What think tanks do? A view from India

8 August 2014
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

Editor’s note: this post was written by Neeta Krishna, Associate Professor, Father C Rodrigues Institute of Management Studies, Navi Mumbai. It is part of a series of articles commissioned by the Aiditi project at CSTEP which aims to capture information/ anecdotes/data from various Think Tanks. The main objective of Aditi is to discuss institutional issues of common interest such as funding, human resources, research capacity, institutional issues of policy research etc.] 

The first part of this three part series presented a historical perspective on Think Tanks with an emphasis on Think Tanks in India and South Asia. This post explores the areas in which Think Tanks work and the activities they engage in.

For the reader who is considering a career in a Think Tank, this article may provide some insight into life in a Think Tank. For leaders and members of Think Tanks, especially emerging ones, discussion on and examples of Think Tank activities intends to stimulate introspection for taking their own organizations ahead.

In Michael Scherer’s article in the Time Magazine, the Centre for American Progress is variously called an ‘Idea Factory’, an ‘Action Tank’ and a ‘Think Tank on Steroids’! This powerful imagery accurately captures the sometimes overlapping spaces of Ideas and Action that Think Tanks occupy.

The label ‘Think Tank’ embraces a diverse set of policy research organizations. Some are big, some small, some operate in narrow and specific areas; others have wider domains. Some follow no particular ideological agenda, claiming they engage in open-minded enquiry; others have specific ideological values. Some are pure research institutions; others attempt to influence public policy by advocating specific policy options, and lobby with law makers and governments. Some even engage in activism, undertaking specific actions to bring change.

Different Think Tanks do different things. Yet there are some core functions and activities common to most Think Tanks, which are discussed in this post.

What Think Tanks Do
As discussed above some Think Tanks operate in wide domains, others in very specific areas. A measure of this can be had from their Visions and Mission statements and objectives, for example:

Social Policy and Development Centre – SDPC (Pakistan) – Contribute to national economic and social development policies and programmes to make them more accountable, pro-poor, engendered and equitable
Centre for Civil Society– CCS (India) – Advancing personal, social, economic and political freedoms
Think Tank Functions and Activities
Within their chosen domains Think Tanks identify particular areas to focus their work on. CCS for example, with its aim of advancing political freedoms, has chosen to focus its activities on reforms in the education sector and in ‘bringing economic freedom to the enterprising poor.’

Some activities like Research and Advocacy, are common to most of Think Tanks. Typical Think Tank activities and functions are discussed below, under different heads grouped in two categories as:

IDEAS-Activities that result in the creation and dissemination of useful evidence-based knowledge, ideas and tools in the Think Tank’s domain. These activities include research, organizing conferences and dialogues, storage and dissemination of knowledge resources.
ACTION-Activitieslike capacity building, training, advocacy, consulting-relating to what a Think Tank does with the ideas and knowledge generated with an intent to bring change.
In reality the activities under different heads are interconnected and often overlap. Many Think Tanks focus their efforts in an Ideas group, while others move beyond Ideas into Action.

IDEAS–creation, storage and dissemination of useful evidence-based knowledge, ideas and tools
Research is the defining activity of Think Tanks. It forms the back-bone of their knowledge and idea generation role. On the basis of research, Think Tanks conduct analysis, generate evidence, ideas, opinions and recommendations. There is much diversity in the type of research undertaken by different Think Tanks.

The research could be based on open-minded enquiry with no underlying ideology behind it. Brookings, for instance, claims its 300 researchers represent diverse points of view. Research may be conducted to validate an ideology or viewpoint a Think Tank holds. Either way, credible and robust research, conducted well and untainted by ideological biases adds to knowledge, leading to better informed public policy. Think Tank research may be based on data from primary or secondary sources. As the examples below illustrate, research undertaken by Think Tanks pertains to public issues, which would be well served by informed public policy:

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies BIDS (Bangladesh)-Estimating Cost of Food Security in the Context of Climate Change in Bangladesh
Frazer Institute (Canada)-2014 released a research based report on the relationship between Economic Freedom and two environmental indicators of air quality, based on data from more than a hundred countries over ten years
Field level Research & Analysis is often done in association with other agencies like NGOs, though some Think Tanks do it themselves. CCS, championing the theme of freedom, and having focused on freedom in school choice, ran a three year program distributing school vouchers to girls of school going age (an experiment in education policy). A year after commencement of the project, CCS commissioned another agency to conduct an evaluative study. Ground level data collected in studies like these, if credible, informs policy makers of the likely effects of adopting such a policy.

