Conference Rationale

Think Tanks and Their Impact on Policy—Dilemmas, Questions, and Points for Consideration and Discussion

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On May 14-15, 2011, IDI convened an international conference entitled "What Do Think Tanks Do?", which was conducted under the auspices of IDI's Renewing the Israeli Social Contract project and focused on the role and nature of think tanks in the democratic context. In this article, Dr. Karmit Haber explains the rationale behind the conference and examines the primary roles of think tanks and how they approach a variety of issues.

Author's Note: The following article is a draft that is not for citation. Note in addition that the distinction between the various dilemmas/issues presented here is for purposes of convenience, since it is obvious that they are interconnected and flow from one another (ideology, as expressed in the type of knowledge that is produced, which is tied to dependence on sources of financing, and the like). This document presents questions for discussion and points for consideration regarding each dilemma (and does not conform to the rules of citation and academic “accuracy”).

1. Think Tanks

A. A Brief Overview

With the proliferation of think tanks, academics have begun to examine the factors that have led to this growth, among them: the separation of powers among the three branches of government; a weak political system/political parties; civic culture and developed philanthropy; a public that has lost faith in the government establishment; and a rise in the number of citizens who prefer, support, and promote the activities of civic groups, favoring these over political parties, bureaucrats, and government as best representing their preferences and desires. 

The growth of telecommunications has made it harder for governments to control the rate of exchange/flow of information, who would prefer that much of this information not be revealed. Due to the lack of regulation of the Internet, the problem arises of the quality of the material and information being disseminated (the ability to circulate information of limited quality and at very low cost). The unseasoned reader will find it difficult to distinguish between baseless, superficial information and that disseminated by think tanks, which passes through internal (and sometimes also external) mechanisms of quality control.

In developed countries, the importance of think tanks lies in the assumption that governments, including their own, are incapable of making well-grounded decisions due to the endless profusion of information that they receive and the time constraints under which they operate. Hence, in the developed world, the central problem is information overload, and the difficulty of channeling the information and making appropriate decisions. By contrast, in many of the developing countries, the central problem is that the analysis and decision-making processes take place in the absence of appropriate bureaucratic mechanisms; likewise, there are numerous procedural shortcomings as well as weak institutions in the public sector. These problems have led government in the developing countries to seek aid from civil society groups and outside advisors.

Think tanks are, by definition, elitist institutions that seek to influence policy processes (in this context, there is a tension between the growing desire of think tanks for democratic involvement in grass-roots politics and the exclusive professionalism of think tanks). The expansion of civil society has increased the transparency of think tanks as an alternative source of information as opposed to that provided by the state. At times, they are perceived as institutions critical of the government, and independent from it and from the business community. In many countries, their role is to serve as a mediating factor between the decision makers and civil society groups. The degree of autonomy that the researchers have in their work is determined by the structure and the culture of the think tank (academic orientation, consultancy, advocacy). Researchers at academic institutions enjoy the greatest degree of independence in setting priorities, while policy scholars have less freedom. Obviously, there is a broad spectrum of think tanks, but what typifies them all is incisive and long-term thinking (as opposed to superficial and hasty) on “hot” topics that head the agenda.

The differences between think tanks are in such parameters as size of staff, budget, fields of research, ideological orientation, funding model, and publications. While think tanks share the desire to influence public opinion and public policy, the extent of their impact, and the manner in which they are involved in the various stages of the decision-making process, is greatly affected by their mandate, their resources (funding sources), and their priorities.

B. The Primary Roles of a Think Tank

  1. Mediator between public and government in a manner that is constructive and increases trust in public figures.
  2. Independent voice in public discussions, grounded on in-depth knowledge.
  3. Identification, analysis, and assessment of public issues, proposals, and programs.
  4. Transformation of ideas and problems into issues for discussion in the public space.
  5. Interpretation of events and policy decisions for the print and electronic media, thereby steering and influencing public discourse on policy-related issues at the local and global levels.
  6. Creation of a constructive forum for the exchange of ideas and knowledge between key players in the formulation of policy.
  7. Initiation of, or contribution to, the building of networks aimed at promoting specific issues.
  8. “Deployment” of manpower and human capital to the corridors of power and to various government committees (as experts/consultants, and sometimes permanent staff).
  9. Challenging of existing thinking and standards of business people, government, and the bureaucracy by providing creative, innovative solutions.

2. Neutrality and Professionalism vs. (Political) Ideology

How do we define ideology? (Does it refer to political ideology, or ideology in the sense of a way of thinking, organization of ideas, and some degree of policy direction?)

