Rethinking think tanks for value addition: Part Two…every ministry must have advisors on policy

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FOR decades, we have been witness to the rapid growth of think tanks across the world.
From the previous discussion, it has become clear that across various policy contexts, think tanks assume and discharge an array of roles from conducting policy research and analysis to dissemination and even occasionally, to policy plementation.
Greatly influenced by necessity, it would seem that think tanks are of a certain creed; possessing indistinct features that render them generally similar in nature and reality.
In reality, however, think tanks are immensely influenced by their respective political contexts.
The new dispensation must not miss this particular.
The correct political orientation must complement the intellectual endowments of think tanks.
The dominant understanding is that think tanks exist to mobilise expertise and ideas to influence the policy-making process.
The raison d’être for most think tanks is therefore to serve as important catalysts for ideas and action.
In a world facing many pressing problems that include extreme poverty, inequality, climate change, rapid urbanisation, the spread of infectious disease, armed conflict, international terrorism, organised crime and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, good ideas that can be acted upon are essential.
At their best, think tanks possess the ability to capture the political imagination by brokering ideas, stimulating public debate and offering creative, yet practical, solutions to tackle the world’s most pressing problems.
Serving as a catalyst for ideas is only one aspect of the role that the best think tanks play.
Another essential role is in helping to set the policy agenda. Yet, getting on the policy agenda is a complicated task.
Even the best think tanks miss key opportunities to translate a persuasive idea into reality, especially if their ideas are not readily embraced by the ruling elite.
And quite often, if the powers that be are not sensitised to the crucial role these experts play, it is possible that their presence may not be felt.
What is critically important is that policymakers accept that think tanks are integral parts to the policy process.
On the other hand, if think tanks feel they are not being visible enough, they should not lose hope but continue to knock on the doors of policymakers.
Getting an idea on the governmental agenda requires persistence, expertise, cultivating the right connections and above all, good timing.
As Kingdon puts it in his book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies: “Being heard in the policy process is often more a matter of being positioned to take advantage of opportunities when they arise, than it is doing a set of things fully under one’s control.”
In a liberal democracy, successful think tanks keep their proposals at the ready and when a problem emerges to which their proposals can be the solution, they jump into action.
They need to have sufficient resources and persistence to continuously cultivate an idea as they wait for the right moment to mobilise an alliance of supporters around it. However, in a directed democracy, such as ours, think tanks should not live by chance.
Their ideas should not be at the mercy of the clock.
Rather they should be carefully selected through the planning process.
For instance, they should be identified and made to focus on key development plans and projects.
In our case, every ministry should be backed by a selected team of think tanks whose ideas assist policy generation, formulation, implementation and evaluation.
It is naïve for a country in transition, such as ours, to imagine that an appointed minister alone can, as a sole brain, steer the policy processes all by himself or herself.
He/she needs the invisible hand of well-chosen experts in that field.
This way, they can avoid pitfalls of impulsive decisions, hasty policy pronouncements and other blunders.
The ministers’ decisions should benefit from informed intellectual democracies.
You do not suddenly become intellectual superhuman by the miracle of appointment.
Intellectual humility dictates that the best always comes from consultation.
What this article advocates is therefore that in the new dispensation, every ministry must have a set of think tanks officially appointed to advise the minister on all critical matters of policy.
Think tanks play a fundamental role in shaping policy agendas.
They mobilise expertise and put forward evidence.
They push for innovative change and they build networks and communities through which they nurture and spread ideas and catalyse action.
And to succeed, they need at least four elements:
Good ideas.
A coalition of actors to support those ideas.
The institutional capacity (including resources) to nurture and shepherd those ideas in a dynamic context, and
The ability to seize the moment when the timing is right.
The point I raised earlier needs reiteration here – that these experts should also embrace the correct political attitude.
The powers that be should anoint only those think tanks that are establishment-oriented, that are officially yoked to the party apparatus, or semi-establishment, while at the same time operating with a modicum of independence so that their intellectual creativity is not stifled by political expediencies. You want to guard against intellectual inertia.
A cursory look at the Chinese example does it.
In the Chinese case, think tanks are officially appropriated by government.
To influence policy, official and semi-official think tanks expend considerable energy serving as advisors to authorities; periodically, they submit research reports and personally advise government officials on state matters and directly seek direct consulting opportunities on public projects.
For instance, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (hereafter CASS) regularly submits two versions of their internal CASS important report to the central government.
Moreover, these state-sponsored think tanks are regularly called upon to deliver lectures and proffer policy advice to Government officials at meetings organised by the political bureau of the CCP’s central committee, which has invited several experts in conjunction with the proceedings at the National Congresses.
Occasionally, these linkages result in certain scholars moving over to the policy side to serve as policymakers.
Although semi-official think tanks are not entirely state-run, they rely greatly on their ministerial patrons for start-up and follow-up capital to function.
After that, they remain tied to their patron for continual access, opportunities and support; consequent policy outputs are largely shaped by this linkage, manifested by the incumbent demands and needs of their ministry, fulfilled through detailed research reports.
The Chinese example is also instructive on another angle.
The new dispensation should begin to redefine the role institutions of higher learning in development and their mandates should be carefully revised to take on board the new trajectories.
Instead of offering omnibus programmes, each university should have a well-cut-out niche for which it is accountable to both the Government and the public.
Every university must be a think tank for that identified niche.
The garbage about academic freedom must give way to utilitarian responsibility and accountability.

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