Think Tanks also undertake research on the impact of a particular policy and/or program. Public Affairs Centre (India), for instance, is studying the impact in Bangalore, of the Indian government’s policy decision to merge all previous child protection policies under a one umbrella scheme. The research findings will help policy makers understand gaps in implementation before the policy is rolled out across the country.

Research and knowledge generation is sometimes undertaken in partnership with other institutions or companies with some common interests who see some alignment between their goals and those of the Think Tank. These partnerships provide resources, expertise and often a greater sense of purpose. Development Alternatives (India) has listed the Holcim Foundation (created by Holcim Ltd) as a strategic partner.

Conceptual Models for practical application, based on research, have been developed by several Think Tanks. Multi-variate models through which decision makers can assess the likely impact of a policy choice under different scenarios have also been developed by Think Tanks. Model building is a complex task and requires expertise, resources, and testing against reality. If the models are sound, they can provide a huge value for good decision making in public policy. For example:

CSTEP has developed Decision Analysis for Research and Planning (DARPAN), a user-interactive computer application to enable multiple policymakers to simulate and evaluate the impact of their policy choices and take investment decisions.
Scorecards and other measurement tools: Some Think Tanks have developed scorecards and measurement tools for assessment in their areas of interest. These are very valuable to assess the current situation, impact of changes in public policy etc. For example:

PAC (India) has developed a Citizen Report Card (CRC) a tool to provide public agencies with systematic feedback from users of public services.
TERI (India) developed GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment), which was adopted as the national rating system for green buildings by the Government of India in 2007
Dialogue, Knowledge Sharing and Exchange of Ideas through Seminars, Conferences etc. Knowledge and idea creation is not the preserve only of research. To stimulate thinking, idea generation and exchange, the best Think Tanks engage in a virtuous loop of collaborative knowledge creation through knowledge sharing, dialogues, and discussions. In fact, research questions and agendas themselves are often shaped and refined at conferences organized at the beginning of a research project.

The exchange of knowledge and ideas at seminars and conferences could take different forms. A Think Tank might organize conferences for experts in a field to exchange views or discuss and debate an issue or policy; or presentations, lectures or interactive sessions by experts to those who seek to learn from them. Conferences are also held to present and discuss research findings at the end of a research, in order to make meaning out of a research. They could even involve stake-holders who may not be experts.

Sometimes the dialogue at conferences is between people or parties with opposing viewpoints, and seeks to build, if not a consensus, at least more inclusive decision making. Obviously any interaction between well-meaning and informed individuals could result in positive ideas and even action.

March 2014-Regional Centre for Strategic Studies RCSS (Sri Lanka) co-hosted with Peaceboat, a round table conference on Building a Nuclear Free World
The Jinnah Institute (Pakistan) along with Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation (India) held the Delhi Dialogue III (4th of the dialogues between the two countries) as part of an India-Pakistan Track II diplomacy (i.e. not through formal channels) initiative, seeking to promote peace through constructive engagement and dialogue, between the two neighbors who have an unfortunate history of conflict and suspicion.
Conferences may also be organized by Think Tanks in partnership with policy makers and/or international organizations like the UN and its arms. Apart from other benefits, this could indicate that policy makers recognize the importance of a public issue under discussion, and the ability of the Think Tank to bring value in resolving it.

Knowledge Resource Centers, Knowledge Dissemination, Communication Almost all Think Tanks engage in documentation and publication of research findings, articles and papers, conference proceedings, reports, policy briefings, tool-kits and books. The wide spread use of computers and the internet have enabled these knowledge resources to reach a much wider audience, through podcasts, blogs and resources hosted on their web-sites.

Many Think Tanks make their research papers and research findings relatively available freely on their web-sites. Some tailor their communications to appeal to different types of audiences, not just the intellectual elite. Their web-sites look lively and attractive. Many host learning resources that will engage and educate lay persons, and encourage them to participate in a cause. This is especially so for Think Tanks which work in areas where public policy needs to be bolstered by public response (for example environmental sustainability, human development).

Communication to Engage Citizens: Some Think Tanks also look for ways to engage members of the public, the real beneficiaries of good public policy. For this the first step is communication, a task made easier for some target groups through the increasing use of computers and the internet. Many Think Tanks have a section in the web-site for volunteers, donors and others interested in its cause. Some publish a periodic newsletter, and some, like CSE, CCS and Brookings Institution use blogs to increase the reach of their work.

