Think Tanks at a Crossroad: Shifting Paradigms and Policy Dilemmas

October 2013 - April 2015
Daniel Smilov

The main questions we are interested in are the following: Have the post-communist think tanks already outlived their usefulness? Is the historical episode during which they provided vigorous and viable policy solutions to important societal challenges over, condemning them to the dustbin of history? Are they to become victim of the popular revolt against the orthodoxy of transition and “neoliberalism”? Have they proven incapable of redirecting their way of thinking and modes of acting in a manner enabling them to contribute productively in the present times of economic and intellectual crisis? In short are the post-communist think tanks agents of policy innovation or guardians of the intellectual status quo?

Our hypothesis is that there is a certain crisis of the role of think tanks at the present moment and with this project we set out to test this hypothesis, to understand better the character of the putative crisis, its causes and effects. The goal of the project is not to satisfy our intellectual curiosity, but to help design strategies capable of reinvigorating the think tank community. 

Our approach is comparative: we will rely on six case studies (Think tanks in Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia, Greece and Spain, and the special case of TTs in Brussels) of European countries hit by different types of problems. Mostly, these are the European financial crisis, the rise of populism, and the redefinition of the role of traditional party systems and structures of representative democracy. These problems present both intellectual and financial challenges to the think tank community. On the one hand, traditional products that these organisations have identified with have become questionable: recipes of increasing public participation in the political process, greater transparency, and greater involvement of experts have all become problematic, and have been attacked both by populists (as not radical enough), and by epistemic communities and expert networks (as too populist). On the other hand, the financial crisis has made think tanks vulnerable and unstable, because of the dearth of public and foreign funding.

Our hypothesis is that this predicament affects particularly organisations, attempting to be independent. In fact, the very meaning of independent think-tank has become questionable since thus far under this concept the following has been understood:

a)                   The advocacy of “non-partisan”, “cross-party issues”, such as public participation, transparency, deference to expert bodies;

b)                  Funding from public sources or foreign funding.

In the present circumstances, both of the pillars of independence are under question: the “non-partisan” issues have become a focus of partisan competition, while the “independent” funding has either diminished or has become to be seen as problematic:

·                     First, is the crisis that we describe existing in the specific setting?

·                     Secondly, is this a crisis of the majority of think tanks in Eastern Europe or only of those which have never managed to get outside of the transition issues?

·                     Thirdly, are the newly emerging think tanks in a different position than the old established once?

·                     Finally, to what extent are think tanks aware of the crisis and the choices that we have diagnosed?

The specific purpose of our project is:

·                     to analyze closely the situation think tanks are in regarding the presented policy dilemmas facing them;

·                     to map the new strategic horizons and policy agendas for think tanks;

·                     to propose strategies for reinvigorating think tanks policy role in Europe.

What we are interested to study is:

·                   research agenda/advocacy agenda of selected think tanks in the last five years;

·                   awareness of the policy choices to be made;

·                   perceptions by decision makers and general public of the role of think tanks.

·                   analysis of the dominant policy paradigms of the selected think tanks on the basis of their major projects – desk research;

·                   analysis of the general perceptions on the role of think tanks in the six different countries – discourse analysis of media coverage by CLS team and partners;

·                   analysis of the decision makers’ perceptions of the influence and relevance of think tanks in conceiving and applying public policies – in depth interviews and analysis of official documents;

·                   analysis of the think tanks’ perceptions of the field – major challenges, achievements and policy relevance – in depth interviews with think tanks representatives.

 

As a preliminary hypothesis, we assume that there are at least three different strategies, which think tanks may adopt in the current situation. In view of the growing tensions between the public participation and delegation paradigms, think tanks may have to choose between them. Thus, the first two strategies are strategies of specialization: we expect to find that thinks tanks increasingly focus either on participatory or on delegation instruments in their activities. Economic think tanks generally rely much more heavily on the delegation-to-experts paradigm, while think tanks specialized in the political process tend to be more focused on participatory policies. If we are right in our assumptions, there will be some pressure for further specialization in the think tank community along these lines. There is a third possible strategy, of course: to retain a more general profile and to stick to both values of participation and delegation. The prima facie cost of this choice is a potential lack of focus and confusing messages to the public. However, this strategy may also prove productive if think tanks preserve their ability to advocate successful substantive policies in different contexts. In each of these contexts, they will have to defend the choice of a specific paradigm, however. Without the safe haven of the democratization and the delegation paradigms as self-understanding (or universally valid) thinks tanks will have a much greater exposure and responsibility for the policies they advocate. Hopefully, however, by staying behind successful substantive policies think tanks will be able to gain significant public trust. After all, participation, transparency, and delegation to independent bodies are not ends in themselves, and they are useful only as far as they promote sound policies and responsible political actors. 

 

Case Study Reports 

The aims of the case studies is:

- to provide a Brief overview of the profile and character of the major think tanks in the different countries;

- to analyze the dominant policy paradigms of these think tanks on the basis of their major projects;

- to analyze the major problems facing the think tanks community of the given country, as well as the strategies adopted by the think tanks to address them;

 - to evaluate them in terms of their adequacy in the given political environment, their sustainability through time and their transfer potential.

 

1.Think tanks in Brussels

2. Think tanks in Bulgaria

3. Think tanks in Greece

4. Think tanks in Poland

5. Think tanks in Slovakia

6. Think tanks in Spain   

 

 Comparative paper

Think tanks are far from becoming irrelevant.  Yet there are important changes in the character of their involvement in the political processes. These changes are driven mostly by developments affecting key elements of representative democracy, such as political parties, interest group representation, etc. Somewhat paradoxically, the changes in the South and the East are bringing think tanks in these two European regions closer together.  Of primary importance is the capacity of think tanks to reflect critically on their ideological environment, to interact with political parties, universities, and the media, to be sensitive of deficiencies in the functioning of the major structures of liberal democracy, and to be bold enough to secure a certain degree of autonomy from these actors. 

