1 August 2012
The number and popularity of think tanks continue to grow but has this growth actually translated to greater influence? Today we explore this question with our partners at CIGI.
Prepared by: ISN staff
If we are to believe The Economist, most think tanks aspire to combine intellectual depth, political influence and a flair for publicity into a neat and digestible package. But how much influence do think tanks really exert? As a recent paper produced by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) suggests, the answer for ‘traditional’ think tanks increasingly may be ‘not that much’. Indeed, because of the rise of the internet, social media, and a growing appreciation that complex problems require interdisciplinary solutions, the ODI paper argues that emerging concepts such as ‘think nets’, in which the ‘human capital’ provided by others is managed by small, policy-focused ‘secretariats’, represent the logical next step beyond traditional think tanks.
Influential or Inconsequential?
While the financial stability of ‘big hitter’ think tanks has remained relatively constant, myriad others continue to scramble for limited funds. Recent global financial instability has of course not helped matters, as a recent article in The Guardian noted. Not only has funding become more precarious, but “[b]uilding the necessary depth in the research agenda has become nigh on impossible, with the focus being instead on short-term, opportunistic pieces.”
Such a shift in focus may increase one’s visibility and level of recognition in the policy marketplace, but more than a few analysts question whether this is a wise approach. “A few years ago, think tanks worried about how to communicate the research they already had,” observes Enrique Mendizabal, but “Now, they [just] worry about how to communicate.” Perceptions about influence are now being driven by web-hits, blog comments, appearances in the media, numbers of re-tweets, etc. This emphasis on visibility, Mendizabal further observes, “is that it does not necessarily lead to the achievement of the core mission of all think tanks: to have substantive influence on policies.”
There is some irony in the above concern, however. If think tanks are increasingly trying to gauge their influence in terms of their media presence, then they are in for a rude awakening – i.e., the supposedly most ‘influential’ ones actually perform quite poorly in this regard, at least for their size. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), of the most widely cited American think tanks only one institution received more than one follow-on citation per $10,000 budget, and that was the CEPR itself. Although the volume of citations for other large institutions like the Brookings Institute (2,432) or the Heritage Foundation (1,260) dwarfed that of the CEPR (244), their budgets of $90m, $80m and $1.8m respectively suggest that media presence should not be an unquestioned guiding principle for think tanks, whatever their size. Media citations may have their utility, but they are not necessarily synonymous with policy influence.
Fair enough, says Donald Abelson, but if think tank analysts have their recommendations dismissed by parliamentarians, senators or ministers, should we automatically assume that they have no influence in the policymaking process whatsoever? Not necessarily, argues Abelson. An analyst may not be able to take credit for influencing a specific policy decision, but he or she can play an important role in helping the public, policymakers and the media consider different approaches when it comes to solving difficult policy problems.
Abelson is hardly alone in his belief. Former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, for example, expressed similar ones in the following September 2011 address to the Centre for Governance Innovation (CIGI):
Some highlights from the Conference include:
Roger Martin on “The Paradox of Think Tank Innovation”
Session 1 on “Policy Innovation in the Age of Social Media”
Session 3 on “Policy Influence: Who Has it and How to Get It”
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