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The Role Of Think Tanks In Generating Policy Ideas: An Indian View

15/12/2015 5:44 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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In 2006, when I joined the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, fresh out of JNU and armed with a Ph.D., I harboured big ambitions towards instituting two kinds of connections; one between policy and academia; second, between Delhi, IDSA and people back home in the Northeast (since the research topic assigned to me was ethnic conflicts in Northeast India). Nine years hence, I have come to realise that the world of "think tanks" is quite different from those of academia and journalism and that mixing them up could create dysfunction and encourage false expectations.

So, what exactly is a think tank, and how is it different from a university?

[T]hink tanks in India... suffer from lack of information and involvement in stages of government policy-making.

A think tank is not engaged in teaching; it is specifically focused on throwing light on policy issues, both historical and contemporary from the perspective of states and society. Its role, unlike a university, is more of a public policy institution, an opinion creator, a source of in-depth policy analysis. Think tanks are motivated by social and political agendas in dealing with problems of the world, unlike universities that deal with academic or scientific priorities, dwelling into the world of theory. Think tanks are institutions capable of setting the agenda for policy making; universities ideally like to distance themselves from policy. Furthermore, a think tank's role is to analyse present state policies, both internal and external, and measure their impact. For example, an ideal research agenda for an Indian think tank would be: "How can India's Act East policy realistically improve India's relations with Southeast Asia?" Or: "How likely is it to improve the internal geographic bridge (between northeast India and other parts of India), which is a vital component of the Act East policy?"

Think tanks should not engage in newspaper-like reportage, offering people information on what a policy is about -- that can be found in the websites and statements of government ministries or newspapers. Instead, it should tell policy-makers and the public about the opportunities that are in store from a policy and what could create daunting obstacles. Experts working within think tanks should throw up divergent perspectives -- unless of course, the think tank itself has a particular unified position with regard to a particular issue. Then that bias should be upfront. For example, when I was a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Washington, D.C., I was clearly cognisant of the fact that the USIP does not engage in researching war-winning strategies unlike say Carnegie or Hudson Institute; rather, it concentrates on strategies that promote peace and cooperation.

[B]esides expertise, there should exist a flair for boldness and independence required to speak truth to power.

What kind of environment fosters ideas that help policy, or offer a wide variety of policy options? An environment where the mission of the think tank is clearly stated upfront. For example, IDSA was established as a government-funded think tank with a mission that informs policy making on defence and strategic issues, and presents alternate ideas to a particular government policy. The aim was to offer a different set of implementable ideas to policy-makers sometimes hard pressed by day-to-day policy matters. However, in order to accomplish this, the organisational culture within a think tank should be such that it encourages autonomy and creative boldness. For example, in analysing the foreign visits of Narendra Modi, think tanks in India should not limit themselves to simply telling the attentive public what he spoke about and whom he met. Instead they should offer a comprehensive assessment of the three or four most important trends that emerged from the visits with regard to India's engagement with the world, the opportunities that emerged for the country and most importantly, what could have been done better.

Unlike the US where think tanks like Brookings, Carnegie, Center for a New American Security founded by Michelle Flourney (former Under Secretary of Defence for Policy) and Kurt B. Campbell (former diplomat), have direct roles in policy making and set agendas, think tanks in India have little interoperability with policy making. Consequently, they suffer from lack of information and involvement in stages of government policy-making. As a result, most research in think tanks centres on commenting on government policy, already out in the public domain, rather than setting policy agendas.

Think tanks are meant to create new policy and concepts. They do not serve the purpose for which they are established if they simply end up summarising ideas generated by others, fail to offer alternate and new mental maps for policy makers, and do not succeed in having the conversations not possible without think tank intervention. For this, as The Economist puts it, making headlines is important. For this to happen, think tanks, should exist in the public space not to "inform the public or expose wrongdoing" but to promote their ideas about policy. Whether they believe a particular policy will work based on specialised knowledge. Quoting The Economist again, successful think tanks combine "intellectual depth, political influence, and flair for publicity, comfortable surroundings, and a streak of eccentricity."

Think tanks are meant to create new policy and concepts. They do not serve [their] purpose if they simply end up summarising ideas generated by others...

Hence, besides expertise, there should exist a flair for boldness and independence required to speak truth to power. And as the Global Go to Think Tank Index Report , published annually by the University of Pennsylvania, that ranks think tanks with regard to influence across the world aptly puts it, "The ongoing challenge for think tanks is to produce timely and accessible policy-oriented research that effectively engages policymakers, the press, and the public on the critical issues facing a country. Gone are the days when a think tank could operate with the motto 'research it, write it and they will find it'."

With the ever increasing thrust for knowledge, information, and globalised flow of information, the role of think tanks in bridging gaps between policy and academia, citizens and their governments, research and implementation of effective ideas will only grow. I hope India is up to the challenge of establishing and supporting think tanks as "centres of excellence" as it jostles for space in a fast-paced and interdependent world where those with the best ideas matter most.

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