A special role for think tanks?

For many years, think tanks have been unique to the United States, and to some extent to the Western Europe,[1] however, at the turn of the 21st century, they have started to appear as a relatively new type of civil society organisations (CSOs) in many countries across the world. Even though their number has spiked since then,[2] the role of think tanks and what they stand for is still not entirely understood by the wider public. Not even the scholars have managed to resolve the “dilemma of definition” regarding the concept of think tanks, which is why it has remained “fuzzy, mutable and contentious”.[3] Recognising that there is an open discussion on what think tanks are, for the purposes of this article they are defined as research-oriented CSOs which possess the know-how in serving as promoters of public interest. Furthermore, by looking at their modus operandi, think tanks seem to be “more academic than a lobby, more business-like than a university, and more political than a business.”[4] Due to that complexity, their true essence can be better captured by taking a look at what they stand for, how they operate in practice and what their contributions are in modern society.

First, like other CSOs, think tanks are organisations which inherently stand for values, such as democracy, pluralism, and freedom of expression, regardless of their area of expertise. Even though some of them may embrace and promote these values explicitly, and others just implicitly, think tanks are not likely to flourish in environments where these values do not hold their ground. Consequently, think tanks find it necessary to, in one way or another, advocate for open societies where there is information exchange and deliberation, as well as an inclusive and evidence-based policy development. Ultimately, actions of think tanks are directed towards social progress and well-being of citizens.[5] Hence, democracies and think tanks, as well as CSOs in general, end up being natural allies, as they need one another to flourish.

Second, think tanks may act as ‘public educators’, by putting their efforts into informing the public and encouraging participation of citizens. By doing so, think tanks strengthens the foundations of democracy, as active citizenry represents a fundamental element of good governance,[6] and, according to Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, a conditio sine qua non for the consolidation of democracy.[7] To this end, think tanks organise numerous conferences, trainings and lectures, where the public is stimulated to engage as active citizens, not only as passive listeners. Such activities also represent a two-way street in which think tanks share their knowledge but also get better acquainted with citizens’ needs. Accordingly, this is another trait which puts them in the basket of CSOs.

Thirdly, the established professional reputation of think tanks and their know-how allows them to act as a ‘knowledge gateway’ for policymakers, with whom they ideally aim to establish and nurture close cooperation and partnership in the context of policymaking. The goal is to improve public policies which have concrete impact on citizens’ lives, primarily by bridging the gap between independent research and the policymaking cycle.[8] Hence, the ability to take part in the policymaking is what most notably differentiates think tanks from the rest of CSOs. As policymakers need to constantly re-think and adapt the policies as they interact with reality,[9] not only are think tanks valuable during the often-neglected monitoring phase of the policymaking process, but also in the often-underdeveloped policy formulation stage.[10] Since the quality of the latter can to a great extent “predetermine the overall outcome of policymaking”,[11]evidence-based involvement of think tanks matters all the more. For this reason, think tanks develop research products such as concise policy analysis and policy studies, which identify the main hurdles standing in the way of a well-functioning government, public administration and society, whilst providing evidence-based policy recommendations to resolve these challenges.[12] However, the input of think tanks is sometimes neglected and even refuted, as in some countries they are working, under insufficiently enabling, often disabling environment.[13] In that regard, the Western Balkan countries come to mind. Contrastingly, Latvia is an example of a country which has developed a noteworthy and well-coordinated policy formulation, as it has continuously committed to facilitating constant involvement of think tanks and other interested CSOs in the supervision of draft legislation.[14]

Last but not least, think tanks recognise the fact that they cannot face complex and systemic issues alone, which is why they take it upon themselves to act as ‘conveners’. Whereas their other roles allow them to directly, albeit separately, relate to citizens and public officials, this one allows them to focus on cross-sectoral bridge-building, with the aim of facilitating cooperation between different stakeholders. On the one hand, think tanks create forums where policymakers, academics, business actors, interested citizens and journalists, as well as other interested CSOs, can jointly discuss, promote and re-evaluate their current ideas and come up with new ones.[15] On the other hand, such efforts often result in coalition-building, both on the domestic and international level, making it easier for think tanks to ‘get things done’ in the long run. By doing so, think tanks increase their ability to successfully shape the public- and policy-agenda,[16] both upstream (vis-à-vis decision-makers) and downstream (vis-à-vis public opinion).[17]

Overall, as a leading scholar on think tanks, James McGann, puts it, think tanks are indispensable as they act in “the public interest as independent voices that translate applied and basic research into a language that is understandable, reliable, and accessible for policymakers and the public”.

