Can Think Tanks Influence Public Opinion and Improve Policy?

By Andrew Selee

Think tanks have sprung up throughout the world, trying to generate ideas and analysis that can be useful in public debate and in policymaking. Some think tanks have political or ideological aims; some want to raise attention to a particular issue; and others simply try to throw light on complicated issues in their field. Below, Andrew Selee considers how organisations invest in ideas about public policy, and outlines the steps they can take to enhance their possibilities of success.

Think tanks have sprung up throughout the world, trying to generate ideas and analysis that can be useful in public debate and in policymaking. Sometimes affiliated with governments, political parties, or universities, but often as independent organisations, think tanks work in the moving terrain of public ideas and in the belief that ideas can help drive better policies. Planning for impact in the world of think tanks is hardly an easy effort. How does an organisation dedicated to analysis and idea-generation decide what it should prioritise and then measure the success of its efforts?  At best, think tanks can point to an occasional success when an idea or an argument gets picked up in the media or in policy decisions, but more often than not their efforts are one part of a broader public conversation on policies and current events.

In a new book, What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (Stanford University Press, 2013), we look at how organisations invest in ideas about public policy and suggest a five-step process through which these organisations can enhance their possibilities of success. It all begins with the first step of understanding the organisation’s main purpose and what it wants to achieve, and then setting achievement-oriented goals around that. Some think tanks have political or ideological aims; some want to raise attention to a particular issue; and others simply try to throw light on complicated issues in their field. Whatever their purpose is, however, understanding how to translate that purpose into a set of concrete goals is the foundation of success.


Understanding the Policy Cycle

To do this, organisations need to understand where in the policy cycle they are most effective. Are they best at providing a general analysis of the issue, developing new ideas for policy, or suggesting specific action-steps for policy? Few organisations can do all of these things equally well. And once they know which of these activities they do best, they need to know the state of play on their issues and think through what research would have the greatest impact. While it is almost impossible for think tanks to actually plan to change the world, they are best served when they plan as if they could and when they visualise what total success would look like.

One outstanding example of this is the Center for Global Development, which set out to create a market mechanism to incentivise research and production of vaccines that could prevent pneumococcal diseases that kill over a million children each year in developing countries. They realised that the best way to do this was to get countries, international organisations, and foundations to agree to put money on the table for medical research and also agree to buy the vaccines for distribution if they were successfully produced. Pulling together an impressive array of stakeholders and researchers, the Center was able to do the foundational research to get an idea of what sort of commitments were needed and then to get a series of governments to make the needed commitments to buy the vaccines once they were produced. Today, millions of children are now protected by these vaccines which have since been invented, produced, and distributed in low-income communities around the world. Success rested on knowing up front what the think tank wanted to achieve and then building its strategy around that goal.


Utilising Comparative Expertise and Unique Focus

The second stage for impact-oriented think tanks is determining what they do best; in other words, what their lanes of excellence are. For some think tanks, their comparative advantage may have to do with the issues they address, their particular ideological orientation, or their geographical reach. Chatham House, the venerable London-based think tank on foreign policy, has established a reputation that allows it to work on multiple international issues, as has the Brooking Institution in the United States. But most think tanks are far more compact and focused, and they develop their reputation around a handful of issues where they develop particular expertise and often a unique focus. Fundar, a small think tank in Mexico, for example, has established its reputation based on its single-minded focus on transparency and accountability issues. Over time it has moved into questions of social policy, education, and public security, but always with an angle around transparency and accountability. Meanwhile, organisations like the Pacific Council for International Policy and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs may not be able to compete with Chatham House or Brookings in size or reach, but they have carved out key niches within important regions of the United States in which they have become preeminent forums for international issues.


