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Think tanks in the global marketplace of ideas

Francesco Grillo
5 September 2001

Jeremy Hardie’s evaluation of the current status of think tanks is important and challenging. As a director of a think tank in my Italian homeland, and as one of the promoters of the European Think Tanks Forum (which, hopefully, will shortly become global), I recognise the set of problems he identifies. My response to them is, perhaps, more optimistic. But my main argument is that think tanks are on the verge of a transnational new frontier that confronts us with the need to scale up our thinking and action to a global level.

The ingredients of success

To start with, I must say I agree with some of Jeremy’s basic assumptions. It is true that a political system needs a regular input of radical, long-term policy thinking; and this sort of thinking is exactly what one would expect from think tanks. This, indeed, is their mission.

It is also true that think tanks are not the sole producers of forward-looking ideas. Governments and universities are mentioned as competitors, and I would add business (more precisely management consulting firms, some of which have established an internal “visionary” unit). Some of these intellectual rivals have developed a significant public profile – the Performance and Innovation Unit in the British Cabinet Office (directed by Geoff Mulgan), the Berkeley Round Table, and the McKinsey Global Institute for example. Anyone wishing to assess the problems and possibilities of the think tank world needs to assess the work and mode of operation of these competitor (or, from some points of view, “partner”) institutions.

So the market of ideas is becoming crowded, and for a think tank to be successful, a number of elements are crucial – including good communications skills and the active support of outstanding individuals. But the latter will only be of benefit if the basic organisational dimensions are made to work well – both individually and in relation to one another.

In my experience, there are four key elements think tanks must have to realise their potential:

  1. independence – or the right quantity of it;
  2. power – or more precisely, an efficient channel of communications with people who can implement the solutions envisaged;
  3. money – or better quality choices between targeted sponsors and funding sources; and
  4. flexibility – especially the speed with which the organisation can collect the right multidisciplinary team around a complex problem.

With this framework in mind, I still believe that think tanks have a comparative advantage in relation to their competitors.

The first and last elements should be the easiest to establish, as they relate most immediately to the internal culture of an organisation and are not dependent on any big – whether political, academic, or industrial – vested interest. Indeed, I would claim that a non-independent think tank is a sort of logical contradiction. And, with regard to flexibility, think tanks have the advantage (at least in the European tradition) of being smaller than their competitors and in principle quicker to adapt to events, and to mobilise people working on different projects.

The seductions of power

What of the other two elements? I do not believe that the distance of think tanks from power is necessarily a problem. It is true that business and (especially) government thinkers are advantageously located, being physically near and more frequently in contact with the people making the real decisions.

However, I would argue that this advantage may often turn out to be an illusion. Policymakers and big corporations in search of long-term thinking may look for the opinions of people like consultants and think-tankers precisely because they are outsiders who bring to bear fresh experiences and conceptual frameworks.

And even where the centres of power do lure bright people working in think tanks away, this may be seen also as a way in which these organisations exert some intellectual influence on decision-makers.

The bottom line

There is no question that the really tricky element is money. And this is because think tanks are, after all, a very distinct organisational species.

All large organisations – governments, universities, businesses – have an R&D; department whose objective is to draft a number of ideas which the rest of the organisation will apply to choose the policies, the theses or the products to bring to the market. Think tanks might be described as stand-alone R&D; departments, factories of long-term ideas looking for people to “buy” into them. The paradox is that even though everybody recognises the importance of having long-term ideas, almost nobody would pay for them unless they also get the proprietary rights.

This is where the apparent need for sponsorship arises. The sponsorship system may indeed raise uneasy questions about independence, but again is not (as Jeremy Hardie suggests) necessarily damaging in the wider context of a think tank’s work – the attitudes of a sponsor, for instance its response to a position paper, can often be helpful in testing the relevance of projects in the real world of decisions and markets. Thus, even where its funding sources pose problems for a think tank, this element may turn out to be a positive factor – if the organisation responds by sharpening its core product of original, long-term ideas, and thus helps to ensure its own survival.

Think tanks in the global arena

So in relation to long-term needs, the think tank may still be competitive. Why then (even in Britain) is there a sense of the narrowing of their influence, as their rivals seem to gain market share? My answer is that we need to go back to first principles. The world, any world, seems to need a certain quantity of radical thinking. And long-term, complex policy thinking is no less needed today than it was five or ten years ago.

In fact the major social questions (of sustainable development, the improvement of healthcare and education) have even become more complex, more relevant, and yet less manageable with available conceptual, economic, and political tools. The problem, however – which is both an operational and a business one – is that the solutions to such questions seem to be shifting away from the national political arenas and beyond the grasp even of what large countries like the US, Britain and France can do. This is why I feel that many think tanks are realising that they must increasingly operate on a global level.

This will not be easy: at the global level we think-tankers find almost nothing of the infrastructure we are used to – no media of the familiar kind, no properly representative policymakers, no global political parties. It is indeed a new, unmapped frontier – but, of necessity, it is exactly what Vision and a number of European and American think tanks are beginning to explore.

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