Is the think tank aimed at promoting a particular ideology or does it insist on remaining neutral and apolitical? What is the “price” of being ideological and that of being neutral?

Should we narrow our areas of specialization? And in this vein, which subjects should we address, and which should we avoid?—an ideological question that relates to which clients we reject.

In practice, think tanks tend to be organized around a certain ideological direction, and it is expected that there will be a number of think tanks, each of them reflecting a different ideological position. In this sense, the Israel Democracy Institute strives to promote a pluralistic, non-ideological stance, in order to gather under its auspices as many positions, perspectives, and like-minded partners as possible. But is being non-partisan and objective in fact the way to achieve legitimacy, or is this merely “lip service,” inasmuch as it is impossible to be truly apolitical in an arena with such a multitude of agendas, since it is necessary to choose and formulate priorities and areas of specialization?

An example of the difficulty of choosing priorities and areas of focus (the tension between advocacy and research) is how an institution that carries the name the Israel Democracy Institute addresses the human rights of Arab Israelis. (The problem in Israel is that an area that is essentially universal, such as human rights, is seen as “leftist.” Thus for example, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel is also an apolitical organization; nonetheless, due to its focus on certain topics, there are those who ascribe to it a definite political stance. There are even some leading politicians who are suspicious of the ideology behind such terms as “democracy” and “human rights” in certain contexts.) Is it possible to be involved in and promote human rights issues yet not be pigeon-holed politically? In this context, the question arises of whether, when I start to defend an idea that I believe in, I forfeit my apolitical position as a neutral organization. Should I take a stand when one of the fundamental principles of the think tank is breached or threatened? Is the think tank’s role, for example, to be the watchdog of democracy, and to condemn violations of the democratic idea? If so, this too carries a price: The moment that we take on the label of “judge” and respond, we necessarily lose groups that now support us. Thus the question is when to speak out and when not to. Where do we draw the line when it comes to responding?

There are those who argue that the “mask of neutrality” is very important in a society such as Israel’s, where being identified with a certain party or political camp prevents us from reaching parts of the population and being perceived as reliable and trustworthy, and from creating an atmosphere that allows people on the right and on the left to sit down together.

There is a tendency to confuse neutrality and objectivity, and a problem distinguishing between the two, since the most objective advice can be non-neutral in its consequences. At times, the goals of research, and even the choice of methodology, are liable by their very nature to be controversial and to raise ethical questions. However, neutrality is important in the sense of open and transparent discussion of competing positions, interests, and values. For this reason, some would argue that the task of the think tank is to offer policy advice/recommendations in a manner that strikes a balance between ideologically related pressures, for one, and personal interests, for another.

3. Dilemma of Interested Parties

To whom are think tanks accountable? Who are their clients/target audience? Is it the general public? The decision makers? The academic community? The media? Leaders of the business world/“commercial elites”? How are think tanks positioned within each target audience? And to what extent are they dependent on these groups (in the areas of financing, popularity, legitimacy)? Am I obligated, first and foremost, to the social/political agenda, or to the intra-organizational framework (agenda of the executive committee, the donors, the senior fellows, etc.)? How does this dependence on the different groups affect the issues that we choose to engage in? Thus, for example, who sets the parameters of influence and effectiveness (the degree of influence of the funding sources, in this context)?

James McGann, an expert on think tanks, has identified a number of trends in this area; one of these relates to fundraising, which has turned into funding for short-term “peer projects” as opposed to long-term funding that provides general support. This trend reduces the abilities, output, and impact of many think tanks. Short-term funding undermines their independence, risk tolerance, and innovativeness (and of course, in such a situation, donors fund specific projects that are important to them, which deter those institutions from experimenting, taking chances, and investigating ways of thinking “outside the box”).

Will we intentionally avoid controversial issues as a result? Should we distinguish between ways of influencing decision makers and the general public? Or do we lose the trust, respect, and credibility of the academic community as a result of using a style of writing that meets the standards of policy makers?

Some would argue that there is an inherent problem of reportability among think tanks: They influence government policy, yet they themselves do not practice democratic transparency. Conversely, there are those who believe that think tanks are not obligated to report to anyone but themselves (not to clients or to donors), since the basic concept of a think tank rests on independent thought, divorced from external pressures. In this context, we must distinguish between the obligation to report and the assessment of outcomes: the obligation is to something rather than to someone.

