New technology and ‘old’ think tanks

Article by Tom Ascott: ‘Expert or academic carries out research. Generates rigorous 40-page report. Comms officer is asked to promote said report. Launch event, press release, tweets. Maybe a video. Maybe an infographic’. This is formula for how think tanks seek to influence policy matters. It is how they build, maintain and increase their credibility. While it has arguably worked since the expansion of the think tank community following the Cold War, this model of disseminating information is now fraying.

It is not a sustainable model because it is largely, and in some ways even designed to be, inaccessible to a larger and now increasingly inquisitive public. This inaccessibility is only accentuated by the large number of institutes specialising in niche subjects, which are often more agile and better able to leverage technology to their advantage. Tastes also change: for many of today’s potential punters, the enforced networking associated with think tank events may be considered a negative experience; being able to watch lectures and conferences from home, alone, may now be considered of greater benefit.

The publication of written reports and holding launch events, unlike broader communications methods, are often targeting specific policymakers or stakeholders. In the short term, this strategy may work for think tanks, in the sense that they can address their core audiences. Still, the model faces two main hurdles.

One is providing policymakers with what they need. Paul C Avey and Michael C Desch, two US-based academics, found in their study ‘What Do Policymakers Want From Us?’ that ‘the only methodology that more than half of the respondents characterised as “not very useful” or “not useful at all” was formal models’. The respondents in their study thought that the best policy advice came from practitioners or journalists, those looking at underlying causes. Yet some ‘think tankers’ continue to take a dim view of journalism, for the very reasons which make journalism important: rapidly responding to developing events, and offering a broader perspective, usually shorn of the uncertainties inherent in deeper knowledge or analysis.

The second, broader, problem is how think tanks are perceived. US President Barack Obama famously ‘disdain[ed]’ foreign policy establishments and institutes, and those who are not engaged with them perceive them as being elitist….(More)”.