By Anna Burgués Llagostera, Institute of Public Policy – Lisbon 

1. Motivation

The lack of understanding of what a think tank does and what their potential impact can be on public policy is in great part due to the vast number of think tanks appearing in a short period. But still today, this type of organization is for many people still a mystery and the lack of knowledge of its potential and applicability is what this policy brief aims to tackle.

In Portugal, think tanks are still greatly unknown, and their concept is constantly dissociated from the organizations. It is important to give praise not only to their work and contributions to society, but also acknowledge the typology of the organization as a think tank, which is unique.

Unawareness of the true purpose and mission of a think tank by the civil society has been the reality faced, among others, by the Institute of Public Policy – a Portuguese think tank founded in 2013. At the time, think tanks in Portugal were scarce and limited to a few fields of work, and their impact was not yet clear to the public.

The Institute dedicates its activities to four key research areas, namely: European Union economic policy, public finance and good governance, democracy and accountability, and social policy. Today, this Lisbon based think tank intends to promote a society in which the public debate is more enlightened and the political decision processes more rigorous and informed.

Being a part of a list of more than 8,000 think tanks all over the world (according to the 2018 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report), the Institute of Public Policy found it essential to clarify its purpose and contribution of this type of organizations.

2. What are think tanks?

If the aim is to develop a ‘think tank’ label, there is one statement that you will find in every academic paper: there is no unique definition of a think tank. […] 

In short, if think tanks belong to the academic scope, it is because of their structure and aim to produce reliable research. In addition, they could be understood as media organizations due to their goal of visibility, by approaching the public through media channels. Moreover, they undoubtedly have a political side due to their effort of obtaining political access, to bring forward their findings in the policy agenda. Finally, think tanks can be included in the business field, when it comes to institutional and financial resources. Hence, these four fields contain the key aspects that define a think tank and can be useful indicators when it comes to identifying which organisations can be deemed as truly think tanks. For instance, if we take the case of academic institutions as an example of how Medvetz’s criteria can be applied, we should consider the visibility criteria: whereas think tanks clearly want to have an impact on the public, academic institutions do not have a great interest in making their work accessible, nor have they any feature from the media field that could define them.

The fact that think tanks should act as boundary organizations does not mean that they cannot be classified into those that already have ideological identification (Selee, 2013). For instance, numerous European think tanks were born from already consolidated institutions, which may or may not have already build up ideologies, such as NGOs, big corporations or political parties.

Nowadays there is a fever among some organizations to call themselves think tanks. Despite the fact that this can be a threat for the work that real think tanks perform, some state that self-definition implies joining the think tanks community, and, when entering this community, you must behave as the rest of it. In this sense, every organization self-labeled as a think tank will have to support the same kind of scrutiny and will fight to reach the same levels of quality of other think tanks. This might mean more competition for think tanks, and greater sources of qualitatively valuable information for the society and policy-makers.

3. How do they develop their work?

The work of a think tank consists on generating and sharing ideas that are able to influence policy-making and public thinking. In three words, consists on producing, analysing and sharing ideas. The way in which the production and analysis of information is carried out has, overall, no difference from regular academic research. However, the paramount ability of a successful think tank is how and to whom it channels the information, that is, the sharing phase.

De Boer (2015) puts it this way: think tanks have two main roles; on the one hand, they serve as catalysts for ideas and, on the other hand, they help to set the policy agenda. However, entering the policy agenda is not easy and depends greatly on the network of each think tank.

Think tanks’ impact capacity and influence depend on their capability in making the information reach key policy audiences, which can be a challenge. Think tanks with greater power positions have more chances of joining the policy agenda. Thus, the way think tanks make ideas travel is crucial for their effectivity. This is the point when belonging to certain circles of power pays off: think tanks that emerged from forceful influential institutions or those counting with influential personalities within its members are more likely to make an impact. In this way, thinks tanks do not only work with the purpose of influencing others, but also use their own influence capacities in order to do so. Partnerships and reputation are then two key elements of the sharing ideas phase.

Another element that could be deemed as one of the key aspects of a think tank, one that separates it from the academic field, is language. In their role as boundary organizations, think tanks have the mission of making their investigations accessible to policy-makers and to the public at all levels. This means using an intelligible, clear and accessible language, delivering the information in an understandable manner without much technicalities. Thus, whereas genuine academic papers might be written in a language only fully understood by the academic elite, think tanks’ studies try to expose the outputs as simple as they can, so that they can reach all kinds of audiences. The reason for using this language lies on the think tanks’ efforts of approaching wider audiences that are source of highly valuable information, and can be useful in the future and current development of their work.

4. Think tanks and the policy-making process

Think tanks should focus their research to influence three different phases of the policy- making process: framing ideas and issues, providing policy alternatives and/or shaping decision-making. These steps are not exclusive, which means that think tanks are hybrid institutions that might try to make an impact in more than one area using the same means. Nevertheless, while most think tanks are used to focus their work and efforts in the first two types of contributions, the last stage tends to be more influenced by interest groups. This happens because shaping decision requires intimate knowledge of the political system and organic relations with decision makers. While interest groups can be more identified with the so-called behind-the-scenes lobbying, think tanks are known for being focused on the aim of changing policies through intellectual argument. 

According to Seele ́s stages in the policy cycle theory, ‘framing ideas and issues’ refers to helping policy-makers better understand ideas and problems through analysis and public dialog. In contrast, the contribution of the ‘providing policy alternatives’ phase consists on developing ideas regardless of their current political importance, that is, given that think tanks do not count on much political influence such as interest groups, most tend to develop alternative policy projects and have them ready in case the political opportunity eventually appears.

It is generally understood that think tanks, due to their condition as less political and powerful organisations, focus their work on tackling long-term issues rather than short-term ones. In this sense, think tanks and academic institutions are better prepared for long-term policy advice, while interest groups are more suited to provide short-term advice.

Following on this idea, Fraussen and Halpin (2017) carried out an investigation to sort out the way in which think tanks contribute to the policy advisory system. Their results showed that most think tanks tend to prioritize the issues in which they have long-standing interest, rather than the ones being discussed on that moment at the political arena. In addition, their findings sustain the description of the second phase of the policy cycle, since the study reveals that almost all think tanks work on topics that get little or no attention at all from other political actors, expecting them to become important in future occasions. 


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