Staking out a new agenda for studying think tanks

Think tanks are a source of interest for scholars and the media alike. Whether it is the Institute for Public Affairs in Australia (IPA), the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) in the United Kingdom, the Heritage Foundation or the Brookings Institute in the United States (US), these institutes make regular appearances in media in an attempt to  play an active role in influencing public policy outcomes.

However, the role of think tanks within policy networks remains contested. Much of the work undertaken by scholars has been concerned with measuring and quantifying the influence that think tanks wield over the policy making process. Two questions have dominated this literature:  what constitutes a think tank; and what influence do they exert over the policy making process?

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The former is a question that rose to particular prominence in the 1970s. The emergence of what scholars dubbed “second wave” think tanks, which blurred the distinction between think tanks and interest/advocacy groups.

First wave think tanks (pre 1970s) tended to be academic in their orientation, strenuously defended their political independence, and largely concentrated their attention on governmental and bureaucratic elites.

In contrast, second wave think tanks strongly identified with particular ideological positions, such as the ASI with its mission to promote Neoliberalism in Britain. These think tanks also openly fostered relationships with political parties, such as the Centre for Policy Studies, a think tank established by the Thatcher Conservative Government. Second wave think tanks further differed from their first wave counterparts because they placed a heavy emphasis on marketing and promotion, and sought to extend their influence to media, academia and the general public.

The second major debate within the think tank literature, and perhaps its dominant focus, has been the question of their influence over public policy outcomes. To date, Researchers have largely attempted to trace a specific government policy or suites of policies back to a specific think tank. This approach has, however, tended to yield little by way of convincing evidence of causation.

One of the key reasons for this is that there are multiple think tanks which promote broadly similar policy preferences, which often make it difficult for researchers to attribute a particular policy to a particular think tank with any specificity and certainty. Take the case of the privatization agenda in Britain under the Margaret Thatcher Conservative government in the late 1970s. A number of New Right think tanks, such as the ASI and IEA, claimed responsibility for convincing Thatcher and her cabinet to pursue the privatization of state assets. But the Thatcher government never openly declared that a specific think tank influenced its decision to embrace privatization.

While the matter of influence remains a somewhat vexed debate, there is still a lot to be gained from studying other facets of these institutions. Such as types of strategies that they use in order to influence policy, and who or what are the target of these strategies. By studying closely the broad range of activities undertaken by think tanks, and by asking questions about how think tanks conceptualise influence and who exactly they want to influence might yield insights into how political systems are evolving. This approach may be particularly timely in light of recent events such as Brexit and the US Presidential election. Both of these events have raised questions about the capacity of government to sway policy debates; are governments leaders or reactionaries?

There also remain gaps in our understanding about how think tanks have adapted to new media technologies, such as social media. The majority of studies on think tanks were published between the 1970s and early 2000s, prior to the explosion of Twitter, Facebook and blogging. We have, as a consequence, little understanding about how and if new media tools are enabling think tanks to reach a broader audience for their ideas, and if it is having any substantive effect on the way think tanks disseminate their research to policy makers.

It would seem that given the broader socio-political and technological changes that are occurring within modern democracies, it is timely to (re)investigate how think tank elite conceptualise influence, and what strategies they believe are particularly fruitful to achieve their ends.  By doing so, it may help researchers to gain a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics of policy networks and political systems.

Keshia Jacotine is currently completing an MA (research) on the Adam Smith Institute at Monash University.