Strategies to Reach Target Audiences

The third step for successful think tanks is to have a clear idea of their target audiences and how to reach them.  In the age of social media, multiple strategies, many of them quite inexpensive, are available to get a message out. However, not all work equally well with each audience. Often the best research needs to be tailored in specific ways to reach different audiences.  Indeed, a single piece of research may well turn into a book, a policy brief, an op-ed, and a series of short memos to policymakers, as well as Facebook postings and Twitter feed, each targeting slightly different audiences. The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Science and Technology Innovation Program, for example, converts its work on synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and crowdsourcing into articles in scientific journals, short policy briefs and op-eds for decision-makers, and sometimes even into articles in popular magazines like Parade, Elle, and Family Life that reach general audiences.

A single piece of research may well turn into a book, a policy brief, an op-ed, and a series of short memos to policymakers, as well as Facebook postings and Twitter feed.

The most challenging tasks that think tanks, like all non-profits, face are how to raise funds and hire the right people to get their work done, which is the fourth step to success. In the case of think tanks, the people and the product are actually interwoven, since so much of what they produce is tied to the expertise of those they employ. Think tanks have multiple strategies for getting the right people to work for them, and it often involves creative combinations of full-time staff, part-time researchers, visiting scholars, and outside consultants. In many cases, think tanks combine in-house expertise with outside experts who become affiliated with the institution and contribute some of their time to work on joint projects. Fundraising, as in all non-profits, involves finding stakeholders who share the organisation’s commitment to the same issues, whether these are foundations, individuals, companies, unions, or government agencies. The Migration Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, New York, and Brussels, has developed a stakeholder-focussed strategy of fundraising in which it is both a recipient of foundation and individual giving and contributes to the knowledge production of the foundations that support it, and actively engages those who contribute financially as partners in its efforts.


Evaluating and Benefiting from Experience

Finally, think tanks like all businesses and non-profit organisations, need ways of evaluating their success and learning from experience. It turns out that this is a particularly difficult process for most think tanks, since the bottom line has to do with whether they have succeeded in changing the landscape of policy or public ideas in some way through their work.  However, in most cases, changes in public debate or policy decision-making have more than one single influence. Has the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think tank dedicated to trade and global economic analysis, influenced the outcome of economic decisions around the world in an appreciable way, when there are so many other influences on these decisions? Has the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels, actually resolved any crises, when these outcomes always depend on multiple factors, usually outside of the control of any single organisation? Rarely can a think tank claim sole credit for solving a problem, notwithstanding the rather exceptional example from the Center for Global Development above. However, it turns out that organisations like the Peterson Institute and the International Crisis Group, which are rigorous about following the outcome of their efforts, can often claim credit for raising an issue before others did and placing it on the public agenda or developing data or analysis that finds its way into serious discussions on how to address an issue. Strict correlations between a single publication or event and a policy outcome may not always be possible, but long-term commitment to an issue can breed a lasting imprint on how others think about that issue.

Much of the challenge for evaluating success lies in tracking the organisation’s outputs rigorously – data on publications, media citations, and speeches – and systemically collecting evidence on outcomes. To do this, think tanks need to return to their original purpose. To the extent that they started out with achievement-oriented goals, they can look back and see how close they have gotten to their goals and what other steps they might take to get closer. In many cases, the terrain of policymaking or public discussion may well have shifted, so they need to rethink how they can best contribute to the conversation in a way that produces the greatest impact moving forward. Well-managed think tanks, including those mentioned above, almost always devote time to tracking their footprint in policy and public dialogue in an effort to learn from their successes and their failures.

At their best, think tanks are only one input into how policymakers and the general public understand critical policy issues.  However, these organisations, when committed to producing an impact, can play a vital role in enhancing the public discussion of ideas, providing alternatives for people to choose from, and shedding new light on how to understand the world around us.

About the Author

Andrew Selee is is the Vice President for Programs at the Washington, DC-based Woodrow Wilson Center, which promotes independent research, open dialogue, and actionable ideas on global policy issues. He is the author of What Should Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (Stanford University Press, 2013), the first strategy and management book for policy research organizations.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.