[1] Stella Ladi, Think tank, Encyclopaedia Britannica, available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/think-tank

[2]Juliana Cristina Rosa Hauck, “What are ‘Think Tanks’? Revisiting the Dilemma of the Definition”, A Journal of the Brazilian Political Science Association 11 (2), 2017,p.2, available at: http://www.scielo.br/pdf/bpsr/v11n2/1981-3821-bpsr-1981-3821201700020006.pdf

[3] Tom Medvetz, “Think Tanks as an Emergent Field”, The Social Science Research Council, 2008, p.1, available at:  https://s3.amazonaws.com/ssrc-cdn1/crmuploads/new_publication_3/%7BA2A2BA10-B135-DE11-AFAC-001CC477EC70%7D.pdf

[4] Thomas Medvetz in Olivier Urrutia, “The role of think-tanks in the definition and application of defence policies and strategies”, Revista del Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos, 2013, p.4, available at: revista.ieee.es/index.php/ieee/article/download/88/83

[5] Enrique Mendizabal, “How can think tanks be agents of social change?”, On Think Tanks, 2017, available at: https://onthinktanks.org/articles/how-can-think-tanks-be-agents-of-social-change/

[6] Simon Forrester and Irem Sunar, “CSOs and citizens participation”, TASCO, 2011, p.22, available at: http://www.tacso.org/data/dokumenti/pdf/doc_manual_4.pdf

[7] Juan Linz and Alphred Stepan, “Democracy and its Arenas”, in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation,1996, p.7, available at:


[8] James McGann, “2013 European Think Tank Summit Report: Think Tanks in a Time of Crisis and Paralysis: On the Sidelines or Catalysts for Ideas and Action?”, University of Pennsylvania, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, p. i, available at: https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=ttcsp_summitreports

[9] Enrique Mendizabal,“Recommendations for good policymaking from the Institute for Government -how can think tanks help?”, On Think Tanks, 2011, available at: https://onthinktanks.org/articles/recommendations-for-good-policymaking-from-the-institute-for-government-how-can-think-tanks-help/

[10] Sena Marić and Strahinja Subotić, “Evidence-based and Inclusive Policymaking in the Western Balkans: What role for think tanks and other policy-oriented CSOs?”, European Policy Centre (CEP), 2018, p.4 , available at: http://cep-old.local/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Evidence-based-and-inclusive-policymaking.pdf

[11] Milena Lazarević, Sena Marić and Amanda Orza, “Policy Making and EU Accession Negotiations: Getting Results for Serbia”, European Policy Centre (CEP Belgrade) – GIZ, 2013, Belgrade, p.29, available at: http://cep-old.local/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/policy_making_and_eu_accession_negotiations_study_cep_giz.pdf

[12] For example, see Milena Lazarević, Sena Marić and Amanda Orza, “Policy Making and EU Accession Negotiations: Getting Results for Serbia”, European Policy Centre (CEP) – GIZ, 2013, Belgrade, available at: http://cep-old.local/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/policy_making_and_eu_accession_negotiations_study_cep_giz.pdf

[13] Sena Marić and Strahinja Subotić, “Evidence-based and Inclusive Policymaking in the Western Balkans”, CEP, 2018.

[14] Milena Lazarević, Sena Marić and Amanda Orza, “Policy Making and EU Accession Negotiations: Getting Results for Serbia”, CEP, 2013, p. 76.

[15] Alek Chance, Think Tanks in the United States: Activities, Agendas and Influence, ICAS, 2016, p. 7, available at: http://chinaus-icas.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/ICAS-Report-2016-Think-Tanks-in-the-US.pdf

[16] Hartwig Pautz, “Think Tanks in Scotland”, 55th Political Studies Association Annual Conference, available at: http://powerbase.info/images/c/c7/Pautz.pdf

[17] Isabelle Ionnides (coordinator), “European Think Tanks and the EU”, Berlaymond Paper, Issue 2, European Commission, 2012, p.7, available at: https://www.academia.edu/6744078/European_Think_Tanks_and_the_EU