Stanley's blog

There is no agreed definition of “think tank” nor is it always obvious how it differs from a research centre or academic body. The essence of a think tank, in my view, is an organisation which advocates public policy solutions/recommendations. Its objective is to influence policy/decision-makers and opinion-formers rather than increase knowledge generally. To be credible, a think tank must have a research/analytical capacity.

Think tanks lead the strategic and public policy debates in the United States. Chinese think tanks play an important role in strategic debates and the development of political, economic, social and cultural policies.

In the US and China, with two opposite political systems, the governments rely on think tanks to assist them in formulating strategy and policies. Europe is the odd one out. EU policy- and decision-making lacks the underpinning of the type of public policy debate that exists in both Washington and Beijing (much more transparently in the former). Charlemagne (in The Economist) is rightly critical of the relatively passive role of Brussels think-tanks.

Why? There are four principal reasons for this as compared with the US. First, political, think-tank and business leaders in Washington interchange within a single ‘class’, whereas they form three permanently separate groups in Europe. Second, European Union decision-makers do not seem to value think-tank input to the degree it is valued in America. Third, European think-tanks are more reticent than their US counterparts in seeking to influence decision-making. And the final reason is that private sector financial support for think-tanks is very limited compared with the United States.

Think tanks in China are directly or indirectly part of the government structure and are financially well-supported. They are not therefore independent in the western sense, but have a substantial amount of intellectual freedom.

There is an increasing understanding that purely academic papers are not designed to influence and that political leaders need public policy advocacy underpinned by serious academic thought. And there is a slow but growing recognition of that the insufficient role played by think tanks is one of the reasons why there is so little strategic thinking in Brussels.

A priority for the European Union is the building of a participatory society, one in which all stakeholders work closely together to seek common solutions to common problems. The different parties affected by EU legislation must, of course, be included in the process of consultation on proposed policies and legislation much earlier than in the past, if the Union is to achieve its ambitions of creating ‘better regulation’ within this participatory society. Think tanks can play an influential role in this process. Europe needs more ‘cross-fertilisation’ between government, think-tanks and also business.

Before policies are formulated or legislation proposed, a deep, wide-ranging policy debate is essential. This goes beyond the formal consultation process, which has hitherto usually taken place when legislation is already in its planning stage. Again, think tanks can play an important role in facilitating this type of dialogue by promoting and substantially contributing to the public policy debate as well as facilitating longer-term policy thinking.

In today’s fast-moving society with instant communication, think tanks, if they wish to contribute to current policy-making and legislating, must adapt their working methodology in order to ensure that their views are expressed at the right time, in the right form and to the right people. Position papers are the beginning, not the end, of the process of influencing. In the words of Jean Monnet, “thought cannot be divorced from action.”

Most think tanks in Europe are national rather than European. Those that address European issues understandably do so within a national environment. Much valuable work on EU issues is insufficiently disseminated at EU level or in other Member States. There is, therefore, a need for more – and better funded – EU-level think-tanks. This funding should come from the private sector, as it does in the US. We Europeans – particularly at EU level – rely too much on government and Commission funding.

Although there are a growing number of think tanks in Brussels, neither their number nor their resources can be compared to the Washington infrastructure. A direct result of this difference is that, in terms of public policy formation, American society is far more participatory than its European equivalent and US think tanks are more influential actors.

EU institutions should make greater use of think tankers in their recruitment efforts. Retiring EU officials are increasingly joining think tanks. Greater mobility between business and government and think tanks can easily be achieved, given the will and acceptance of its importance. More short-term secondments between the three groups would also make a difference.

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  1. Well, I do not necessarily agree with that.
    1- All Brussels think tanks tend to publish the same kind of paper, based on the same “ideoligcal grounds” and prejudices. They tend to reinforce EC’s proposals rather thatn giving a critcial eye on it
    2- I have great admiration for the US democracy but there is one bug problem with it: the low level of particiapation in elections. And I do see a link between the importance of think tanks and so on in the US poltical debate ( the poltical debate is not at all participatory , it actually pre empted by a very few actors, a kind of elite) and the low level of particpation by the people
    3- By the end of the day, what is the legitimacy of think tanks. Far too often, they actually relay and duplicate the ideas put forward by their “financors” Does that represent society in its diversity.

    Think tanks are useful for sure. But they have to remain where they are : one piece to inform the political debate, not to monopilze it.

  2. Not so sure, either. Think tanks are political institutions and need and established political space. Who would support or finance them? If the EU would find in necessary to fill the gap in the absence of Pan-European support than it would another EU-financed talk-shop and there are way too many of them. Think tanks has to have a drive, a very strong interest or commitment to certain public or political values.

  3. The Founding fathers provided a means to engage the whole of organized civil society in the broadest of debates. Unfortunately this institutional mechanism was blocked in the Gaullist period. Fortunately they can be unblocked — given the prolitical will and a bit of imagination. The Community system would avoid the main problem apparent in US think tanks — that of undue and politically irresponsible funding from large corporations and sovereign states wishing to encourage their own particular policy and create an unhealthy interaction and exchnage of ‘tank-thinkers’ and civil servants. All decisions and all policies should be the product of full democratic decision-making.

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