Think-tanks and policy-making
Defining a think tank has long posed problems for those seeking to accurately describe what has become an increasingly diverse set of organizations. According to Denham and Garnett, the term think tank is borrowed from the Second World War military language and was originally used to describe a room where plans and strategies could be discussed safely. Since then, the term has been used to describe several different types of organizations engaged in policy analysis.
The term is often used to describe any organization conducting policy-related, technical or scientific research and analysis, which might be working within the government, operate as an independent non-profit organizations or be profit oriented (Giepen, 2008:107). The term is many times defined as “think tanks or public policy research, analysis and engagement institutions are organizations that generate policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues that helps policymakers and the public make informed decisions about public policy” .
Thinks tanks are also called think factory and can also be described as “research organizations engaged to solve complex problems or predict or plan future developments in military, political or social areas” . Think tanks comprise of applied-policy intellectuals and organizations engaged in the application of social knowledge and are to be found in all industrialized democracies. The United States can be considered to be the home of think tanks with New York and Washington DC being the two foremost centers of non-university based intellectual concentrations (Maheshwari, 2002:475).
The reasons why think tanks elude simple definition is because there is no consensus about what constitutes a think tank. According to some, the term think tank should be reserved only for a handful of large well-funded organizations of high powered individuals committed to studying critical political, social, and economic issues. The Brookings Institute, a Washington icon long heralded as the quintessential think tank, would likely be among the few institutes satisfying these rather restrictive conditions.
If this usage of the term was adopted, however, dozens of other less visible institutes that also engage in research and analysis would be overlooked or regarded as something other than what they are. Most scholars, after having struggled to define what a think tank is, acknowledged that there is no typical think tank or as one scholar aptly put the idea as “I know one when I see one”. Think tanks may range in size from entities with as few as one or two people to ones with several hundred staffs and researchers.
They may possess budgets as low as one or two hundred thousand dollars or as high as several million dollars. In other words, a think tank could look like RAND, one of America’s premier foreign and defense policy institutes, with an annual budget exceeding $100 million and an impressive building complex located on prime oceanfront, or like the Canadian Council for International Pease and Security, which, until it was disbanded in 2001, paid for its rented office space in Ottawa’s Byward Market with a modest $250,000 to $300,000 budget (Abelson, 2002:8).
In addition to varying widely in terms of staff size and budget, think tanks also vary tremendously in areas of specialization, research output and ideological orientation and greatly in terms of their institutional independence. Some are affiliated to university departments and must rely on their resources to sustain them for instance the various defense and foreign policy centers established over a dozen Canadian universities under the Department of National defense’s Military and Strategic Studies Program, MSSP, now called the Strategic Defense forum, SDF.
There are also think tanks that functions inside government including the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office. In addition, there are independent public policy think tanks i. e. organizations that function much like private corporations but whose bottom lines are measured not by profit margins but by their impact on policy ideas. The next section analyzes the different types of think tanks (Abelson, 2002:8-9). However, despite of their considerable diversity, think tanks do have some characteristics in common: they are generally nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations engaged in the study of public policy.
Think tanks can embrace whatever ideological orientation they desire and provide their expertise to any political candidate or office holder willing to take advantage of their advice. They must by law, however, refrain from engaging in certain overt political activities. What has traditionally distinguished think tanks from the multitude of other organizations in the policy-making community is the emphasis they research and analysis. Not all think tanks share the same commitment scholar research or devote comparable resources to performing this function.
However, the nostalgic vision of think tanks as idea factories, or brain trusts created to address society’s most pressing social, economic, and political problems must be reconsidered in any contemporary study (Abelson, 2002:9). Types of think tanks Majority of the think tanks can be seen as a variation of one of the four basic types as below; 1. Academic (University without students) – These are academic institutions that focus on staff with strong academic credentials and non-partisan research, and muted ideology.
The institutes focus on staff with political or philosophical ideological credentials. They enjoy primarily finances of various foundations, corporations and individuals and their agenda is set by researchers and foundations. The institutes give academic monographs and journals articles in objective nonpartisan style. The subtypes of this type of think tank include Elite policy club and specialized academic think tank. It is usually seen that culture and philanthropic traditions usually support the idea of nonpartisan experts.
