Think Tank challenge: Surviving the competition

Think Tank challenge: Surviving the competitionThe growth of public policy research organizations, or think tanks, over the last few decades has been nothing less than explosive. Not only have these organizations increased in number, but the scope and impact of their work have also expanded dramatically. The potential of think tanks to support and sustain responsible governments and civil societies is far from exhaustive as policymakers worldwide face a common problem of bringing expert knowledge to bear in their decision making.

Responding to the needs of policymakers

Think tanks must harness their collective reservoirs of knowledge, information, and associational energy for the public good. The breadth and scope of these reservoir shave expanded considerably since the 1990s as think tanks have responded to the needs of policymakers and the general public for information that is useful, reliable, accessible, and understandable. Although this need has been an inherent dynamic of the policy making process, the forces of globalization have fostered and markedly accelerated the growth of independent think tanks, due to their unique ability to strengthen the research-policy bridge and thus increase the quality and effectiveness of the policy making process.

By developing and strengthening ties with other nongovernmental and research organizations via state, regional, and global networks, think tanks have solidified their position as integral contributors to the policy making process. They have become more active players in domestic and foreign policy in the last two decades and are now active in 165 countries. While think tanks continue to be concentrated in the United States and Western Europe (60% of all think tanks are located in these two regions), factors such as globalization, a demand for independent information and analysis, the increased complexity of policy issues, and increasing political polarization are also driving the growth of think tanks around the world.

Emerging issues for think tanks

There are a number of emerging issues and trends that will shape the development of think tanks and the role they play globally and in Asia in particular. These present themselves as competitive, resource, technological, and policy challenges.

Think tanks are embracing specialization as a means of distinguishing themselves from the competition. This branding has taken the form of functional, political, and issue specialization that helps market their institutions to donors who are increasingly providing project-specific support to policymakers and to the public who is trying to make sense of the crowded marketplace of ideas and institutions. The vast majority of the think tanks that have come into existence in the last 30 years have been focused on single issues or areas of policy research. More recently, think tanks have faced a competitive threat from consulting firms, law firms, advocacy groups, and cable news networks that now directly compete with them for gifts, grants, and contracts.

There also has been a dramatic shift in funding patterns for think tanks. Central and local governments have cut funding for public policy research while corporations and private foundations have limited their grant-making to project-specific support. Specialized institutions and programs are increasingly attractive to funders who want to target their dollars at specific problems or issues. This trend toward increased specialization has had a direct impact on the programs, constituencies, and funding sources of multi-purpose policy organizations, thereby increasing competition among think tanks simultaneously. It has become increasingly difficult for think tanks to convince prospective funders that their programs are worthy of support. Moreover, increased specialization discourages interdisciplinary responses to complex issues and limits the creativity of scholars.

Information and knowledge no longer translate into power unless they are in the right form, in the right hands, and at the right time. The forces of globalization when coupled with technological advances have increased the velocity and flow of information which is redefining how think tanks operate. Most think tanks now have websites and conduct policy debates via the Internet. The reality that more and more people get their information and knowledge from the Internet, traditional and new media, and social networking sites requires that organizations reexamine how they create, disseminate, and discuss public policy issues. This reality also requires organizations to reconsider the methods they use to reach the constituents they represent and/or the clients they serve and to produce academic-quality research that is understandable and accessible to policymakers and to the public. These dramatic changes have transformed how public policies are analyzed, debated, and made, and think tanks need to keep pace with these changes or they will be buried by them.

Lean, mean, policy machines

The ongoing challenge for think tanks is to produce timely and accessible policy-oriented research that effectively engages policymakers, the press, and the public on the critical issues facing a country. Gone are the days when a think tank could operate with the motto “research it, write it, and they will find it.” Today, think tanks must be lean, mean, policy machines. The Economist described “good think tanks” as those organizations that are able to combine “intellectual depth, political influence, and flair for publicity, comfortable surroundings, and a streak of eccentricity.” New technologies are being created every day and at an accelerated pace that will continually force think tanks to identify new and faster ways to collect, sort, and analyze data and then communicate their findings to a highly segmented target audience using a variety of communication tools.

Those think tanks that fail to organize and integrate these qualities will become known for their “pedantry, irrelevance, obscurity, poverty, and conventionality.” Many think tanks, therefore, have already successfully met this challenge and are now playing a critical role in bridging the divide between the academic and policy communities and policymakers and the public.

Click here to download the 2012 Global Go To Think Tanks Index Report.

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James McGann

About the Author

James G. McGann, Ph.D., is the assistant director of the International Relations Program and director of the TTCSP at the University of Pennsylvania. He conducts research on the trends and challenges facing think tanks and policymakers around the world and provides advice and technical assistance to think tanks, governments and public and private donors on how to improve the quality and impact of policy research. He is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank based in Philadelphia.
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