Think tanks can transform into the standard-setters and arbiters of quality of 21st century policy analysis

Marcos Hernando, Diane Stone and Hartwig Pautz in LSE Impact Blog: “Last month, the annual Global GoTo Think Tank Index Report was released, amid claims “think tanks are more important than ever before”. It is unclear whether this was said in spite of, or because of, the emergence of ‘post-truth politics’. Experts have become targets of anger and derision, struggling to communicate facts and advance evidence-based policy. Popular dissatisfaction with ‘policy wonks’ has meant think tanks face challenges to their credibility at a time they are under pressure from increased competition. The 20th century witnessed the rise of the think tank, but the 21st century might yet see its decline. To avoid such a fate, we believe think tanks must reposition themselves as the credible arbiters able to distinguish between poor analysis and good quality research….

In recent years, think tanks have faced three major challenges: financial limits in a world characterised by austerity; increased competition both among think tanks and with other types of policy research organisations; and a growing questioning of, and popular dissatisfaction with, the role of the ‘expert’ itself. Here, we look at each of these in turn..

Nevertheless, think tanks do retain some competitive advantages. The rapid proliferation of knowledge complicates the absorption of information among policymakers. To put it simply, there are limits to the quantity and diversity of knowledge that government actors can make sense of, especially in states hollowed out by austerity programmes and burdened by ever-higher public demands. Managing the over-supply of (occasionally dubious) evidence and policy analysis from research-based NGOs, universities and advocacy groups has become a problem of governance. But this issue also opens a space for the reinvention of think tanks.

With information overload comes a need for talented editors and skilled curators. That is, organisations as much as individuals which help those within policy processes to discern the reliability and usefulness of analytic products. Potentially, think tanks could transform into significant standard-setters and arbiters of quality of 21st century policy analysis. If they do not, they risk becoming just another group in the overpopulated ‘post-truth’ policy advice industry….(More)”