Some examples of academic think tanks are Brooking institution, Institute of International Economics etc (Xenia Puhan, 2008, p. 49). 2. Contract Researcher – These are institutes mainly in the form of for-profit consulting firms. The institutes focus on staff with strong academic credentials, muted ideology and objective nonpartisan research. The financiers of such think tanks are primarily government agencies and their agenda is set primarily by contracting agency. Such organizations report for government agencies and other clients in objective nonpartisan style.
Specialized contract researcher in a particular field is an example of this type of think tank. Such institutions spread when the government support is available for policy research. Some examples of academic think tanks are Raid Corp and Urban Institute in US (Xenia Puhan, 2008, p. 48). 3. Advocacy Task – These are institutes attracting staff with political credentials and oriented to currently topical issues. The financiers of such organizations are primarily foundations and corporate individuals and their agenda is set by organization leaders.
Some subtypes of this type of think tank is specialized advocacy tank, vanity and legacy think tanks etc. Such think tank institutes survive then foundation, business and group support is available. Example of the think tank is Centre for Policy Studies in UK (Xenia Puhan, 2008, p. 49). 4. Party Think Tank – These are institutes that focus on party members and party loyalty. These institutes focus on party member and party loyalty. The financiers of such think tanks are primarily party and government subsidies and the agenda of the organization is closely tied to party platform.
Such institutes survive when government funding is available for political party research. An example of party think tank is Konrad Adenauer Stiflung in Germany (Xenia Puhan, 2008, p. 49). Influence of think-tanks One of the most vexed questions concerning think tanks is whether or not they have policy influence. Notwithstanding extensive growth, think tanks do not enjoy automatic political access. Attempting to broker policy analysis to decision makers does not equate to immediate policy impact on forthcoming legislation or executive thinking.
Relatively few think tanks make key contributions to decision making in local, national, or regional global fora, or exert paradigmatic influence over policy thinking. Instead, it is more appropriate to view them as cogs in the wider machineries of governance. Furthermore, think tank research reports do not escape challenges or criticism from other knowledge actors in universities, whilst they may be ignored or patronized at will by governments, corporations, and international organizations. However, this is not to suggest that these organizations are without intellectual authority or policy influence (Fischer, Miller, Sidney, 2007:155).
First think tanks appropriate authority on the basis of their scholarly credentials as quasi-academic organizations focused on the rigorous and professional analysis of policy issues. Many use their presumed independent status as civil society organizations to strengthen their reputation as beholden neither to the interests of markets nor the state. These endowments give think tanks some legitimacy in seeking to intervene with knowledge advise in policy processes (Fischer, Miller, Sidney, 2007:156).
However, a recent empirical survey of European decision makers, journalists, and academics’ views about the impact of think tanks discovered critical and cautious perceptions of influence: “All (interviewers) insisted on the importance of a healthy think tanks ector for EU policy making while criticizing their relative lack of strength and ability to provide added value, sometimes their lack of impact and relevance; and finally an approach seen as too technocratic and elitist” Think tanks respond to demand for high-quality and reputable research and analysis, ideas, and argumentation.
In addition, they provide services such as ethics or policy training for civil servants, or by organizing conferences or seminars. Similarly, they become useful translators of abstract modeling and dense theoretical concepts characteristics of contemporary social science. For governments concerned about evidence-based policy, think tanks potentially help create a more rational policy process by augmenting in-house research capacities, circumventing time and institutional constraints and alerting elites to changing policy conditions.
This, it may be less the case that think tanks have an impact on government and more the case that governments or certain political leaders employ these organizations as tools to pursue their own interests and provide intellectual legitimation for policy (Fischer, Miller, Sidney, 2007:155). Think tanks also contribute to governance and institution building by facilitating exchange between official and other private actors as interlocutors and network entrepreneurs.
Networks are important to think tanks both in embedding them in a relationship with more powerful actors, and in increasing their constituency, and thereby potentially amplifying their impact (Fischer, Miller, Sidney, 2007:156). Reference List Abelson DE, Do Think Tanks Matter? : Assessing the Impact of Public Policy Institutes, London, McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2002 Akovali G, Mans ZA, The role of government and research institutes in the planning of research and development in some Central Asian and Caucasian republics, Washington DC, IOS Press, 2000
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