Do Think Tanks Matter?

There are close to 400 think tanks in Washington DC alone and 1,100 in the US —more than all the think tanks in Europe combined. What is it about the American political system that makes these policy research institutions thrive? What are the differences among them? What is their real impact on public opinion and government policy decisions? And how can they promote a greater diversity of voices and opinions?

These were the questions discussed at the Project for the Study of the 21st Century (PS21) event “Think Tanks: What Do They Really Contribute?” hosted at OpenGov Hub on March 28th. 

The event brought together an amazing group of speakers with varied and rich experiences working not only in think tanks but also in academia, government, civil society, and journalism. About forty people from U.S. government agencies, foreign embassies, civil society organizations (some of them based at the Hub, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists), universities, and the media participated.

Dr. Andrew Selee, Executive Vice President the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of What Do Think Tanks Do? A Strategic Guide to Policy Impact (2013) kicked off the discussion by highlighting three key roles think tanks play: providing policy alternatives, framing larger public conversations on issues, and influencing decision makers.

He traced the evolution of think tanks in the U.S. from their inception in the early and mid-20th century, when they tended to represent elite consensus, to today where there is a greater democratization of policy discussions through technology and beyond. He emphasized that think tanks have a special function as conveners – mixing policymakers, researchers, and practitioners to discuss policy (far more than in academia).

Think Tanks often have impact not directly by changing a policy, but by shaping the terrain and public conversation upon which policy decisions are made.
— Dr. Andrew Selee

Dr. Maria Stephan, a Senior Policy Fellow at the United States Institute for Peace and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, spoke about the differences she has seen firsthand between think tanks, academia, and other civil society groups. As a former government official, Stephan stated think tanks can help those in government by highlighting big picture trends surrounding their issue and giving comparative case examples.

Peter Apps, founder and Executive Director of the PS21 and a columnist at Reuters, made similar comparisons between his work in journalism and his experiences launching a new global think tank. He discussed how greatly different think tanks vary in what they consider to be research, and noted that think tanks can provide a great sense of how “DC” thinks about certain issues.

The rest of the conversation focused on three themes:

  1. Policy impact
  2. Accountability
  3. Diversity in think tanks

Dr. Selee spoke about how think tanks’ influence is rarely about crafting a single government policy decision through a decisive policy brief —in his words, the proverbial “Holy Grail” in the industry. Rather, he argued, think tanks are often more effective in shaping the terrain on which policy decisions are made than changing the decisions directly.

Questions on think tank accountability and diversity tended to overlap. Dr. Selee discussed the importance of diversifying funding to help preserve think tank independence. Apps highlighted the importance of bringing in more diverse perspectives and types of experts to these institutions. He discussed the “revolving door” phenomenon in DC that moves the same individuals in and out of the government, most of whom are able-bodied white men. This triggered a discussion about the ways think tanks can and should include more gender, ethnic, class, disability, and racial diversity and to consciously bring in voices that will offer fresh new ideas and challenge status quo thinking in Washington.

Finally, the discussion affirmed the need for think tanks to help make policy-relevant information and data more accessible and easily comprehensible to broader audiences, including those in government and the broader public alike. 

Negar Razavi is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research looks at the role of Washington-based policy experts in shaping U.S. policies towards the Middle East generally and Iran and Egypt specifically. She wrote this event summary and moderated this event.