Feature: The Role of Think Tanks in a Democracy – Ben Ofosu-Appiah

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Think Tanks are policy research, analysis, engagement and advocacy organizations that operate independently from governments and political parties. The wave of Think tanks proliferation across the globe since the 1970s has enhanced democratic governance. In young democracies and transitional economies, Think tanks have played vital roles in raising the quality of policy making by bringing new ideas to the attention of policy makers and new perspectives on policy formulation.

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They play very important role in a democracy. Its primary function is to help governments understand and make informed policy choices on issues of domestic and international concern. They serve as an informed and independent voice in policy debates and provide a constructive forum for the exchange of ideas and information between key stake holders in the policy formulation process.

Among other things, think tanks play a mediating role between government and the public that helps build trust and confidence in public institutions. They facilitate the construction of issue networks by identifying, articulating and evaluating current policy issues and proposals by transforming ideas and emerging problems into policy recommendations. By interpreting issues, events and policies for the print and the electronic media, they facilitate public understanding of domestic and international policy issues. One other critical role they play in a democracy is challenging the conventional wisdom, standard operating procedures (particularly when they no longer serve the public interest) and business as usual mentality of bureaucrats and elected officials  thus making them more accountable to the people and more efficient as well. In the United States for example, think tanks provide a supply of personnel for both the Legislative arm of government as well as the Executive.

One of democracy’s great advantages is the freedom to openly debate ideas. Think tanks help to broaden policy debates. They raise new issues, voice alternative viewpoints and propose policy options.  The desire to bring knowledge to bear on governmental decision making so well informed policies based on evidence can be formulated is the raison d’etre for Think tanks. In a political system that has political parties with weak structures that exhibit little or no party discipline, and state institutions that are weak and unable to perform their role effectively, the need for policy think tanks become even more crucial. None of the two leading political parties in Ghana today has a well equipped and functional policy research and analysis department. The public has a healthy distrust for government and governmental decision making, there is an inclination on the part of all to trust the private sector to “help government to think”. If you have a government that appoints someone like Akua Donkor as a senior presidential advisor, then you will agree with me, that government really needs help to think.

Think tanks are in the business of pushing for change and they do this in two main activities: A) Idea generation through research and dissemination of evidence based research results through publications, conferences and policy dialogues. B) Action through activities like advocacy, capacity building, training etc. In reality, these two activities are interconnected and often overlap.

Research is the defining activity of think tanks. It forms the backbone of their knowledge and idea generation role. Through research, they conduct analysis, generate evidence, ideas, opinions and recommendations so that there is informed public policy formulated on the basis of evidence. The evidence and recommendations that research produces would be of use if presented effectively and appropriately so they are heard by policy makers and other influencers of public policy including Civil Society organizations. This process of effective communication of research findings, recommendations and perhaps policy options is by and large what advocacy by Think tanks is about.

Think tanks use publications, conferences, workshops, roundtable discussions, media engagements, and sometimes activism and outreach by mobilizing public opinion to influence policy. Conferences are held to discuss or present research findings. In order to make meaning out of a research, experts in the field are brought together to debate and discuss ideas or policy options in order to make meaning out of research findings. Sometimes the dialogue at conferences is between people or parties with opposing view-points. They seek to build if not a consensus, at least more inclusive decision making as obviously any interaction between well-meaning and informed individual could result in positive ideas or even action.

Think tanks must find a way of communicating and engaging with the public who are the real beneficiaries of good public policy. Sometimes, when think tanks seek to bring about change, they battle  resistance from different sources including government inertia, prevailing social customs, established power relationships etc. In a situation like that, they need to indulge in advocacy more forcefully and visibly. A case in point, is the passage of the Right to Information Bill still before Parliament. This Bill has been in Parliament since 2006 and there seem to be no political will to get it passed. Getting an idea on the governmental agenda requires persistence, expertise, cultivating the right connections and above all good timing. Think tanks need to be adequately resourced so as to be able to continuously and persistently cultivate an idea as they await the right moment to mobilize an alliance of support around it.

There is a debate on going in the think tank community now as to how think tanks ought to be. There are those who believe think tanks should be “academic and objective” and those who feel they must be “policy relevant” and get their research in the hands of policy makers in order to have any value. This is an age old tension between the world of ideas and the world of policy. This tension is best expressed by Plato in the Republic when he wrote “There can be no good government until philosophers are kings and the kings (are) philosophers”

The academic oriented school believes that think tanks should adhere to academic research standards and focus on the bigger picture and long term issues while the policy relevance school believes that think tanks must engage in ”action oriented research” = research to solve real life practical problems, research dedicated to coming up with solutions to fiscal and economic problems, social problems, governance and political problems. The policy relevant school believes research by think tanks should be more policy oriented and thus focus more on the needs of policy makers and current policy issues.

Whichever school of thought you belong to, it must be noted that for think tanks to be impactful and effectively influence public policy, it must digest and formulate research into a form that meets the needs of busy bureaucrats, politicians and policy makers. It will also be helpful if research is focused on current legislative and policy concerns. Policy makers are struggling to develop effective response to many of our key challenges. Think tanks can play a constructive role by bringing practical and evidence based ideas to the table. To be impactful, Think tanks need good quality ideas backed by research, a network or a coalition of actors to support those ideas, the institutional capacity (including resources) to nurture and shepherd those ideas in a dynamic way, and the ability to seize the moment when the timing is right.

The writer is a senior public policy expert, policy strategist, political, economic and social analyst who has written extensively on governance and economic issues in Africa.