) networks. Think tanks play many changing, emerging, relational roles.

Within these narratives, although the first two are more prominent, think tank formation and design has been driven by a number of metaphors inspired by other disciples and professions:

  • Health –first symptoms (small organisations or associations) then causes (larger organisations)
  • Physics –efficiency (more quantitative)
  • Engineering and architecture –design, project planning and control (Logframes and modelling)
  • Foundational –break from the past and build new institutions (qualitative studies of societal change and formulation of new visions)
  • Marketing –hearts and minds in political influencing, audiences instead of publics, linked to the story of the marketplace of ideas (communications and outreach)
  • Health again –randomised control trials is the only evidence that matters (new skills, more academic)
  • Ecosystems – merging problems and solutions (more flexible, diffuse, networked organisations)

Tension/cycles between technocracy and democracy: The drive to set up think tanks is commonly driven by a belief that science (and expertise) can solve the ills of society. The development of the social sciences and the introduction of evermore-complex quantitative methods fuels this quest for technical solutions. Every once in a while, however, ideological imperatives return to leave a mark and respond to people’s natural disposition and need for ideologically inspired deliberation (until the next technocratic phase sets in). Have a look at the box: Think tanks: simple models, complicated reality in the article Stephen Yeo and I wrote for The Broker for a brief description of how different waves of think tanks have been driven by technocratic and ideological imperatives.

With this in mind, some initial findings and thoughts emerging from the literature and visits to think tanks in the UK, Latin America, Africa and Asia that I want to present at this stage are the following (this are still rather loose ideas and so I expect (ask for) feedback):

  • Funding –more important is the type (endowment, core, project) than the amount. (By project I mean specific activities defined in a contract with a client: they may be for research or for implementation –capacity development, networking, etc.)
  • Independence –more important is autonomy to choose any course of action and affiliation than the quality of research (is the think tank proposing what to do or responding to requests?).
  • Quality of research can provide credibility but then this is far more dependent on the ideological biases and perceptions of the user than on data quality or methodological rigour.  So quality does not guarantee a perception of credibility or independence.
  • Independence seems incompatible with consultancy/project funding
  • Think tanks are not supposed to be financially sustainable -demanding that they should, places additional pressures on central/administrative activities and costs (management, accounting, communications, human resources, etc.) and distracts from core think tank functions. Funding from a non-user or non-primary target audience is inevitable.
  • International donor’s political constraints promote a sanitised version of think tanks that is not common in their own countries (i.e. ODI deals with marginal politics while SMERU deals with mainstream politics –SMERU should be treated as if it was the Centre for Fiscal Studies or the Institute of Government, which may not be partisan but are clearly in the think of it)
  • Most think tanks in developed countries are small -5 people- and shrink and expand depending on political and economic circumstances. They much larger in developing countries and their structures tend to be more rigid. Again, I think this is influenced by their links to international development think tanks which are (somewhat) sheltered by the political and economic swings that affect their more mainstream cousins: DFID’s funding to UK based international developing think tanks is rather constant (and increasing), while at the same time progressive and conservative think tanks have ballooned and shrunk many times in the last 10 years.
  • There are some apparent context contradictions that challenge our assumptions: strong and large states do not necessarily constraint think tank formation –what matters is the value that knowledge has within the ruling class (Germany, Mexico, China, for example). Political debate and contestation seems a far more influential factor for think tank formation –even if only within the State (or the single party).
  • Developed country models are perfectly relevant to developing country situations – but context gets in the way of like for like comparisons
  • Think tanks have multiple roles or functions –they don’t just do research (many don’t do any) or inform/influence policy, but also audit or legitimise policy, train future cadres of policymakers and policy analysts, support or mobilise resources in favour of specific political, social or economic interests, create and maintain public spaces for debate and reflection, educate the public and the ruling classes, challenge the status quo, etc.
  • The balance has a lot to do with its funding and objectives: domestically funded and focused think tanks will be likely to be far more active in on-going political and economic analysis and provide more opportunities for the movement of ideas and people with political forces. Internationally funded and focused think tanks will be more likely to focus on research (although when the funder is an international NGO the focus is likely to be on advocacy-related type of roles)
  • It is rare for all staff in a think that to know what are its core roles/objectives and/or to agree on them. This can have negative effects on the organisation’s cohesion.
  • There is an increasingly blurring boundary between think tanks, NGOs, consultancies, universities and publicly funded research institutes –and in some cases the media.
  • Additional competition comes from donor funded stand-alone programmes –focusing on a particular policy issue but set up as independent outfits or ‘partnerships’ between various local or international organisations.
  • The web is not there yet as a key space for engagement but it will be –or it will affect the think tanks in the near future
  • Competition is seen, in some places, by both think tanks and funders, as a bad thing: “Why do we need another economic policy think tanks? We’ve already got them” is very common.

More specifically, some barriers and opportunities to think tank formation and development are also common across many contexts:

  • Barriers to think tank formation (and think tank community development) (which are likely to change within a country depending on the particular characteristics of the state, the private sector and civil society –
    • Low quality and availability of human resources (related to low tertiary education levels and poor career progression potential)
    • Lack of funding from domestic sources (public sector, private sector, individuals)
    • Discouraging legislation (NGO law, procurement law, labour law, tax law, access to information, etc.)
    • Low interest in public policy debate (and absence of ideological debate in particular) that turns them into consultancies
    • Poorly developed (or unsupportive) democratic institutions (the State –government, legislative, judiciary; political parties, the media, CSOs) –although weak parties tend to create space for think tanks
  • Opportunities for think tank formation and development –

And there are, of course, many common nightmares/questions that think tank directors and managers across the world face (some include comments from the participants at the SMERU event):

  • Funding –nobody (except donors) wants to fund ‘independent’ think tanks, but how independent are we depending on projects?
  • Should we continue to let the evidence speak for itself or help it with a more convincing (but not necessarily evidence based) argument?
  • Academic or popular/current communications? Both? (But who will pay for it?)
  • Should we focus only on the policymakers that matter or fulfil a general public education role? Does this mean that we need to adopt a political agenda? (Those with a political agenda do not tend to worry about this)
  • What should we do about of website? (To which I would reply: focus on an online communications strategy and not just the website.)
  • How to be a friendly opposition?
  • PhDs or just good all-rounders (researchers who are also good storytellers, networkers, managers and fixers)?
  • How large should we be? Full time staff only or should we also work with consultants and associates?
  • How to attract and retain highly qualified staff –especially mid-career researchers with some research and some policy experience?
  • What kind of economic and non-economic incentives can be used to attract the right kind of staff to our think tank? Is it just money of are career prospects, access to key policy spaces and people, opportunities to learn new skills, etc. equally important?
  • How to evaluate and assess our impact? (Should we even bother?) And impact on what? Policy, debate, knowledge?

This is clearly not exhaustive. There are plenty more questions and emerging findings in my notes. But for now, maybe, they are a good start. They certainly encourage a great deal of questions and interest among those present.