Opinion: Is public policy trapped in think tanks?

Policy think tanks have become important in the development of policy in a relatively short space of time. Colin Talbot and Carole Talbot ask if this a good thing

Photo: Holyrood magazine

Think tanks are a relatively new political and policy development and they are still relatively poorly understood. Which is shame, because they are a big and increasingly important part of the policymaking environment.

There are about 150 independent think tanks in the UK alone (and that is not including University-based policy analysis organizations, which probably total another 2 or 3 times that number). One estimate, for around only 30 UK-based think tanks, puts their combined annual income at £65m – equivalent to almost half the combined annual income of the Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, which was £111m in 2017.

Nor is this just a UK phenomenon – one global database lists over 2,700 think tanks. There seems to have been an initial explosion in numbers of think tanks in the 1970s and 80s in Europe and North America, followed now by the rest of the world. Today they identify almost 100 in Africa, 400 in Asia, 400 in North America, over 600 in Latin America, and more than a thousand across Europe.


What are think tanks?

So what are think tanks and what do they do? The late Carole H Weiss, of Harvard, who probably did more to pioneer research on think tanks than anyone, called them “organizations for policy analysis” in a 1992 book she edited, sub-titled “helping governments think”.

Of course, governments already have lots of their own people to help them think about policy – the Westminster government has around 17,000 civil servants employed in the policy profession. They have also sometimes set up their own internal think tanks – like the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) set up by Ted Heath in 1971, or 30 years later the Strategy Unit established by Tony Blair in 2001.

The UK’s universities also have a lot of people who ‘do policy’. When we surveyed University of Manchester academics back in 2012 we identified over 500 academics (roughly 10%) who did some sort of policy work. Mostly this was contributing evidence and expertise to policymaking based on their day job as scientists and social scientists, but there were also two dozen or more centres and institutes that played significant policy analysis roles.

So what do think tanks do that government and universities can’t?

Unlike policy analysts in government, think tanks are unconstrained by departmental silos, the demands of having to run services and, crucially, the fear of asking embarrassing questions or delivering politically awkward answers to policy problems.

Unlike universities, think tank-researchers are free of the burdens of academic publishing, teaching and the rigors of applying for peer-reviewed research grants. They can usually respond much faster than university-based policy analysts.

And, especially in social sciences, academics are often constrained by what we have called ‘discipline oriented social science’ which rewards single discipline research and expertise. By contrast, think tanks can usually engage in what we’ve called ‘problem oriented social science’ which is much more likely to be trans-disciplinary.

What do think tanks do?

Think tanks make two central claims about themselves: the first is that they possess specialist knowledge and expertise, and the second is that they are independent. Let’s examine each in more detail.


Think tanks claim expertise in policy processes, in one or more policy area like education, security or the economy, and the application of rigorous analysis and creative methods to address policy problems.

But they don’t all do all of these things. So we can drill down a little further by separating the policy process out into four phases:

  • Shaping a policy issue by curating and analysing data – factual and opinions.
  • Designing possible policy options to address the problem.
  • Comparing the options for their costs and benefits, possibilities and problems, and feasibility.
  • Choosing and advocating for the ‘best’ options.

Some think tanks confine themselves mainly to shaping. One of the most prominent of UK think tanks, the Institute for Fiscal Studies, puts most of its effort into analysing government finances, taxes and spending and, to a lesser extent, comparing various policies and their likely consequences. It rarely designs solutions and it virtually never advocates for a specific one.

At the other end of the spectrum some think tanks are highly activist in choosing and advocating for policy options – these are usually the more political ones like the Adam Smith Institute (ASI) or Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) on the right or the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) or Demos on the left.


This leads neatly on to the question of think tanks’ independence – independent from what and who?

The organisations we’re discussing here are clearly independent of government, universities and direct allegiance to a political party – even when some have fairly transparent broad political or ideological leanings. But understanding how truly independent they are is a much murkier area.

The first and most obvious question is – who funds them? The website Who Funds You, have rated 30 UK Think Tanks for their funding transparency.  The results are, shall we say, mixed.

Even where funding is transparent its not usually clear what influence, if any, the donors exert on the Think Tanks. Using the Who Funds You data, and adding our own analysis, we’ve identified the political/ideological leanings their 30-odd Think Tanks and their incomes (which gives some idea of their size and activities).

It shows that the 11 right-leaning think tanks received £15.5m, compared to £12.9m that went to left-leaning ones. The only obviously centrist organisation, got just £600k, whilst the bulk of income – £35m – went to the eight politically neutral outfits.

Adam Smith Institute Not disclosed Not disclosed      
Bright Blue £445,138 £445,138      
Centre for Cities £1,298,658       £1,298,658
Centre for Labour and Social Studies £148,898     £148,898  
Centre for Policy Studies £863,087 £863,087      
Centre for Social Justice £1,179,150 £1,179,150      
Chatham House £17,872,000       £17,872,000
Civitas £828,707 £828,707      
Common Vision (CoVi) £257,639       £257,639
Compass £285,586     £285,586  
Demos £969,023     £969,023  
Fabian Society £731,455     £731,455  
Hansard Society £811,526       £811,526
High Pay Centre £94,239     £94,239  
Institute for Fiscal Studies £8,834,706       £8,834,706
Institute for Government £4,387,284       £4,387,284
Institute for Public Policy Research £5,288,160     £5,288,160  
Institute of Economic Affairs £1,913,000 £1,913,000      
Legatum Institute £4,398,079 £4,398,079      
New Economics Foundation £3,519,786     £3,519,786  
Policy Exchange £3,553,565 £3,553,565      
Policy Network £903,022     £903,022  
Reform £1,439,426 £1,439,426      
Resolution Foundation £1,562,924       £1,562,924
ResPublica £928,959 £928,959      
Smith Institute Not disclosed     Not disclosed  
Social Market Foundation £624,653   £624,653    
Tax Justice Network £944,020     £944,020  
TaxPayers’ Alliance Not disclosed Not disclosed      
Unlock Democracy £279,997       £279,997
TOTALS £64,362,687 £15,549,111 £624,653 £12,884,189 £35,304,734

Source: calculated from http://whofundsyou.org/compare

Some accounts of the history of think tanks suggest they have become very influential in the policy process. Richard Cockett’s Thinking the Unthinkable (1994) claims that various right-wing economic think tanks, especially the IEA, were critical in the ‘counter-revolution’ of liberal economics in the 1970s and the policies of Margaret Thatcher. Madsen Pirie makes similar claims in his “Think Tank: the story of the Adam Smith Institute” (2012).

The title of Diane Stone’s excellent historical analysis on think tanks in Britain and America – Capturing the Political Imagination (1996) – neatly summarises the role that they can play. It is not, according to Stone’s analysis, mainly a matter of think tank A directly influencing policy B – it’s more how they shape the intellectual climate and frame policy arguments. To use another public policy idea, they can shape the Overton window of what is seen as possible?

Another US think tanks expert, Andrew Selee, points out that they can even put issues onto the political agenda, simply by doing the sort of shaping analysis we discussed earlier. The Pew Hispanic Centre, part of the Pew group of “fact tanks”, was established in 2001 simply to collate, analyse and publish data about the US’s Hispanic communities. Simply by surfacing the facts, it was massively influential in creating an Hispanic policy space.

In an age of many challenges to democratic institutions, think tanks can be a source of pluralistic strength but also a potential back door for malign influences and actors.

Demands that political parties and lobby groups become much more transparent should extend to think tanks too – we need to know and understand a lot more about them and they need to be much more open about their funders, motivations, roles, methods and work.

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