When does a research institution become a think tank? Insights from Indonesia

17 October 2019

The term ‘think tank’ was unknown in Indonesia for a long time – in fact it is still unknown for many Indonesians – and many knowledge producers prefer to use other labels to identify themselves. In this article, I discuss the changes to Indonesia’s knowledge sector, how institutions are responding to these changes, and the challenges they face, based on my ongoing research into knowledge production in Indonesia.

Historically research institutions were seen as NGOs

Two of the first major organisations to do research and advocacy work were The Institute of Research, Education and Information of Social and Economic Affairs (LP3ES) and the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), who both emerged in 1971.

Given the political atmosphere under Suharto’s regime (1965-1998), and the absence of any established knowledge sector, these research institutes were more commonly viewed as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – part of the civil society. LP3ES in particular saw itself as a critical counterpart to the government.

However, CSIS may have been an exception here, as it had ties to President Suharto’s inner circle and played more of an advisory role.

In the 1990s they started to develop more policy-relevant research agendas  

It was only in the 1990s that it became common place for research institutions to focus on policy areas and develop policy relevant research agendas – largely responding to donor agendas. For example, within LP3ES specialisation started to take place, creating separate research units.

But these research centres rarely performed advisory functions – especially not to the government, with President Soeharto’s continued rule (again, CSIS being the exception).

After 1998, they started to perform more advisory roles

When Soeharto’s regime came to an end in 1998, there was a shift, as international donor agendas pushed more transparent and deliberative policy-making processes. Research institutes started to produce more policy briefs and make recommendations to policymakers.

Research institutions are having to adapt

Amid this changing knowledge ecosystem, research institutes are having to adapt.

Having to adjust to being a partner in dialogue, rather than a critical opponent, of the government is not easy. For those institutions operating during Soeharto’s regime, this is a particularly big shift. In this case, CSIS is rather an exception, given its close ties to the Soeharto regime. And it was recently nominated as one of the most influential ‘think tanks’ in Southeast Asia by the Global Go To Think Index 2018. In turn, organisations like CSIS are helping to reshape the knowledge ecosystem.

Based on my research, the shift – or rather fragmentation – from civil society into a functioning knowledge sector requires several adjustments and a reflexive capacity to understand what is the organisation’s most effective position to influence public and/or policy discourse. Improving organisational capacity while keeping up with the latest research agendas is another struggle.

Many Indonesian NGOs and research institutes have not grasped the kind of organisational change needed to adjust to the new context – such as communications skills and tools, policy relevant research strategies and branding.

Some have been too conservative or stubborn in their approach. They have not adapted to make use of funding opportunities and an increasingly competitive sector.

And those that have been historically more rooted in advocacy, rather than research, seem to have struggled to admit that there is now competition that must be balanced with collaboration and engagement.

The struggle to compete is accompanied by the struggle to retain the best human capital, while trying to transform institutional values into feasible research agendas, maintaining an ideological base while negotiating external interests (notable donor interests).

The change process requires pragmatism, humility and vision

To build a think tank from scratch would be easier than transforming a well-known organisation into one – especially when that organisation is identified with an ideological position.

Based on the examples I have studied, the change process requires pragmatism and humility. But also, a visionary approach in order to repositioning an NGO as a think tank.

Embracing the role of a think tank has its implications. Not only internally, but also for the wider knowledge ecosystem. If an influential organisation stutters in its transformation process, so will the whole knowledge sector. Equally, a successful shift will enhance the capacity of the knowledge ecosystem, as other actors will benefit from its presence. Ultimately, whether or not an organisation chooses to adapt and call itself a think tank is a decision that should be left to the actors.