The first problem with understanding think tanks in Mexico is a linguistic barrier (Salazar, 2003). Literal or poor translations of the term make it difficult for most people to understand the concept and leave an intellectual vacuum about their function and role in democracy.
I propose a new term in Spanish: centros de análisis e investigación de políticas públicas – centers of public policy analysis and research.
This better reflects the diversity of organisations in Mexico that work to help governments to govern through the strategic analysis of information.
While these organisations share this common purpose, the political and social space in which they carry out their functions overlap with government agencies, trade associations, public and private universities, political parties, social and advocacy organisations, and journalism researchers.
Centres are founded in public and private universities; include for-profit consultancies created by retired public officials (Salas-Porras & Padilla, 2013); others have partisan affiliations; and some are elite regional or national organisations made up of experts on social, political, and economic issues. (See the table of typologies of Mexican centres below.)
Functions and contributions to democracy
The contribution that such centres make to Mexican democracy is based on their function as bridges of knowledge and policy.
It is not only their production of ideas and knowledge but also using it to inform governance and government processes. Therefore, their value comes from their function as interlocutors with representatives and public officials.
One way that centres do this is by generating and facilitating public deliberation. Leandro Echt has argued that they can create an atmosphere of legitimacy for public debate, and Rubio et al, (2017) +propose that it is here that multistakeholder consensus can happen.
Centres also transmit ideas to policymakers through mass media strategies that helps shape public opinion on a critical political or social problem that in turn may influence public policy. And while these centres, and the people working in them, inevitably have their own interests and ideological preferences that inform their response to public policy issues, by using and promoting research evidence to inform decisions on matters of public (rather than privileging ideologies or political interests) is important itself for shaping democracy.
Think tanks in Mexico played an important role in building the national anti-corruption system through the establishment of the National Institute for Transparency, Access to Information and Personal Data Protection – INAI. Notably, they contributed to public deliberation on the issue, and they used research evidence and watchdog collaborations to advocate for change.
To conclude, my proposal to rename think tanks in Mexico as centres of public policy analysis and research allows for a better understanding of the concept and the diverse range of social, political, governmental and private organisations that are critical for strengthening checks and balances, bringing the public into policy debates, and using research and evidence to inform public policies and advocate for change.
To close, I present the following table that classified the types of centers of public policy analysis and research that exist in Mexico with examples.
Table: A typology of think tanks in Mexico
|University-based research centre:
Description: Researchers are academics and do not consider themselves to be Thinktankers.
|Research agency or consultancy
Description: Hired by the government to analyse public policy and deliver reports. Often include retired senior public officials who are well connected within government.
Description: Promote and defend public policy reform. They act as catalysts for ideas.
Description: Set up by big corporations interested in promoting social or political research on topics related to their business agenda.
Examples: Fundación GEA.
|Political party think tanks
Description: Produce studies to help political party members promote public policies and provide training.
Description: Provide reports and data to design or evaluate public policies. They include legislative research centres and public organisations with technical and management autonomy.
Table compiled by Héctor Eduardo Soto Guerrero.