The future of think tanks and policy advice

On 30 January, Olena Carbou, Executive Director of the Office, participated in the panel discussion “The future of think tanks and policy advice”, organised by Bruegel. 

The chair of the event Mr Giuseppe Porcaro, kicked off the discussion by asking the speakers to identify two or three key elements that come to mind which illustrate how the think tank industry has changed in the past ten years.

Olena Carbou: increased competition, responsibility and quality;
Anthony Teasdale: relevance, metrics, technological challenge;
Goret Pereira Paulo: data analysis for public policy development;
Giuseppe Porcaro: disruption in policymaking, concerns of the change of the world.

In the continuation, Mr Porcaro moderated the conversation with a series of questions on think tanks, their relationship with governments, etc:

How have the increased fragmentation of politics and the changes in the political parties changed the discourse of policy advice?

Mr Teasdale said that the EP has always been fragmented and complex. They became accustomed to this environment faster than most of the national governments and assemblies. They adjusted to the polarisation more easily than in the MS capitals. The House of Commons, Bundestag, Capitol, etc., have had a harder time to adapt to the new political landscape. However, the war on truth makes the work of think tanks more difficult. At the same time, politics makes our work more interesting to a wider range of people. Politics is more central to people’s lives and, therefore, centres which provide new paths and shape policy have a bigger impact. The think tanks can hold politicians into account based on the truth without replacing those same politicians.

Ms Paulo offered the Brazilian perspective: in Brazil, the political scene is very polarised but it is hard to identify an ideology – people are polarised supporting an individual, not an idea. That is an opportunity for the think tanks because if you work based on data, you build propositions that should bring benefits for the population, regardless of the politician backing it. To act independently and propose measures based on evidence is the keyword.

Ms Carbou argued that Ukraine is a very particular case in the world of think tanks. Think tanks are pioneers inside the civil society of Ukraine, which is very active in promoting the European integration. EU integration is seen as a way of modernising the country. The years of 2015 and 2019 were the  golden years for think tanks because they managed to push reforms. Some think tanks were so strong that they were replacing the authorities. The authorities were more open to the collaboration with think tanks between 2015 and 2019 because there was a general demand for knowledge which the authorities did not have inside.

How sustainable is that momentum?

The current authorities of Ukraine are enjoying huge popular support in Ukraine and they do not think they need support from the civil society. The collaboration and the institutionalised dialogued is become increasingly rare and is shrinking.

Mr Teasdale then chimed in on the relationship of think tanks and governments: the US administrations’ relationships with think tasks seem to have been thoroughly different, in comparison to Europe. They are very sensitive to the think tank philosophy. On the other hand, in the UK or France, it is much more difficult to establish that interface. In the EU, the problem is that once people get in, they stay there: there’s an elite group that constrains think tank impact in this city.

How do think tanks respond to policy demand?

Ms Paulo said that one of the ways think tanks act now is by trying to anticipate the demands of the public sector due to time constraints. When you start doing the research, you try to build your research question together with the policy-maker. Most of the time, the policy-maker helps the researcher formulate that question. Politicians and think tanks are equally held accountable because of both need to show that what they are doing should bring benefits to society. That way, governments and think tanks are encouraged to work together. At the same time, think tanks are encouraged to maintain their independence. Think tanks should be associated with policy and propositions, not politicians. They should not be dependent only on one source of financial resources.

Ms Carbou said that the think tanks always knew that the future of Ukraine was Europe, whatever the change of government. When the authorities asked for research to be conducted on Europe, think tanks already had the knowledge because they knew what the country needed. The recommendations needed to take into consideration the limitations of the authorities. Also, any recommendation needed to be ready for implementation right away. The summary had to be understood by a very wide population. The goal is to sustain and support the future of the country.

In a world where politics is about conflict and simplification, how can the research of a think tank still be relevant? Is it affected by this new political landscape?

Ms Paulo argued that think tanks should stay focused and create propositions based on evidence and they should avoid the political conflict. They should work together with policy-makers with the goal of creating benefits for society: that is the mission of the organisations, to contribute to the socio-economic development of the country. If the traditional way is working based on evidence, then we should continue doing it.

Mr Teasdale identified the role of think tanks as the following: their job is to create a policy community. One of the social benefits of think tanks is to create a group of people that believe in and contribute to discussing policies and policy-making. They can also help build a sense of what the priorities should be in policy-making.

On the relationship between think tanks and academia, Ms Paulo said that there needs to exist independence both in the private and the public sector. By way of providing an example, she said that the FGV has 50 research centres and they work in harmony, discuss papers; there is no tension between the academia and think tanks. Academia can contribute to the formulation and dissemination of the message, but they cannot change the conclusions when they are evidence-based. The papers can be written in a way that reaches both policy-makers and society.

On unanimity of think tanks regarding the future of the country, Ms Carbou offered the Ukranian example: based on their evidence, they think that the EU is the future of the country because it proposed a model of society which is better than what they had before or what any other neighbour could provide. However, in order to survive and maintain the position of think tanks in the society, they need to accelerate their input and their message.

The event was concluded with a final question on the relevance of think tanks for policy advice in decades to come. Why will they still be relevant? Ms Paulo answered that they will be relevant due to continued evidence-based research. Mr Teasdale argued that there will be changes in both national and international public administrations; civil servants will be less paid, and they will move through jobs more. Consequently, the think tanks will be well placed to “pick up the slack” left by the changes in the public administrations. For Ms Carbou, the core idea of “serving the country” is what will sustain the think tank work and impact into the future.

Notes and summary by Tiago Almeida and Katja Knezevic, Bruegel

Audio recording of the event