4. (The Generation of) Knowledge in Think Tanks

A. The Type of Knowledge Generated – Where Is It Directed? What Is Its Goal? In What Ways Is It Used?

Are we dealing only with the generation and dissemination of knowledge, or do we wish to influence practice and policy? Are we providing professional knowledge to decision makers, or are we participating, in a broader sense, in shaping the normative framework of society? How should we present ourselves to the outside when there is a range of opinions among ourselves? Toward which segment of the population should we direct our efforts? Should we identify the burning issues on the political, public, and media agendas at present? Or should we develop a long-term perspective that will endure beyond the current political wave (seeing not only the “trees” but the entire “forest”), and look at the type of society in which we wish to live ten, or perhaps fifty, years down the road? In certain settings (Israel, for example), the objective of a think tank is not only to “sell the merchandise” but to “create a market” (that is, to “invent” the function of a “think tank”).

In practice, think tanks sometimes provide an answer to the immediate needs of specific decision makers rather than the long-term needs of the state. The question thus arises of whether think tanks should direct themselves toward offering immediate solutions, or propose various alternatives and models, analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of each one (thereby allowing decision makers to decide what is right for them)? In this way, we help them choose by providing information, and expand their imagination by exposing them to a variety of options.

There is a tension between the policy community, which feels that think tanks should be relevant to policy, and those who believe that think tanks should help steer academic research. It is the dichotomy between the world of ideas and the world of policy. Institutions that guide research/academia hold that think tanks should see the “big picture” and grapple with long-term issues (in hopes that sophisticated conclusions and uncompromising research will prove more persuasive to the public, as well as to decision makers, than will “spoon-fed recommendations”). By contrast, policy people believe that they must adapt themselves to the (sometimes immediate) needs of policy makers, adhere to the rules of the political world, and produce “user-friendly” materials.

The relative advantage of think tanks as knowledge generators is the benefit of time, which permits thorough consideration and discussion of issues, processing, critical thinking, and reflection (as opposed to merely “putting out fires”). For policy people, over and above in-depth information, a think tank is a place where they can go to clarify issues, hear different positions, and gain perspective on social policy. Collaboration between politicians and experts is tremendously important since, in the long term, political decisions that are not guided by analysis and extensive knowledge are made blindly (the advantage of experts lies, among other things, in their skepticism and “informed ignorance”).

In the exchange between politicians and experts/knowledge developers, there is a mutual contribution. Even if the expert’s recommendations are not always accepted, this does not indicate failure, since the very transfer of knowledge makes the policy person more sensitive to the development of the knowledge and to its influence on government/social policy. In effect, this is an example of the culture of exchange between experts and politicians, in which professionalism confers legitimacy and a “stamp of approval” on the experts as persons dealing with matters relevant to society and to social policy.

However, the more that think tanks turn into bodies that react to the short-term needs of policy makers and the media, the more they are likely to lose their strategic advantage. As a result of their focus on speedy responses at the expense of depth, think tanks are giving up what they do best—providing an independent perspective based on a broad range of subjects. There is a difference between “academic time” and “political time,” which raises the question of how think tanks cope, if indeed they do, with the fact that policy makers must make decisions in “real time”? There are those who argue that the time frames do not have to correspond, since the primary goal is identifying relevant topics that are on the public agenda. As long as the ongoing activity of the think tank is relevant, the appropriate information can be retrieved at any given moment.

Major crises that take place in the political sphere offer a window of opportunity for think tanks to disseminate new ideas, improve policy, and give voice to their perspectives and agenda. A crisis “pushes” certain topics to the top of the agenda, and it is in such contexts that the relevance of the think tank is measured (despite the fact that the political arena is chaotic and unpredictable, bound by time constraints, and governed by realpolitik).

B. Knowledge and Values and the Manipulation of Knowledge

What is the reciprocal relationship between policy and politics, on the one hand, and knowledge and values, on the other? Do values circumscribe knowledge, or guide its application?

The dilemma of manipulation of knowledge by decision makers: Academic arguments serve as a tool for gaining/increasing legitimacy and enhancing the image of trustworthiness on the part of politicians (since this is knowledge provided by independent, “unbiased,” non-profit sources that are experts in their field). In most cases, this exchange of knowledge between academics and the government bureaucracy is not transparent, and grants power to certain actors. And at times, this knowledge is not revealed to the public for strategic reasons, even if it is important that it be disclosed. In this sense, not only does the bureaucracy gain know-how from experts/academic research but it also amasses greater relative power.