CSE publishes a very engaging environmental reporting magazine for students, cheekily, though very appropriately titled ‘Gobar Times’.
Gobar (Hindi)-Meaning-Cow dung, has many uses including manure (instead of chemical fertilisers), fuel, insulation, anti-bacterial wall and floor plaster, and as an ingredient in some Hindu religious rituals.
This section discusses how Think Tanks use knowledge, expertise and experience from research and other idea generation activities to promote the change needed in public policy.

ACTION – Putting Knowledge & Ideas to Use
Building Capacity through Education and Training:Think Tanks engage in education and training to share knowledge and develop skills and expertise in their area of operations. This is a very valuable function, which Think Tanks can and must execute,because of the expertise they possess in a particular area.

Capacity building happens at different levels. At one level, expertise is built within the Think Tank, as its researchers are exposed to multiple learning opportunities through the research they do, participation in conferences, dialogues and interaction with established experts. At another level, by inducting and guiding interns and researchers for specific research programs; many offer fellowships and research grants; some even offer degrees. This creates a pool of experts in the field with the skills required to research and analyze a public issue and advocate or execute a policy choice.

Some Think Tanks also offer short-term training programs for functionaries who deal in public issues and public policy. Several Think Tanks also offer learning programs to members of civil society so they are better informed and motivated to seek good public policy. The Frazer Institute (Canada), for instance, conducts free seminars to enable post-secondary students to explore current public policy issues. Some examples include:

Institute of Economic Growth (India) trains probationary officers of the Indian Economic Service in techniques of economic analysis, policy analysis, and planning.
The Institute for Policy Studies (Sri Lanka) has conducted workshops for members of Sri Lanka’s Provisional Councils to improve Service Delivery and budgeting for pro-poor growth and development.
There are several tools and media through which Think Tanks advocate evidence-based policy choices. Some of these include sharing research papers and policy briefs to policy makers, putting them up on their web-site, hosting conferences for influencers of policy or even actively lobbying for change. Without effective advocacy, research efforts may not yield the required change in policy or behavior.

Advocacy: Think Tanks conduct research so that there is informed public policy, formulated on the basis of evidence. The evidence, arguments and recommendations that research produces would be of use if presented effectively and appropriately so that they are heard by policy makers and other influencers of public policy, including members of civil society. This process of effective communication of findings, arguments, recommendations and perhaps, options, is, by and large, what Advocacy by Think Tanks is all about.

Skills required for effective advocacy do not automatically co-exist with research skills, and may have to be developed both at the level of individual researchers and the organization.

Some advocacy exempts include:

ICRIER (India) publishes a policy series- research papers with policy recommendations.
BRAC (Bangladesh) uses innovative approaches such as interactive performance theatre and community/ courtyard meetings to mobilise communities at the grassroots level.
Activism & Outreach: A few Think Tanks with specific action agendas go beyond advocacy to taking concerted action to mobilize opinion and influence decision making in policy, by involving citizens in their campaigns.Sometimes research is commissioned by policy makers and advocacy efforts may be less visible or public. When Think Tanks seek to bring change, battling resistance from different sources like government inertia, prevailing social customs, established power relationships, they may need to indulge in advocacy more forcefully and visibly.

The research design of some Think Tanks is what they call Action Research, dedicated to creating solutions – designing and executing-in their area of operations. An example of action research is:

Development Alternatives (Sustainable livelihoods) generates economic opportunities for people in rural communities using local resource and, innovative technology solutions.
Some Think Tanks provide assessment and consulting services, often for a fee. Such fee based services bring money resources to the Think Tank, and could also provide a measure of the value received by the client from the service.

Expertise, Advice, Consulting: Leading Think Tanks attract intellectuals and experts in different fields, as leaders and members. These include retired high ranking former government officials with wide experience and expertise in policy making and implementation, motivated to bring change. Think Tanks also build their own team of expertise which makes their powerhouses with specific competencies, whose experts are sought to serve on expert panels, committees, working-groups, as resource persons in policy relevant conferences, and as consultants and experts on specific projects. They also influence policy in a more direct way by serving as advisors or members of advisory councils set up for policy review and change.

Preamble to the third part

This post focused on the activities and functions of Think Tanks leaves many unanswered questions and raises many more. What makes a Think Tank effective? What challenges do they face? How should they be managed? What kind of relationship must they have with funders, with Policy makers, with media? How important is it for them to partner with other institutions? How do they establish credibility given that their outputs are largely intellectual and not physical? Some of these questions will be addressed in the third part of this series dealing with Think Tank Effectiveness.