The role and relevance of think tanks should not be assessed primarily on the basis of their institutional capacity and resilience, but on the basis of their intellectual output, not only in terms of elaboration of specific policies, but in terms of interaction with their specific environment, and on the basis of their capacity to compensate for deficiencies and weaknesses of the major bodies of power and the intellectual authorities in liberal democracy. Our comparative review of different experiences could hopefully serve as an invitation to a broader discussion of these issues in the think tank community.

  

Think Tanks: The Case for Adaptability. A Policy Paper

Think tanks have not outlived their usefulness and purpose.  They have sufficient resources to adapt to new realities. Of course, as far as CLS – the organizer of the project – is a think tank, there is an irreducible sense of a conflict of interest in making such an optimistic statement. Yet, we do have arguments for it, which could be grouped in three major categories: ideology, funding and organization, and the media.

1.                  Ideology

Recommendation 1: Think tanks should preserve their claim to representativeness through ideas. Their job is to generate, to introduce to the public sphere ideas, which can claim wide support. Adaptability cannot be at the expense of abandoning this essential feature of the work of think tanks.

Recommendation 2: Think tanks should not fear politicization:  having an ideological political profile does not necessarily undermine their claim to expertize. It depends how they present themselves in public, and to what extent they have a real contribution to the battle of ideas. If they are seen as mouthpieces of specific political actors, as recyclers of party platforms – this will be really damaging to their legitimacy. But politicization per se is not responsible for that: on the contrary, politicization can boost the claim to representativeness that they make. 

Recommendation 3: Think tanks should be experimental. They operate on the edges of settled ideologies and doctrines, and their job is to invigorate them and to prevent them from becoming sterile or even counterproductive dogmas. Think tanks have an institutional advantage vis-à-vis other structures – such as universities, political parties, or media – which are much more influenced by disciplined programing and the search for internal coherence. 

Recommendation 4: Think tanks should reexamine the link between their core ideology – be it left or right – and the issue of European integration. In Western Europe it has for a long time been assumed that welfarism and enhanced EU integration go hand in hand. In contrast, in Eastern Europe strongly pro-European political views are to be found in the liberal and centre-right part of the political spectrum. Both of these assumptions have been challenged by recent developments, possibly for different reasons. The bottom-line is that there is a need for looking into these issues afresh.

Recommendation 5: Political parties have proven to be the weakest link not only in Eastern Europe, but also in the West.  Think tanks, therefore, should not work with dogmatic concepts of party and party systems. This is an area, where they could benefit from their flexibility and from their experimentalism.

Recommendation 6: Flexibility and adaptability mean that think tanks should carefully follow the political process in their countries. There are moments of serious societal politicization. In order to remain in the public focus in such moments, think tanks need to stress more on their function of “representation of ideas”. In times of reduced societal mobilization, think tanks may rather stress more on their „expertize providing” function.

Recommendation 7: Protest signaled the declining importance of elections in democratic politics. Think tanks should be aware of this development which is grounded on wide spread public attitudes that elections change people, but not policy. In such a context, think tanks, as far as they have influence on policy making, may be seen as illegitimate sponsors of ideas behind the back of the people. This is a serious challenge to the legitimacy of think tanks, which should be addressed by them responsibly. This means that they need to operate under enhanced transparency conditions.

Recommendation 8: Protests indicated that people will assert their sovereignty as the power to refuse. Think tanks should be aware of this general negativity of public energy.

Recommendation 9: Although public protests have a very strong anti-party sentiment, they should not be mistaken for an NGO revolution. In fact, all sorts of mediators between the people and political power – including think tanks and NGOs – are called into question by such protests. Think tanks should be aware of that and act accordingly, without excessive optimism for their potential role.

Recommendation 10: Massive social politicization is an opportunity for think tanks to reexamine their role, prospects and strategies.

 2.                  Organization, funding and independence

Recommendation 11: There is no single model of organizing or funding a think tank, which would deliver maximum degree of independence. Think tanks can be relatively independent both publicly or privately funded.

Recommendation 12: Transparency of funding is essential, but it will not de-politicize the issue. Think tanks have to be always ready to explain and give information on their funding, but they must be prepared that their opponents will continue to make allegation of illegitimacy no matter what the source of funding is.

Recommendation 13: Funding from foreign sources will be increasingly politicized. Think tanks need to take this seriously into account. This does not mean that foreign funding becomes illegitimate, but that they need political arguments in its defense. Essentially, this is a clash between two visions of democracy – one more supra-national, and one – essentially confined in the framework of the nation. Think tanks need to make this choice, and be consistent and responsible in its defense. They also have an obligation to explain this choice to the public.

 3.                  Think tanks and the media: new media and social network

Recommendation 14: Hybrid media are well suited for hybrid organizations as think tanks. Think tanks should be on the cutting edge of this “technology” if they want to increase their impact.

In conclusion, of primary importance is the capacity of think tanks to reflect critically on their ideological environment, to interact with political parties, universities, and the media, to be sensitive of deficiencies in the functioning of the major structures of liberal democracy, and to be bold enough to secure a certain degree of autonomy from these actors.  The role and relevance of think tanks should not be assessed primarily on the basis of their institutional capacity and resilience, but on the basis of their intellectual output, not only in terms of elaboration of specific policies, but in terms of interaction with their specific environment, and on the basis of their capacity to compensate for deficiencies and weaknesses of the major bodies of power and the intellectual authorities in liberal democracy.

 

 

 

 

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