On the one hand, this knowledge can be used by decision makers for opportunism or self-interest, but on the other, the very utilization of the knowledge offers the think tanks opportunities to be effective and to set the agenda. At the same time, so-called “neutral” knowledge can sometimes lose its neutrality, if only by being used by politicians and/or other interested parties (in this way, conveyed to the public). Hence, think tanks indeed serve the government, but not in the way they thought or intended.

How then should we position ourselves and our work in such a way that policy makers (and other “clients”) will see think tanks as an authoritative, reliable source of knowledge based on which they can formulate decisions, rather than as a source of reinforcement and support for existing positions (primarily political ones)?

5. The Dilemma of Influence on Policy—Can Influence Be Measured, and if so, How?

Assessing the impact and performance of think tanks is not at all simple, due partly to the range of approaches, and especially, to the multitude of voices and actors at times when policy is determined, making it hard to know who has “hit the target” and indeed had an influence. (Even in American politics, where think tanks play a significant role in policy making, the complexity of the legislative process and the many different interests make it difficult for this or that actor to claim full responsibility for any public policy decision.) The ideas and know-how of think tanks must compete with the positions and objectives of other actors in the policy arena, raising the question of to what extent their products actually generate influence.

There are various definitions and ways of understanding what constitutes influence and how it can be assessed. If think tanks wish to communicate in the most effective manner possible, they have to play a number of key roles, including: research; interpretation and transmitting of messages through the various channels of communication; conferences; and influence through networking and the recruitment of elite individuals and groups.

A. Possible Indicators of Influence

There are a number of indicators that can be measured (as suggested by James McGann):

  1. Resource indicators—Degree of stability of the financial support; degree of access (of the think tank’s personnel/executive committee) to decision makers and other elite groups associated with policy; abilities and background of the think tank personnel; quality and credibility of networks of influence; and ties with key figures in the policy community, academia, and the media.
  2. Demand indicators—Degree of media exposure; degree of Internet exposure; number of meetings with government representatives; sales of books/publications; dissemination of reports; maintaining of databases; number of conferences/ workshops/seminars; extent of utilization of the think tank’s experts and knowledge by other influential elites such as: editors, columnists, business leaders, the media, and other pundits, as well as the use of knowledge by special interest groups and other civic actors.
  3. Impact indicators—Recommendations adopted by policy makers; use of the think tank by political parties as an advisory body; receipt of prizes; articles, and citations of articles, in academic journals; impact of the think tank’s Internet site, and so on.

Of all the above, the major measure of influence is in persuading the makers of policy decisions to advance legislation that is consistent with the think tank’s interests (change of policy, or adoption of a recommendation), or to refrain from legislation that runs counter to its principles. Think tanks are one of many actors competing for power and prestige in the marketplace of ideas, but it is their unique qualities that make them stand out: expertise, creativity, and sophisticated analysis of policy issues. The difficulty of assessing their influence on policy demands that we rely on such uncertain parameters as statements by policy makers that they have adopted a recommendation, and circumstantial evidence from those close to the decision makers. The opportunity of think tanks to maximize their involvement and influence is greater in the early stages of policy formulation than in the stages of ratification and legislation, when the most influential actors are those in the inner circle of the political parties and the official political institutions.

B. Ways for Think Tanks to Gain Access to the Policy-making Process

  1. At the formal level—reports, publications (enabling readers to download publications offers think tanks an indication of which projects are generating the greatest demand, in addition to the citation of research papers in academic/non-academic journals), workshops, presentations, participation in committees (including parliamentary ones) and conferences, discussions in the media.
  2. At the informal level—social gatherings, social networking, and the use of mass media as a key criterion.
  3. Use of media/extent of media coverage—There are a number of ways to measure influence in this context, for example: How much media exposure do the think tanks receive? Demand for publications? Satisfactory attendance at conferences of the think tank? Its public image/perception in the eyes of the public? How many times were the think tank’s activities mentioned in the daily press? How much air time (minutes) did the think tank’s personnel/researchers receive in interviews?

It should be noted that directors of think tanks sometimes confuse media exposure with influence on policy. While quotes in the print and broadcast media create the impression that this or that think tank plays a central role in shaping public policy (and indeed make it possible to share research results with the public and with decision makers), this does not necessarily guarantee that its positions will in fact have a significant influence on policy discussions. In certain contexts, emphasis on advocacy, media, and transparency may be achieved at the expense of credibility and intellectual substance. 

Dr. Karmit Haber is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.