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Think Tanks: Staying Relevant in Today’s World

Three questions to James McGann 

Think Tanks: Staying Relevant in Today’s World
 James G. McGann
Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and a rapidly changing policy landscape, the value and efficacy of policy advice has been put into question. This has been exacerbated by technology disruptions and rampant disinformation. James G. McGann, Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, explores the major challenges think tanks face today in an information-rich and highly competitive interconnected world. In this interview, he analyzes the biggest changes facing such institutions and offers recommendations for them to adapt to their operating environment going forward. 

Why is this a particularly relevant time to question the place that think tanks play in the process of policy making?

The reality today is that ideas are not enough. The traditional notion of researching and writing being the path to solutions no longer holds true in this information-rich and highly competitive marketplace of ideas. Think tanks cannot solely rely on brilliant scholars, they need to be able to communicate their ideas and disseminate them in the right form, at the right time, and in the right hands. If these three elements are not in sync, their impact may be lost. 

Quality research will always be at the core of the mission of such institutions. What must change is how these think tanks deliver the ideas, how they package and target them. This must be done through strategic marketing. An age-old question I get is: "Why don’t policy makers listen to us? Why don’t they use our ideas?". The truth is that the fault is not entirely with the policy makers. Think tanks and institutions shoulder part of the responsibility too. 

How has the role of think tanks evolved throughout the years? Did the pandemic change that? 

There is a convergence of the pandemic, technology and artificial intelligence (AI), which is accelerating, intensifying and disrupting politics, education and the world of work. We must realize that the way think tanks operate and what they do is going to be transformed. Think tanks have to harness technology, engage in a different way, and use the information they produce to increase the power of their analytics. An excellent example of this is the Urban Institute which has effectively harnessed big data, data analytics, and AI to increase the power of its evidenced-based research. Those that follow this path will survive; those that do not will be passed over. 

Think tanks have to harness technology, engage in a different way, and use the information they produce to increase the power of their analytics.

These facts and the rise of AI will undoubtedly lead some to question why so much funds are being invested into think tanks when the money could instead be put in technology to get the same result. The answer is that if think tanks truly transform themselves, they will continue to be of tremendous value to society. Someone has to interpret the data and communicate it. What is missing from institutions is harnessing that information for greater power and impact in terms of the data that can only be produced by AI. The human factor will continue to be relevant and cannot be easily erased.

However, what I did not see coming was Covid-19 - the black swan for think tanks. The pandemic has intensified and accelerated trends in a way that presents an existential challenge for many think tanks. In North America and in Europe, the vast majority of the institutions will survive. However in Southeast Asia, Latin America, and above all in Africa, that might not be the case. The disruptions and the failure to adapt will result in tremendous loss. I had predicted that around 25% of African think tanks would disappear for a variety of reasons, but mostly due to the end of financial support. Nordic countries shifted their support away from supporting think tanks to responding to the humanitarian crisis, further reducing funds for think tanks. Simultaneously, the World Bank shifted its funding to the African Capacity Building Foundation creating a perfect storm for African think tanks. These developments, along with the intensification and acceleration of trends (shifts in funding, fragile institutions, high staff turnover and lack of capacity building) and the impact of Covid-19 will push that 25% of think tanks at risk even further (possibly 30-40%).

Surely Covid-19 has been the great disruptor and the terminator for many think tanks who have not strengthened their management and operations, developed new funding streams, diversified and digitized their product lines and developed strategic marketing and communications strategies. This is truly an existential crisis for many organizations. The think tank and donor communities need to mobilize the resources to address the existential threats facing many think tanks around the world. 

That is the dismal picture, but I firmly believe that every crisis and challenge is an opening to seize opportunities. The whole effort is to mobilize the global community to understand this crucial point. For institutions that developed new management systems, effective communication, strategic marketing, and that managed to harness technology, they will be ahead of the curve. A remaining challenge consists in having innovative ideas and solutions to what will increasingly be very turbulent, complex, unpredictable, and interconnected problems. 

According to your observations, what do think tanks need to do to stay relevant amidst disinformation and distrust of science and expertise?

What we see now is that governments’ near absolute monopoly on information has ended with the advent of the internet, cell phones, and other technologies. People have access to more information than they even had 15 or 20 years ago. The attempts of authoritarian governments to close down the free and open access to information has failed and the world is still an open global marketplace of ideas. In many respects the problem is not too little information, but rather too much on a daily basis: we are faced with an avalanche of information that we have to sort through. 

Think tanks and policy makers have never been as effective as they could be at communicating their impact on both the lives of people and on public policy. This has created a crisis of credibility where the general public questions experts and is increasingly reticent to listen to them. Over 30% of World Bank Policy Reports are never downloaded, for instance. In an interconnected world, you had better be able to communicate what value you add and why people should support you. Think tanks do not accomplish this well.

In an interconnected world, you had better be able to communicate what value you add and why people should support you. 

One of the disconnects in the US is that a majority of think tanks are located in either the economic center or the political capital. In Europe in contrast, it is slightly different. Historically most of the top ones are located in cities with major universities, such as Oxford and Munich where there are a high number of think tanks. And they produce an inordinate number of books and journal articles relative to other regions of the world. However, they do not necessarily produce what people read. As a matter of fact, the reality is people read less and less, our attention span is only getting shorter, and information is consumed in bite-sized pieces. What is increasingly noticed is that people get information through electronic devices. If you are not producing and disseminating what you do in a new and different way, your message will be lost as well. 

This problem facing think tanks and scholars stems from the academic and policy cultures clashing with each other. There is a struggle in many think tanks who must convince their scholars to reduce their weighty tomes to one or two pages, and to digitize. The struggle is legitimate, but think tanks that do not make their work accessible and relevant do so at their own peril. As I have pointed out many times, today "it doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn't have that swing": in an information-rich, highly competitive marketplace of information, great ideas must be in the right form, at the right time and in the right hands to make a difference in today’s world.

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