Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Think Tanks

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:30


Tom Bentley – Executive Director, DEMOS
Simon Maxwell – Director, ODI
Mark Garnett – Visiting Fellow, University of Leicester

Larry Elliott - Economics Editor, The Guardian

  1. Larry Elliott introduced the topic, think tanks, by asking a few questions: What role do they play in policy processes? Are they a force for good? Does it matter whether they are independent or not? What's the ideal balance between research and communication? How important is reputation?
  2. Tom Bentley outlined the current status of DEMOS. Like most other think tanks, DEMOS is adapting to the changing policy environment. Their motto has been 'the first political think tank for the twenty-first century'. Even in a changing environment, however, the fundamental questions about how political decisions are taken have not gone away.
  3. DEMOS has gone through three stages of life. When formed in 1993 (at a time when public interest in politics was very low) it did a lot work and established a high-profile very quickly. Then as the Labour government took shape, DEMOS addressed several new policy agendas. This gradually led to an existentialist crisis as the think tank found itself becoming embedded in one political project. For the last 3 years DEMOS has been reinventing itself to be able to retain both its creativity and independence.
  4. As New Labour has discovered, the gap between policy and practice is one of the most difficult to bridge. DEMOS has in many ways acted as an intellectual intermediary in the policy/practice sphere, introducing and working on new terms (e.g. 'social entrepreneurship' and 'joined-up government') as well as applied thinking. Many policy makers are not well equipped to build institutions, and DEMOS therefore works through partnerships to develop this capacity.
  5. There is a growing realisation in many sectors that networks are a fundamental organisational form that is well-suited to the emerging policy environment. This is particularly true in sectors that have been transnationalised and work across borders.
  6. Where does that leave us? In sum, it leaves us with interesting questions of independence and originality. Think tanks such as DEMOS are becoming increasingly focused on engaging in wide-ranging conversations, both locally and internationally. DEMOS increasingly works in collaboration with a wide range of different partners. However, even where partners fund parts of the work, DEMOS retains its right to challenge them and to remain independent in its policy recommendations.
  7. Simon Maxwell endorsed Tom Bentley's point about the different roles of think-tanks, and the need for them to engage. He reminded the audience of the ODI mission statement: 'to inspire and inform policy and practice'. The Driector of IPPR, Matthew Taylor, had made a similar point, describing the three functions of a think tank:
    1. The gas function - to change awareness and attitudes in the environment;
    2. The solid function - to communicate core ideas to inform policy;
    3. The liquid function - to facilitate the trickling-down of these ideas through government and partner institutions.
  8. The problems facing think-tanks with an international agenda were complex, however. All the decision-making processes they were involved in today had multiple actors and multiple poles or sites. They were far more complex than in the past. How could think-tanks work together across national borders?
  9. One way forward was through international networks. These were not new. For example, he told the story of Anthony Fisher - founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs, and, later, founder of an international network of neo-liberal think-tanks, the Atlas Foundation. The Global Development Network was a contemporary example, though of course less ideological and less tightly structured than Atlas
  10. Thinking about this there were different approaches to working together. From an earlier paper ('Development Research in Europe: Towards an (All) Star Alliance', EADI Newsletter 3-2002), he outlined three possible models:
    1. The Microsoft model, which is essentially hegemonic;
    2. The MacDonalds model, which is a franchise operation where each store is locally owned but agree to sell the same product;
    3. The Airline Alliance model, where all airlines are independently owned and take their own decisions, but are able to cooperate effectively, even sharing seats on the same plane. He described this as a model of 'policy code-sharing'.
  11. Was the Airline Alliance model a way forward for think tank collaboration? The idea of policy code-sharing had many advantages - but would require a high degree of trust. ODI were working with EADI to set up a network built on this principle, and dealing with European development issues. It wasnamed "the All Star Alliance". Hopefully this model would allow think tanks to retain their personality while working together.
  12. There were still substantial challenges ahead. In particular, there was the challenge of funding think tank capacity in developing countries.
  13. While infected by the enthusiasm of previous speakers for Think Tanks, Mark Garnett thought a few cautionary remarks would be in order. He pointed out how indiscriminately the term 'think tank' is now used. But what should a think tank ideally be?
  14. The first generation think tanks, like the Fabians, were ideologically-driven (and contributed enormously to the development of the welfare state under the post-war Labour government. The second generation were less ideological - combining unbiased research with sound policy advice. The third generation - like the IEA - were founded by idealists devoted to rolling back the welfare state under Thatcherism. The fourth, current generation seemed to be neither ideologically, nor research-driven, providing intellectual credibility to their sponsors, and focusing mainly on achieving a high media profile to attract funds.
  15. Think tanks should not try to change policy for ideological reasons; this is the role of pressure groups. Rather, think tanks should work to improve the flow of information and independent research to policy makers.
  16. There is a certain problem today of hollowed-out shells of think tanks who demand intellectual credibility without any substance to back this up. There are also a set of think tanks who seem to have the purpose of chasing media headlines.
  17. In developing countries there are a distinct set of challenges for think tanks. At times they may be seen to operate as the extended arm of government, without much independence (for example in China and Malaysia). In other contexts, the independent and informative role that think tanks could potentially play is not being played by them, but by NGOs. Many of the NGOs have relevant experience and knowledge, and are able to process this knowledge and to inform other actors. Therefore, perhaps it is worth considering whether support should be channelled to these NGOs rather than to the so-called think tanks.
  18. Comments from the floor:
    1. Think tanks are becoming speak tanks. There is a very strong link between the political sphere and the media. Therefore think tanks need to grab media attention. However, this does not mean that think tanks (in developing countries) are white elephants supported by political funding. There are several examples of African think tanks doing high quality research on an independent basis.
    2. NGOs could not fulfil the same role as think tanks in developing countries, as they are not necessarily representative or open to various debates.
    3. There is a danger inherent in networks: the participants may end up merely talking to too many people who resemble themselves. Network participants should also allow for spaces where they can be challenged by people who think differently.
    4. Is it possible to work in virtual think tanks, e.g. drawing international experts together into a virtual team over a period of time?
    5. Is there an emerging division of labour between intellectuals working with interesting ideas on the one hand, and disenchanted policy implementers on the other hand? If practitioners had more space to develop their own ideas, we might not need so many think tanks.
    6. To what extent can we actually influence policy through the media?
    7. From experience of working in NGOs, it is fairly clear that NGOs do not have the same capacity as think tanks to process ideas and publications.
    8. Funders exercise censorship over think tanks not only through modifying publications, but also through playing a role in which topics can be researched in the first place.


This event, the fifth in the 'Does Evidence Matter?' series, examined think tanks as policy actors. Questions for discussion included: 

  • What role do think tanks play in policy processes?
  • Are they a force for good?
  • Does it matter whether they are independent or not?
  • What's the ideal balance between research and communication?
  • How important is reputation?